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Climate Change, Increased Tree Mortality Require Reduction of Black Hills Logging

Congressman Dusty Johnson brought a Capitol friend from Arkansas to the Black Hills last week to talk a lot about how the lack of proper forest management led to poor timber conditions and the loss of 120 jobs from the closure of the Neiman lumber mill in Hill City. It’s funny that they didn’t mention the greater causes: climate change and Neiman’s overdependence on government for its business model. It’s also funny that they think the proper solution to poor management is less management, including more “categorical exclusions,” the exemptions the Forest Service can grant to certain projects to proceed without environmental impact analyses, which result in allowing more logging, shutting out public awareness and accountability, and  weakening the National Environmental Policy Act.

“Categorical exemption” is code for “let Neiman chop down all the forest it can right now for short-term gain, and ignore the consequences.” The real solution to forest sustainability is more management, not less. As the Forest Service warned in a draft report last year and affirmed in the final edition of that report released the day after Neiman announced its closure, we can’t sustain the Black Hills National Forest for anybody—choppers, lookers, critters—unless we chop our chopping in half:

In 2019, the USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station Forest Inventory and Analysis (NRS-FIA) estimated that there were 5,995,428 CCF [hundreds of cubic feet] standing live ponderosa pine sawtimber within the sustainable timberlands of the BHNF. The current harvest level in the BHNF Forest Plan of 181,000 CCF/yr is not a sustainable option. Sustaining harvest levels of 181,000 CCF/yr with mortality rates of 0.26% would require standing live sawtimber volumes of 7,327,950 to 8,743,950 CCF, depending on growth rate evaluated. If mortality rates are 0.60% to 1.04%, standing live ponderosa pine sawtimber volumes would require 8,497,670 to 14,031,000 CCF, respectively. Over the next several decades, if mortality rates stay below 1.04%, harvest levels of 72,400 and 90,500 CCF/yr appear to be sustainable if all suitable timberlands are available for harvest. These estimates provide a range of outcomes on the potential to sustain ponderose pine sawtimber harvests over 5, 20, and 80 years; however, monitoring is crucial to obtain realized mortality and growth rates so harvest levels can be adjusted over time. History shows that allowing the forest to recover after large disturbance provides opportunities to adjust future harvest levels. Also, tending of young forests can promote recovery and produce sawtimber volume more quickly [Russel T. Graham, Mike A. Battaglia, and Theresa B. Jain, “A Scenario-Based Assessment to Inform Sustainable Ponderosa Pine Timber Harvest on the Black Hills National Forest,” RMRS-GTR-422, executive summary, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, February 2021, released 2021.03.23].

For perspective, the mortality rates in 2011 and 2019 were 1.24% and 3.07%. Those mortality rates may stay high because, the report says, climate change means ongoing warmer conditions that increase the potential for damage from pine beetles and wildfires. Shorter, warmer winters mean pine beetles don’t freeze to death and come back in bigger numbers in spring and summer. Warmer temperatures and more extreme droughts mean more fires: before 2000, wildfires burned down an average of 3,628 acres of Black Hills forest a year, but since 2000, that average loss has jumped to 22,574 acres per year.

The problem is not, as lumber mill boss Jim Neiman claims, that the Forest Service hasn’t let sawmills cut enough timber. The problem is the opposite: we’ve let the sawyers cut too much. The Forest Service allowed larger timber harvests to check the last pine beetle epidemic: where we allowed the annual harvest of between 1.33% and 1.48% of the Black Hills total usable volume of ponderosa pine between 1962 and 1999, the sawmills got to chop down between 2.31% and 2.89% of the forest volume each year from 2017 to 2019. Now we need to rein those harvests back, let the forest recover, and adjust our harvest practices to the climate that we are changing for the worse.


  1. Donald Pay 2021-04-07 06:59

    Sierra Club predicted this in the 1980’s and 1990’s iterations of forest planning. We said then that a sustainable cut would be 80,000 to 100,000 CCF/yr would be needed to assure sustainable cuts. They didn’ listen.

  2. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-04-07 07:31

    Sierra Club was clearly on the ball.

    Could we get forest to grow on West River rangeland? Could Neiman plan for the future by buying up some Ted Turner land, planting it all to ponderosa pine, and then coming back in 20-30 years to harvest outside the restrictions of the National Forest?

  3. Dana P 2021-04-07 07:49

    Yep. And Mr Neiman/other timber cutters received a whole lotta ‘socialism’ to do all of that tree thinning.

  4. Jake McDougall 2021-04-07 09:32

    Jim Neiman has political connections at the highest levels. As usual it is politics not science that is determining the timber cut.

  5. jerry 2021-04-07 09:43

    Treaty rights would indicate that the tribes should have been the stewards of the Black Hills. It’s clear that after all these years, the treaty was correct.

    “In an 1868 treaty, the United States government agreed the Black Hills would be set aside for use by the Sioux. After gold was discovered there, miners and other fortune-seekers flocked to the area. That led to military battles that culminated in George Custer’s defeat at the Little Big Horn in 1876.

    When the Sioux refused to sign a new treaty giving up the Black Hills, Congress passed a law taking the land in 1877.” Rapid City Journal 4.21.2009

  6. mike from iowa 2021-04-07 10:27

    Speaking of the devil. Where you been hiding and causing worry from your friends? Welcome back, former Marine not named Stace nelson.

  7. jake 2021-04-07 15:11

    Neiman Industries made a calculated decision here. They have in recent years done PR releases extolling the computerization and modernization of all three mills, upping the production capacity well above the amount of timber that the socialized system of Forest Service allotments will provide. They could probably handle easily 1/3rd more.
    Historically known to be critical of regulations imposed by government, the timing was right to shutter a mill, affect 120 families and the local economy and try to effectively enlist the locals, the state’s Federal representatives and the Federal government to change the decision.
    Notice how quickly the governor, and Dusty Johnson with a Congressional buddy to attend a press release wringing their hands along with Rounds and Thune? Blaming, of course, the regulators and liberals for the ‘problem’ they created!
    I would bet the mill will be ‘moth-balled’ by the company, awaiting better times; not sold to any competitor.
    Truly a socialized industry-the taxpayer (us) pays the expenses for growing the raw product (trees), fight the fires that threaten them with much volunteer help, and build, maintain roads throughout the forest for lumber interests. Can’t call it anything else
    than ‘socialism’ when 80% of your raw product comes from a subsidy! Right?

  8. John 2021-04-07 20:39

    Cory, the Nebraska National Forest is a man made forest on the prairie. It’s conceivable that Neiman could grow its own sustainable forest.

    Consider whether Neiman engages on a calculated bluff. Who’s laid off? What’s for sale?
    Consider the report, Neiman, and the US Tree Service (akak Forest Service) are all wanting.
    The report assumes as a fait accompli that the “off harvest areas” are set in stone. Nothing is further from the truth. For decades the US Tree Service asked the harvesters to harvest inside campgrounds and similar protected sites. The harvesters declined, afraid they might ding a picnic table. Apparently the harvesters no longer carry chain saws, or know how to use them. The capabilities of modern machinery to sustainably harvest on slopes is astounding. The capabilities for sustainable cable and helicopter logging are also light on the land. The report failed to challenge those “off-limits logging areas” or to re-validate them using modern techniques, to include a sawyer with a saw. Review the clear-cut mapping from 1899-1905, then note what geographical areas on those maps are in the present day “off-limits logging areas”, then ask the hard “why not” given modern sustainable logging methods. Then run this evaluation across the forest.

    The bigger criticism of the report is the report fails asking: what is a sustainable forest? The totality of the forest. The Black Hills National Forest has the benefit of the dozens of Illingworth pre-settlement photos of the forest. The Illingworth forest has, broad, open meadows, well-spaced trees in most areas, and the scientific reports from the expedition note the creeks ran well year-round. Reflect on that. The US Tree Service densely packed, overgrown forest stopped the creeks from flowing year round because millions of additional trees were straws sucking water from the ground and streams. Consider that maybe, just maybe that fire and the modern beetle infestation were the BEST thing that happened to the forest in the past generation. Remove a few million trees and the creeks flow now as they did pre-settlement. Consider that contrast to pre-settlement, that the Black Hills remains an over-grown, over treed forest. Consider whether it is likely that the “study”, had it evaluated the Illingworth forest – the the study would have determined the Illingworth pre-settlement forest as being “over harvested” or capable of stacking more biomass on the land (more about this later).

    And climate change – be still my heart. The report failed acknowledging that a warmer climate encourages faster tree growth. It’s well documented that the southern forest grows faster and sustains higher harvest than does the northern forest. Warm up the forest and the southern forest will grow faster and the northern forest will catch up with the present or recent past growth rate of the southern forest. The report ignored this analysis because biological scientists endemically, systemically are hyper-conservative. Recall the Kaibab mule deer or the lowly snow goose. Biologist were concerned the snow goose was over populating its challenging, sensitive tundra breeding ground. Biologists increased the snow goose harvest, a bit. Geese multiplied. Biologists raised harvests. Geese multiplied. Biologists raised harvests, did away with limited shotgun shells, authorized electronic calls, and violated the holy grail of biological management – allowed spring harvests. This report harbors a similar conservatism, over-focus on the trees from the totality of the forest (trees, meadows, grasses, water, etc.).

    Glance above, for addressing the harvesters intransigence to work through minor inconveniences like campgrounds, other minor protected areas., or to walk and use chain saws. When the price of soft wood products is up 400% in a year can there be a economic excuse to not harvest the over grown challenging areas for machinery? The alternatives are letting those areas burn, become bug / disease nurseries, or kill zones. Consider that higher forest growth rate in the southern forest supports the economic rationale having a large mill in the southern forest. Whereas having only two remaining mills in the northern forest may lead to questionable economics of mobilization, transportation, etc.

    The US Tree Service has long deliriously stacked biomass on the land – with disastrous results. The US Tree Service is comfortable stacking biomass on the land – then blaming its predictable problems on 3d agents: the weather, fire, disease, etc. It’s an open secret that the best managed public land forests are tribal forests. Tribal forests focus on the forest, not on the trees or growing trees. The US Tree Service worships at the alter of Gifford Pinchot, the founder of the Service. Pinchot is the wrong biologist; he grew trees as crops. Aldo Leopold’s model is sustaining forests. ‘On can only stockpile biomass for a while until nature, often violently, deals with the stockpile.’ Leopold’s management more closely aligns with tribal forest management. The US Tree Service needs to change its culture to become a forest service. The Service needs to allow tree harvest and thinning on challenging slopes, wildlife areas, and wetlands – perhaps infrequently, nevertheless the trees grow there and require harvest, thinning – or they become cauldrons for fire, bugs, and insects.

    Clearly the clear cutting of the northern-quarter of this forest in the wild mining era required regulation and constraint. By the 1950s – to 2010 the Service’s stock piling of biomass went too far. It’s long past for time for educated, scientific management to return this forest to its sustainable pre-settlement standing.

    Returning this forest to the sustainable pre-settlement standing should have been the focus of the study and the focus of the Forest Service plan. Unlike the Nebraska National Forest, which is little more than a man made tree farm on the prairie; this forest should be more than a tree farm on the hills – it must be a sustainable forest in the Black Hills.

  9. grudznick 2021-04-07 22:51

    Bush hippies and tree huggers will be the death of us all. For sure the death of common sense and good business.

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