Eight supervisors, seven years: The ‘challenging’ Black Hills National Forest

May 25, 2023 4:19 pm
A view of the Black Hills from Black Elk Peak. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

A view of the Black Hills from Black Elk Peak. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

The Black Hills National Forest has its eighth supervisor in the past seven years, and if recent history is any indication, he probably doesn’t fully recognize what he’s up against.

Carl Petrick, most recently the supervisor of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, won’t stay long in his new Black Hills post. He’s an acting supervisor, like five of the prior seven people in the job.

His predecessor, departing Acting Supervisor Bryan Karchut, said during a recent public meeting that the Forest Service is “trying to reduce the amount of transition between these leadership roles.” He predicted the agency will keep Petrick in place until a permanent hire is made.

“Optimally, this position would be filled in the next three months,” Karchut said. “If it’s not optimal, it could be five, six months?”

Turnover begins with 2016 retirement

The supervisor carousel started spinning in 2016 after the retirement of Craig Bobzien, who lasted 11 years in the job. With a knack for diplomacy, he weathered difficult times, including a mountain pine beetle epidemic that killed millions of trees and the imposition of new regulations on off-road vehicles.

Everybody who’s followed Bobzien has seemed competent and qualified, but they’ve all struggled to deal effectively with the diverse interests that constantly work to influence forest management in the Black Hills. Those interests include loggers, miners, prospectors, ATVers, hikers, bicyclists, horseback riders, cross-country skiers, hunters, campers, beachgoers, boaters, anglers, birders, ranchers, Native Americans, conservationists, environmentalists, botanists, archaeologists, cavers, tourists, and politicians, to name a few. And they all know exactly how the forest should be managed.

The Black Hills National Forest Advisory Board, comprised of 16 representatives from a wide array of interest groups, meets in October 2022 at the forest's Mystic Ranger District office in Rapid City. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight)
The Black Hills National Forest Advisory Board, comprised of 16 representatives from a wide array of interest groups, meets in October 2022 at the forest’s Mystic Ranger District office in Rapid City. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight)

The first person to confront that panoply after Bobzien was Jim Zornes, an acting supervisor whose Southern drawl stood out like a palmetto in a pine forest. He was one of many supervisors to be surprised by what he found in the Black Hills.

“Ya’ll got inholdins’,” he proclaimed at one public meeting during his short tenure.

He was talking about “inholdings” — parcels of privately owned land within a national forest — and he was right. The Black Hills has a lot of those, thanks in part to gold rush-era land claims that predated the creation of the national forest.

The forest also neighbors a state park, a national park, a national monument and a national memorial. Dealing with all those private and public landowners is yet another reason the Black Hills is a difficult forest to manage. And I suspect that difficulty has been extreme for people like Zornes and some of his successors who’ve been dropped into the Black Hills from forests far away.

Challenges are many

After Zornes came Mark Van Every, a permanent hire who walked right into the kind of thorny controversy that’s a hallmark of Black Hills land management.

State officials wanted to convert some national forest land in Spearfish Canyon to a state park. Van Every told the media that he and his staff had not been consulted. That rankled people in the governor’s office and the state’s congressional delegation, who showed proof of consultations with the Forest Service from before Van Every’s arrival. Van Every issued an apology, but the park plan remained controversial for myriad reasons, and state officials ultimately dropped it.

By the time Van Every retired in 2019, arguments about logging in the Black Hills were ratcheting up. Evidence was mounting that the beetle epidemic and increasingly severe wildfires had altered the forest. Forest Service researchers said if logging continued unabated, it would only be a few decades before the forest was depleted of trees big enough to harvest.

Since then, logging has declined, Hill City has suffered a sawmill closure, and tension has persisted among the Forest Service, loggers, conservationists and environmentalists.

That wasn’t the only challenge Van Every left behind for the parade of supervisors who’ve followed him. The forest is also overdue for a rewrite of its management plan – an exhaustive, years-long process that’s now underway.

Into that maelstrom of issues, the Forest Service has tossed Andrew Johnson, Jerry Krueger, Jack Isaacs, Jeff Tomac, Karchut and Petrick. All but Tomac were acting supervisors; he took a transfer to Washington, D.C., last month after a little more than two years on the job.

A ‘primo job’

Recently, Tomac and Karchut dealt with vociferous public opposition to proposed exploratory drilling in the forest. The Forest Service’s regional office in Denver intervened to propose a “mineral withdrawal” — a removal of the national forest land around Pactola Reservoir from eligibility for new drilling and mining projects.

That brought Jacque Buchanan, a deputy regional forester, to Rapid City for a public hearing on the plan last month. She works for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region, which oversees 17 national forests and seven national grasslands in five states.

I asked her, “Why do you go through so many supervisors here?”

“You know, I’ll be honest,” she said. “The Black Hills is a challenging forest.”

She quickly added it’s a “glorious forest” with “unique and wonderful aspects.” But it also has the aforementioned array of competing interests.

“I think it’s probably the most challenging forest in our region,” Buchanan said.

The position of Black Hills National Forest supervisor was formerly known as a “primo” job, said Dave Mertz, who was the forest’s natural resource officer when he retired six years ago. Now, according to Mertz, people in the Forest Service ask, “Who would want this job?”

That’s unfortunate, because there are few higher callings in the field of natural resource management than serving as lead caretaker of such a remarkable place.

And although many have come to view the clash of interests in the Black Hills as a problem, it’s also an opportunity: There may be no other national forest with such a wide range of people so deeply committed to its stewardship.

In other words, for the right person, being supervisor of the Black Hills National Forest could still be a primo job.




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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.