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.