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Climate Change (Plus Dependence on Big Government?) Kills 120 Hill City Sawmill Jobs

Why is Neiman Enterprises shutting down its sawmill in Hill City? Permit me to suggest that climate change has reduced the level of sustainable timber harvest in the burning and beetled Black Hills:

[Retired U.S. Forest Service employee Dave] Mertz says in 2013 the U.S. Forest Service first realized there was a problem with timber sustainability, that’s when the organization was starting to see the impacts of things like the Jasper fire and the Mountain Pine beetles.

He goes on to say the forest has been impacted so much throughout the years that the timber industry couldn’t keep the same harvest levels.

“When we were clearly not managing a sustainable program that means that some adjustments had to be made and unfortunately that probably is what led to the downsizing of this one mill in Hill City,” says Mertz [Connor Matteson, “Former U.S. Forest Service Employee Says Timber Sustainability Has Been a Problem for Years,” KEVN-TV, 2021.03.23].

Climate change boosts pine beetle infestations. Climate change extends the wildfire season. Governor Noem is crying that the closure is due to bad government action, and she’s almost right: the closing of the Hill City sawmill is one logical outcome of embracing Trumpist anti-environmental policies that ultimate burn down South Dakota’s economy. (The Queen of Cognitive Dissonance is simultaneously fighting for more fireworks in the flammable forest this summer.)

Part of the problem is also a failure of capitalism: Neiman Enterprises has built its fortunes on harvesting public resources instead of building a business model on private capital. “…[W]e rely on the Forest Service for approximately 80% of our supply,” says CEO Jim Neiman. Gee, if your business relies on the government for 80% of its supply, you’re more socialist than capitalist. If lumber companies can’t make a living farming the government’s forests, maybe they should follow the example of the rest of South Dakota’s farmers: buy your own land, plant your own crop, and harvest your own yield however you see fit (and then collect government checks from your sister-in-law the Governor). And if trees won’t grow fast enough, maybe consider investing in grass (or wheat, rice, rye, oats…) for straw bale construction.

Hill City will suffer from the loss of 120 jobs. But such losses are the inevitable result of reckless and rapacious public policy that fails to take environmental sustainability seriously. Maybe Senators Thune and Rounds can get the Senate off its duff and pass President Biden’s infrastructure bill to put those sawmillers to work building wind turbines and electric car-charging stations.


  1. Donald Pay 2021-03-24 08:15

    Anyone who has experienced the mismanagement of the Black Hills National Forest over the last 60 years could see this coming. I’m sure climate issues play a part in this, but it’s really a matter of forest management that has been out of sync with what a natural forest, or even a forest managed for a sustainable harvest, should be. This was all very predictable, and the Black Hills Group of the Sierra Club warned that if they kept cutting at the level they were cutting in the 70s through the 2000s, they were going to cut themselves out of timber, and ruin the forest. But they not only didn’t listen, they cut more Bugs and fire are part of the natural cycle of Ponderosa Pine forests, and when you add in an unsustainable timber cut over 60 years, you have a forest timber cut that has to go down.

  2. David Newquist 2021-03-24 09:29

    Here Noem is caught in one of her know-nothing lies. She said, “Sadly, this could have been avoided if the federal government properly managed the Black Hills National Forest, but the U.S. Forest Service continues to ignore recommendations from the experts on allowable timber sales.” As Donald Pay points out, some experts have been warning for the past half century that the timber cutting was outstripping the forest’s ability to produce. Also, pine beetles have been so severe that they have threatened forests throughout the northern U.S.

    A source called the Dakota Free Press reported a year ago that “the Forest Service scientists conclude that we are chopping down twice as many trees as current Black Hills timber stock at current growth and mortality rates can support and that if we keep harvesting timber at current rates, we’ll deplete the Black Hills of all sawtimber by 2054.” []

    (As a one who pursued silviculture as an avocation a few years ago and visits forests whenever I can, I keep track of their health.)

  3. John 2021-03-24 10:11

    Consider whether Neiman Enterprises made a cold, calculated political bluff. Neiman Enterprises announcement occurs when timber prices are at record highs.
    The press didn’t note whether Neiman Enterprises named a date certain, laid off employees, stopped bidding on timber contracts.
    Neiman Enterprises closing the south/central mill – where BHNF trees grow faster than those near the 2 Neiman Enterprises mills in the northern Black Hills at Huelett and Spearfish makes quizical economic sense.

    Consider that a quarter or more of the BHNF is on industry described unharvestable terrain — due to the industry’s total reliance on mechanized harvest. (Tiny areas like Spearfish Canyon, etc., are also unharvestable.)
    Consider that some areas in the BHNF had a high harvest. Also consider that other areas receive essentially no harvest or even thinning – areas that need it to sustain a healthy forest — some of the FS own resource specialists stand in the way instead of promoting how to sustainably harvest in areas on challenging terrain.
    Consider also that for years the industry (Black Hills Forest Resource Association) recruited SD & WY politicians to undermine through DC-applied political pressure on the FS ‘so-called managers’, — the FS sustainable harvest goals, substituting their own industry-favorable wishful thinking. Yes, the governors and senators are the problem, not the solution.
    Consider there is more behind the announcement than what appears.

    Consider that the Forest was clear-cut from north of a line – crudely the North Rapid Creek / Pactola Reservoir to south of Nemo – during the unregulated mining and settlement era. Surveys and maps attest to the fact. Yet, the Forest returned, so thick and overgrown that it was a nursery for the pine beetle infestation.

    Consider that the BHNF and Hill City will survive as has Custer and other towns when mills closed.

  4. John Dale 2021-03-24 12:45

    2021 electric cars are a cruel joke.

    The RF/EM emissions of these PIGS is OFFENSIVE.

  5. Richard Schriever 2021-03-24 13:41

    John, I am currently gazing on the little country of origin sticker on a 6″ 1″x4″ here in SE SD that I’m using to make some chair rail, and it says “Made in New Zealand”.

  6. Mark winegar 2021-03-24 19:14

    Good job Cory!

  7. Wayne 2021-03-25 08:59

    Well, the new report from the Forest Service dropped today with recommendations for 50-60% reductions in timber harvesting.

    It’ll be interesting to see what the forest managers ultimately decide. From the Rapid City Journal, county officials were livid regarding the preliminary report’s findings last spring. I don’t imagine they’ll like them any better now.

    It’s interesting to hear the arguments from the Black Hills Forest Resource Assn. which is the coalition of harvesters. If they have to shutter 50-60% of their mills to match those recommendations, will there be sufficient workforce to actually help properly thin forest stands being attacked by the pine beetle? They claim no. But if the alternative is to extract all they can for another decade or two, then how does that serve the forest or the industry.

    It may be helpful to remember that, though many good minds were involved in creating this report, this kind of work is not infallible. I remember the Ted talk given by Allen Savory lamenting his work on desertification in Africa that ultimately led to the needless slaughter of 40k elephants because they thought the habitat wouldn’t sustain that many. Turns out their premise was wrong.

    It’s the hazards of the scientific method – we do the best we can with the information we have and make educated guesses. We’ve seen that at work during the pandemic with revising recommendations as we learn more. If the folks putting that report together are right, and forest managers act appropriately, the timber industry should be able to continue harvesting in perpetuity. If they’re wrong, then communities and families get hurt.

    I’m not sure I buy the claim that a 50% reduction in available timber for harvest equates to an 80% reduction in timber harvesting operations. I’d like that spelled out for me.

  8. jake 2021-03-25 10:31

    Consider also the propensity of a large corporation like Nieman to make a strategic decision in its own best interest, to wit:

    In past decades, Nieman has bragged publicly of its ultra-computerized mills -namely spearfish, Hulett and Hill city in the Black Hills and their much higher efficiency than prior owners. They can saw thru quickly, more than this small island in the great plains can keep producing continuously. They knew that this was coming (the cut-back) years ago. So, now, the corporate position is to blame the government for mishandling the allowable cut in the forest. In past scientific studies, I remember them and their friends badgering the Forest service to allow more and more cut.
    So now, shutting down (maybe) a mill, blaming it on a Democratic administration gets the instant blathering of obstructionist Republicans-from our Congressional trio of Trump sycophants to the wanna-be cowgirl governess instantly defending their corporate decision.
    Remember above all-these are socialist corporate powers milking that public resource for their own benefit.

  9. jake 2021-03-25 10:38

    Right behind them comes the new tourism “Big FunThingey”: renting UTV and ATVs to out-of-staters. License sales of these $500.00/day rentals (along with the private licenses like mine) are up about 6 times over last year. Our dirt trails, and gravel fire roads were bad enough last year, what will this year being with the hordes of tourists coming?

  10. larry kurtz 2022-01-22 07:40

    Blaine Cook and Dave Mertz are just two former Forest Service employees concerned about the 13,000 acre Bull Springs Timber Sale in Custer County. Yes, Hulett, Wyoming Republican Jim Neiman waited until Donald Trump was forced from the White House then shuttered his sawmill in Hill City, South Dakota and blamed the Forest Service but a Black Hills town named for a war criminal just burned a native insect in effigy to honor the Neimans.

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