Logging industry fears possible cut could send waves

Gray Hughes

This is the second part of a series looking at the possibility of a logging reduction in the Black Hills and its impact.


A draft general technical report (GTR) “Timber Growth and Yield in the Black Hills National Forest: A Changing Forest” has forest product industry leaders concerned.


Jim Neiman, president and chief executive officer of Neiman Enterprises, which owns and operates several timber mills in the Black Hills, including Rushmore Forest Products located outside of Hill City, says if the draft is accepted there could be damage to both the forest itself and the local economy but remains hopeful there will be changes to the draft.


“This highly anticipated report has us concerned,” Neiman said. “We are anticipating after our meeting on (May 1) that there will be some changes so that we can find an appropriate level of capacity to maintain all of the mills. I want to repeat it is of utmost importance for us to find a level of inventory in the forest that creates a resilient forest for all areas, if that is possible.”


The draft GTR says current timber practices are unsustainable and calls for a reduction in timber harvesting.


According to the draft GTF, the Black Hills National Forest saw a timber harvest of 153,534 CCF (CCF equates to 100 cubic feet). If that practice were to continue, the live sawtimber harvest would be depleted within the next several decades.


A standing live sawtimber volume of approximately 12 million CCF would be needed to meet the current allowable sale quantity of 181,000 CCF. However, current live sawtimber volume is at 5.9 million CCF and the current conditions within the forest do not support an allowable sale quantity of 181,000 CCF, nor do the current forest conditions support the harvest of 153,534 CCF that happened in 2019.


“Furthermore, the current forest conditions in 2019 and probable growth and mortality estimates suggest a saw timber program on the (Black Hills National Forest) with an annual harvest of 70,000 to 115,000 CCF per year would be possible,” the draft GTR reads. “Nevertheless, these harvest levels would allow the live sawtimber inventory amounts to increase to six million CCF in approximately 60 years and return to the level needed to support (allowable sale quantity) as identified in the current forest plan (181,000 CCF within a century).”


Jerry Krueger, who is the acting forest supervisor for Black Hills National Forest, said concerns about the quality of the forest date back to 2015 pertaining to the mountain pine beetle epidemic and widespread mortality of the trees within the forest due to the epidemic, wildland fire and the current rate of timber harvest.


The current forest plan was adopted in the 1990s, Krueger said, and the overall condition of the forest due to those three factors has greatly changed, thus creating the need for a new GTR.


“Our concern in 2015 and beyond was that the condition of the forest has changed since the ’90s and the objectives developed at that time need revision and need to be looked at,” he said. “We had a number of conversations with critical stakeholders in the timber industry and state forest partners, and we landed on a plan of action that called for the intensifying of data collection and analysis. We doubled that and accelerated the collection of data.”


Because of the fears of forest inventory reduction, in the summer of 2019 the forest service began to look at the data for the entire forest. Black Hills National Forest officials asked the Rocky Mountain Research Station to look at the data, which produced the draft GTR.


The Rocky Mountain Research Station published all of the data and put it out for public comment, which was completed May 1.


During this time, Krueger said, a number of stakeholder meetings were conducted to allow for comment on the draft GTR.


“Collectively, we were able to work with the stakeholder groups to find a path forward for what the future looks like,” headed. “That’s the phase we’re in now: working with stakeholders.”


In total, the forest service received over 120 public comments on the draft GTR, and the forest service is not at an endpoint for evaluating the GTR, Krueger said. The forest service is interested in public land management, and the forest service is in the process of moving forward with the GTR while evaluating the comments.


A final report can be expected by mid-to-late August.


“That will be a professional, peer reviewed document that relies on the best variable science. ...The fact is that we are involved in a rigorous, peer reviewed process,” Krueger said. “This is not any snap judgement. It is one tool that we are leaning on to decide how we move forward.”


This document, he added, is heavily based on science, and the forest service will “use the best available science” to manage public lands for the future.


The forest service’s goal, Krueger said, is to create a healthy, vibrant forest for future generations, which, he said, is mandated by law.


“We are keenly aware that our management decisions have local impact. That is why we are meeting with and discussing this plan with our stakeholders now,” he said. “It’s important to our local economy, and a healthy, rigorous forest is one of the ways (the forest service supports the local economy).”


But, given the changes to the forest over the past 20 years, it is prudent for the forest service to participate in this rigorous analysis, he added, and leverage that investment to get the best decision.”


However, the plan as it is still raises some concerns for Neiman.


The last thing Neiman wants to happen is to have the forest go back to the inventory numbers that were present in the 1990s, a level Neiman described as “disastrous” because of the number of wildfires and pine beetle infestations.


At the same time, though, Neiman doesn’t want to see the inventory in the forest greatly diminished.


“Finding that level for the forest is our number one goal,” he said. “We think it’s compatible with current production, and that is where we are at odds (with the forest service).”


During the meeting on the draft GTR on May 1, Neiman said he provided the forest service with scenarios that would put back 100,000 acres into the suitable base. That 100,000 acres should not have been removed in the first place, Neiman added.


Neiman said his family has been in the Black Hills since the 1930s, and his generation is the third generation to run his company. The plan, he said, is to have his grandchildren be able to run his company one day.


His company is a local, family owned business, Neiman added, that contributes a lot back to the local communities.


“We feel like we need to get involved,” he said. “It is part of the culture of the company and our employees, and if you’re not a part of the community it goes away.”


Recreation and tourism are very important to the local economy, he added, but the impact of manufacturing is great because it creates new money for the economy rather than recirculating old money. His sawmills, too, support year-round employment, but some of the scenarios proposed by the forest service in the draft GTR would not provide enough wood to support Neiman’s operations.


But that can’t happen if the forest inventory is cut back.


And he is concerned about what the potential cutback would do to both the lumber mills and the communities in which they are located.


“If you lose one of the sawmills, and I’m not going to say which one, that could have a domino effect on the towns,” Neiman said. “It could devastate hundreds and hundreds of jobs. ...It could hurt us if you step back very far. And if you let (the forest) grow back in inventory and you start getting fires and bugs again, the results could be highly damaging. Everyone loves to see a beautiful, thick forest. But that’s not typical for ponderosa pines. There are too many communities in the Hills and too much private land to let fire and bugs destroy this forest inventory.”


Neiman said he does anticipate changes to the draft GTR, and that all stakeholders will sit down to find a way to sustain or increase the inventory of the forest and to ensure the sawmills can continue to function.


“Our number one priority is to create a plan that makes sure this forest is sustainable,” Neiman said. “That does not mean, though, that it returns to the inventory of 1999. That’s ridiculous and a mistake.”

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