The health of the Black Hills National Forest for the next several decades could be determined by the decisions of the next few years.
The U.S. Forest Service says it will spend those few years writing a new forest plan, which will require a difficult balancing act with logging.
While the Forest Service’s own researchers say current harvest levels are unsustainable, timber officials say big reductions could wipe out their industry.
It’s not the first time the Black Hills has faced a crossroads over logging. Terri Jain, a research forester for the Forest Service, referenced some of that history during a recent virtual presentation.
“The Black Hills has had a long history of timber harvests, which has contributed to the resilience of this forest,” Jain said.
In the late 1800s, when settlers and miners flooded into the Hills in violation of a treaty with Sioux tribes, clearcutting ensued.
The Homestake Mining Company and the federal government saw the trees were vanishing. In 1899, they came up with a plan. They agreed Homestake would pay to cut timber on the newly established national forest. The government would decide where loggers could cut, and how much. It was the first federal timber sale on public land.
Today, the Forest Service still uses that system to sell logging rights in national forests across the country. Jain says that won’t change.
“It should always be considered as a critical component in forest management,” she said.
But she also said the amount of current logging in the Black Hills is unsustainable.
‘Double whammy’ in the forest
This time, it’s not just mining forcing the issue. Jain said it’s nature recoiling from more than a century of human management.
Over time, forests naturally thin themselves. Wildfires, tree-killing bugs and other natural forces create space to let old trees grow bigger. In that natural system, grass and animals thrive.
Jain said people have interrupted those forces.
“Throughout most of the last century, we thought disturbances were bad,” she said, “and we tried to stop disturbances, either by suppressing wildfires, or thinking we could manage our way out of disturbances by harvesting trees.”
That thinking has changed.
“The past hundred years have taught us that we need to consider and integrate disturbance into forest management,” Jain said, “rather than trying to control it.”
But for the Black Hills, the realization came too late. The forest grew dense with smaller trees. That made it easier for fires and deadly bugs to jump from one tree to the next.
Since 2000, the Black Hills has suffered the three biggest wildfires in its recorded history, and its second-biggest mountain pine beetle infestation. Millions of trees died.
Meanwhile, Jain said logging continued at a pace that was determined years earlier, "Which resulted in a double whammy.”
The forest couldn't keep up, and the result, according to Forest Service researchers, is a drastic decrease in the number of trees big enough to harvest as timber.
Jain said climate change could make things worse. It could shorten winter and make wildfire season longer. It could also help bugs.
“Cold winter temperatures kill mountain pine beetle larva,” Jain said. “However, if the Black Hills gets warmer winter temperatures, this may extend beetle infestations.”
The research report Jain co-authored says current logging levels in the Black Hills National Forest are at least twice what the forest can sustain in the coming decades.
So the Forest Service plans to write a new forest plan. That plan could influence harvest limits for the next 15 years. In the meantime, the Forest Service has already sold less timber in the Black Hills each of the last two years.
Timber industry suffers
The timber industry is feeling the effects. Neiman Enterprises plans to close its Hill City sawmill in May. That will eliminate 125 jobs.
Company President Jim Neiman blames the Forest Service for letting the woods get too thick.
“We tried to tell them in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s that you better get more capacity in here and reduce this inventory or you’re going to have bugs and fires, and they wouldn't listen,” Neiman said.
Neiman warned that big future reductions in timber sales might force him to close his other two Black Hills sawmills in Spearfish and Hulett, Wyoming. He said the resulting domino effect could wipe out the entire Black Hills timber industry – and its 1,400 jobs.
Neiman said the result of that would be no loggers to help manage the forest. He said the forest could then grow dense again, leading to the same problems faced now.
While Neiman argues for continued logging, two environmental groups – Friends of the Norbeck and Defenders of the Black Hills – want a moratorium on timber sales. Friends of the Norbeck has sued the Forest Service over similar issues in the past.
Forest Service treading carefully
While the Forest Service works on a new forest plan, the agency does not plan to make drastic changes with logging.
“We understand the significance of all that’s happening in the Black Hills,” said Jacque Buchanan, a deputy regional forester. “We don’t want to do a sweeping change and then have to come back around and change it. So we’re going to be very thoughtful, recognizing all the factors and all the parties that are impacted, and the concerns that folks have around that harvest level.”
One person talking with many of the parties involved about potential solutions is U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D. He has met with conservationists, sawmill officials, and the Forest Service. He thinks there are ways to save the timber industry without overcutting the forest.
“Everybody loves this forest,” Johnson said. “Everybody acknowledges that a healthy timber industry is a critically important part of keeping this forest healthy. We've talked about jobs and that's important. But we also want to make sure we’ve got this resource long-term.”
Johnson said the Forest Service needs help overcoming chronic staffing shortages that make timber sales difficult. He said parts of the forest considered too rugged should be re-examined to allow logging, and he said there may be new uses for smaller trees. He has also introduced legislation that would encourage more harvesting of damaged timber after wildfires.
-Contact reporter Seth Tupper by email.