Pine trees in the Black Hills National Forest. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight)
Gov. Kristi Noem has joined her counterpart in Wyoming to ask the U.S. Forest Service to redo forest condition reports that the governors call inadequate, as part of a long-running feud over current and future logging levels in the Black Hills.
Noem and Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon made the request in a letter to Forest Supervisor Jeff Tomac.
The governors contend that the loss of harvestable acres of timber over the past two decades found in a recently revised report on forest health may drive conclusions that “are not backed by scientific material.”
The letter also raises concerns about “the apparent desire of the Forest Service to drastically reduce the timber program” in the forest. The Forest Service is in the midst of a multi-year process to revise the master plan that guides management decisions about the forest, including logging. In one of the initial phases of that process, the Forest Service recently published a collection of draft assessments.
“We request that the Forest Service produce another set of draft assessments with a public comment period, that those assessments include citations for factual statements, and that they contain discussion of why one authority was relied upon over another,” the letter reads. “We look forward to meaningful participation in the Black Hills National Forest’s Forest Plan Revision process.”
One sawmill has closed in the Black Hills in the face of timber sales reductions. Timber sales in the forest for 2022 fell 20% from the previous year, hitting their lowest levels since 2003.
Noem and Gordon wrote that they’d like to see the Forest Service restart the forest-plan assessment and public-comment process to address their concerns over alleged inaccuracies.
“If the inaccuracies are not addressed, it will be difficult for our states to have confidence in the outcome of the Forest Plan Revision,” they wrote.
The governors have no formal role in the management of the Black Hills National Forest, which is federal land under the control of the U.S. Forest Service and its parent agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The timber industry successfully pushed for changes to the General Technical Report (GTR-422) used to guide the revision process now being challenged by the governors. The timber group contended that the authors of the assessment had written it in a way that suggested a 50% loss in forest acres since 1999, despite their use of a smaller study area and a methodology that separated “suitable” acres from “unsuitable” ones.
The resulting changes clarified that the loss in harvest-suitable acres since 1999 is closer to 20%. The adjustment did not, however, alter the report’s underlying conclusion: that a reduction in logging will be necessary to protect the long-term health of the forest after decades of disruptions from wildfires and mountain pine beetles.
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