A divided advisory board on Wednesday rejected Forest Service research calling for less logging in the Black Hills National Forest and instead recommended more logging.
The research took several years to compile prior to the publication of a draft report in March. The researchers said mountain pine beetles and wildfires have reduced the volume of timber in the forest. They said logging should be reduced accordingly.
Otherwise, said research forester Mike Battaglia, “We could run out of sawtimber within the next 34 years.”
“Sawtimber” is a tree big enough for logging. To avoid running out, the researchers proposed a sustainable logging range of 70,000 to 115,000 CCF per year. One “CCF” is 100 cubic feet of timber. In 2019, loggers cut 153,534 CCF in the Black Hills National Forest.
Forest officials gave the research report to the Black Hills National Forest Advisory Board, which consists of appointed citizens representing numerous interest groups. The board created a working group to recommend sustainable logging levels for the next five years, while the Forest Service works on a new, longer-term master plan.
The working group spent months poring over data. On Wednesday during a virtual meeting, the group presented its recommendation to the advisory board: Instead of being reduced, logging should be increased to 181,000 CCF annually. That’s equal to the maximum amount of timber sales allowed in the forest’s current master plan, which dates to 1997.
Paul Pierson delivered the working group’s presentation. He works for Neiman Timber, the main sawmill company in the region.
Pierson said members of the working group disagreed with the research report’s findings. He said the real amount of sawtimber in the forest is higher than the estimate in the report. He said insufficient logging created the dense and overgrown forest that became a perfect breeding ground for mountain pine beetles and large wildfires during the past two decades. Now that those natural forces have thinned the forest, he said, logging should be used to maintain that condition.
“We are at a crossroads right now. We have a more resilient landscape than we’ve had in a long time here,” Pierson said. “And if we harvest too little, we allow stands to start increasing in density and volume, and we’ll follow the same trend that we followed in the past.”
South Dakota State Forester Greg Josten chairs the working group. He agreed with Pierson.
“I personally think that the number of trees on the forest and the density of trees was beyond what could be biologically sustained on the forest,” Josten said, “and that’s part of the reason that the bugs and fire had so much of an impact.”
Joining Josten and Pierson in support of the recommendation were working group members David Johnson, who is a state legislator and the owner of the Johnson Tree Company in Rapid City, and Dick Terry, a district forester in the Wyoming State Forestry Division.
The other two working-group members disagreed with the recommendation and made a dissenting presentation.
Corissa Busse, of the Nature Conservancy, said the working group and the full advisory board should trust the Forest Service researchers. The board’s written instructions to the working group said the working group should assume that the Forest Service research consists of “sound, statistically supportable science.”
Busse said, “Whatever decision the board makes will affect future generations. And continuing at the current volume could cause depletion of our forest and the loss of timber altogether.”
Working-group member Bob Burns was the other dissenting member of the group. As a member of the Meade School Board, he was appointed to represent local governments. He’s also a member of the South Dakota Family Forests Association and a conservation group called the Norbeck Society.
Burns and Busse asked the full advisory board to postpone voting on the recommendation. They said board members should take more time to review it, and should wait for the final version of the Forest Service research report, which is in draft form and under peer review.
The board engaged in a lively and sometimes contentious discussion. Some board members agreed with Busse and Burns and wanted to postpone a vote. Others said they supported the working group and wanted to endorse its work immediately, before some board members’ terms expire at the end of the year.
Board member Mary Zimmerman asked if Pierson was acting in the interest of his employer, Neiman Timber. Josten, who chaired the working group, responded that the working group members were all appointed to represent their own area of interest. As such, Josten said, none was asked to leave their professional responsibilities at the door.
The full board voted 11-5 to accept the working group’s recommendation. It now goes to Forest Service officials for their consideration.
-Seth Tupper is SDPB's business and economic development reporter.