Review spurs updates to Black Hills sustainable harvest report

Challenges from industry carry through, but conclusions on need for harvest reductions remain

By: - November 17, 2022 4:26 pm
Restoration work on the old McVey Fire burn area in Black Hills National Forest.

Restoration work on the old McVey Fire burn area in Black Hills National Forest. (USDA Forest Service photo)

An independent review of a federal document that helps guide timber sales in the Black Hills National Forest has led to a refinement of the statistics on forest inventory loss.

One of that 2020 document’s main conclusions, however – that a reduction in logging is likely necessary to sustain the long-term health of the forest – remains in place.

The General Technical Report (GTR-422), was twice challenged by the timber industry through the federal Data Quality Act.

The issue at the heart of the challenge is a figure that appeared in the original report without clear context: that the forest lost 50% of its inventory since 1999.

In reality, that “loss” was largely the result of a move to delineate “suitable” from “unsuitable” acres for timber harvesting. That shift, as well as a shrinking of overall tallied acres, reduced harvestable volumes by half when compared to 1999. But the actual reduction in acres, after accounting for the delineation, was closer to 18-20%.

Backers and detractors of more robust logging in the forest both said this week that the clarifications to the report are positive developments, although the opposing sides have differing opinions about what the adjustments ought to mean for logging in the hills.

The industry would like to see expanded logging, according to Ben Wudtke, executive director for the Black Hills Forest Resources Association (BHFRA). The BHFRA authored the challenges to the federal report.

Harvest reductions not only have an impact on the 1,100 people employed by the forest products industry in western South Dakota, Wudtke said, but also on the long-term health of the forest. He argues that thinning is the answer to the threats of wildfire or pine beetle damage that accompany an overly thick forest, and that sustainable harvest is the timber industry’s primary concern for the national forest. 

“Anybody who’s been in the Black Hills for any period of time recently knows that we went through about a 20-year mountain pine beetle infestation. The tool to fight back against that infestation is the timber industry,” Wudtke said.

The independent review panel concluded that three of the BHFRA’s challenges to the GTR were inadequately addressed by the first review, which was requested one year ago. The second review was initiated in April. 

In a letter addressed to Wudtke dated Nov. 1, the UDSA review panel said that the GTR failed to properly define “suitable” acres, and that it ought to be updated.

“In the view of the panel, the ambiguity of the terms ‘sustainable harvest’ and ‘suitable timberland’ is a significant source of confusion that reduces the GTR’s utility and clarity,” the USDA letter reads.

Dave Mertz is among those who hope to see reduced logging in the Black Hills National Forest. Timber sales have fallen 20% from last year, and a Hill City sawmill recently closed. Those changes were moves in the right direction, according to Mertz, a retired natural resource staff officer for the Black Hills National Forest.

The changes to the GTR, Mertz said, do not amount to anything like a substantial shift in guidance. 

“This is all clarification,” Mertz said of the recommended changes. “It’s nothing that changed the analysis, and the determinations stand the same.”

The report will not be retracted, and it still refers to current harvest levels as unsustainable, Mertz noted.

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John Hult
John Hult

John is the senior reporter for South Dakota Searchlight. He has more than 15 years experience covering criminal justice, the environment and public affairs in South Dakota, including more than a decade at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.