Black Hills timber sales fall 20 percent

Sustainability advocates greet news, but sawmills ‘within months’ of further cutbacks

By: - October 25, 2022 6:00 am
A timber project in the Black Hills National Forest. (Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service)

A timber project in the Black Hills National Forest. (Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service)

RAPID CITY — Timber sales in the Black Hills National Forest have declined sharply, prompting praise and condemnation.

The national forest’s advisory board met recently in Rapid City, where Forest Supervisor Jeff Tomac shared figures from the 2022 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

Timber sales in the forest totaled 112,874 CCF, Tomac said – down 20 percent from the prior year, and the lowest number since 2003. In the vernacular of the Forest Service, 1 “CCF” is 100 cubic feet of timber (the first “c” is for the Roman numeral 100).

“It’s a significant difference,” Tomac said, comparing the number to prior years.

In the audience at the board meeting was Dave Mertz, a retired natural resources staff officer for the forest. He said afterward that it takes 8 or 9 CCF to fill a double-trailer logging truck, which means the amount of timber sold during the last fiscal year would still fill more than 12,000 truckloads. Companies win the right to cut trees in the forest by placing bids in Forest Service timber sales.

Mertz is part of a coalition of former Forest Service employees, environmentalists and conservationists that has argued for a reduction in timber harvests.

“I think it’s going in the right direction,” Mertz said after the meeting.

The Black Hills National Forest Advisory Board consists of 16 members with diverse interests. Paul Pierson is the board chairman, representing the forest products industry. He’s also an operations manager for Neiman Enterprises, which owns the Black Hills’ two largest sawmills in Spearfish and Hulett, Wyoming.

The company closed its Hill City sawmill last year and eliminated 120 jobs, citing an insufficient timber supply. The company also reduced hours in July at its Spearfish and Hulett sawmills, and eliminated a shift in Hulett. Pierson said during the board meeting that more cutbacks are imminent.

“At this level of a sale program, and with the future levels that have been talked about, we’re within months of losing more capacity,” Pierson said.

He did not respond to a request for further comment.

Pine beetle infestations, wildfires and years of aggressive logging have drastically altered the forest during the past few decades, according to a scientific report finalized last year by Forest Service researchers. The report says continued logging at higher rates could eventually deplete the forest of harvestable trees – a finding disputed by the timber industry.

Tomac, the forest supervisor, said regional Forest Service managers did not give him a timber-sale target last year, but he expects to receive one this year.

But Mertz said local Forest Service employees are unlikely to meet any higher target mandated by regional managers.

“If they come with some big number and say, ‘We want you to do this,’ well, they just don’t have the capacity and the trees out there to do that,” Mertz said.

At stake is the long-term health of the forest. Because of modern firefighting efforts, wildfires no longer play their natural role in thinning tree stands. Wildfires and beetle infestations are more severe in a dense forest, so nearly everyone involved in the Black Hills timber debate agrees that some level of logging is necessary.

Mertz said loggers and sawmill operators need to reduce harvests for their own good, so they don’t deplete the resource they depend on. Even if one of the major sawmills closes, he said, the other major sawmill and smaller operators are sufficient to help manage the forest.

Pierson disagrees. During the advisory board meeting, the operations manager for Neiman Enterprises said sawmill operators need more timber to sustain their businesses.

“We’re in danger of losing our ability to help manage this forest,” Pierson said.

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Seth Tupper
Seth Tupper

Seth is editor-in-chief of South Dakota Searchlight. He was previously a supervising senior producer for South Dakota Public Broadcasting and a newspaper journalist in Rapid City and Mitchell.