Black Hills Loggers Scramble To Salvage Tornado-Damaged Timber
The Black Hills National Forest is littered with dead trees knocked down by vicious weather, but some of those trees damaged in recent storms could have new life as lumber.
Ron Schell is one of the loggers making it happen.
He said there are two things that take out trees in a forest: loggers and Mother Nature. And if loggers don’t do it, he said, “Then Mother Nature will take care of it. And when she does it, she’s grumpy about it.”
Usually that means wildfires and tree-killing bugs. But earlier this month in the Black Hills, it was tornadoes.
Two tornadoes hit. They came four days apart in the same area.
The first one mowed down 3,500 acres on July 6. The second one affected 3,200 acres on July 10. Altogether, that’s 6,700 acres of forest, or about 10 square miles. Forest roads and recreational trails are blocked in many places by fallen trees.
The twisters started on the Wyoming side of the border and blew across the state line. They rampaged around in big, irregular ovals between Sundance and Lead.
Thousands of trees died. Some snapped in half. Jagged parts of their trunks still poke out of the ground. Some were uprooted, exposing giant masses of roots and earth.
The Forest Service thinks about 50 percent of the fallen trees can be harvested. If they’re all left on the ground, they could fuel a big wildfire.
So the Forest Service has redirected loggers already working in the area. Now, instead of cutting down live trees, the loggers are taking trees knocked down by the tornadoes.
The loggers have to hurry, because the downed trees are drying up. In six or eight weeks they could be rotted and bug-infested.
Schell, the logger, said the nature of tornado damage makes for tedious work. His Schell Logging company is based in Pine Haven, Wyoming.
“It’s just a lot more time-consuming picking everything up, cause it’s strung every which direction,” Schell said.
The loggers are in a remote part of the northwest Black Hills about 25 miles west of Lead. The site is busy and loud. Operators run big pieces of equipment.
They use a machine called a feller-buncher. It cuts off trees at the base and lays them on the ground. In this case, a lot of the trees are already on the ground. A skidder drags the trees to a landing area.
Then a huge mechanical arms picks up pine trees as tall as five-story buildings. They look light as toothpicks in its grip. Rollers and blades strip away limbs and bark. In a flash, the trees become logs.
Loggers contract with sawmills in Spearfish and Hulett, Wyoming. The mill owner pays the Forest Service for the timber. Much of the lumber goes into window frames and wall paneling.
But the loggers won’t get all the dead trees, said Jami Morrison, who oversees timber sales for the Black Hills National Forest.
“If it’s still attached to the root system, a lot of times you can salvage a majority of that tree, versus a snap-off, where it took so much stress before it snapped, a lot of times that will affect the interior part of the wood,” Morrison said.
Some of the trees are too small for the sawmills. Others are on land too steep and rugged for loggers. Some downed trees will stay where they are and become homes for wildlife.
And environmentalists say that’s good. They want the Forest Service to do less salvage logging.
Kozel, the Forest Service ranger, said there will be some habitat left behind.
“There’s going to be wood left on the ground for small mammals, other nesting birds that will provide cover,” he said. “Also the remaining wood provides shade for other plants to grow, too.”
Kozel said he's had his fill of severe weather for a while. A tornado in 2018 hit the same general area. Damage from that twister closed some of the same forest roads and recreational trails that are closed now.
“I don’t know, it seems to be tornado alley,” Kozel said. “I did visit with a National Weather Service person, and she didn’t really have an explanation for it.”
Kozel has worked in the Black Hills for 18 years. He’s seen damage from six tornadoes.
It’s too soon to say how much revenue the Forest Service will make by logging the damaged timber from the recent storms. Last year, there was more logging in the Black Hills than any other national forest. The value of those timber sales was about $5 million.
- Seth Tupper is SDPB's business and economic development reporter.