PIERRE, S.D. — The Black Hills forest could be cut clean of "suitable sawtimber" in 60 years, if logging keeps at its current pace and the forest's mortality rate remains low, report the researchers behind an influential U.S. Forest Service study.
The long-awaited report, which was published last month by researchers with the Rocky Mountain Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service, has already had seismic impact on the logging industry in western South Dakota's timber oasis, with one Hill City sawmill announcing plans last month to shutter, after the study's authors indicated a need to shave current harvest of Ponderosa Pines to less than 50% of the 150,000 hundreds-of-cubic-feet felled in 2019.
The region wouldn't lose all its trees, says a USFS spokeswoman, but the desirable logs for sale could be wiped out by century's end under the current aggressive harvest pace documented by a recently published general technical report.
On Wednesday, April 7, the authors spoke in a webinar about their research and took questions from the public. They used a fiscal metaphor to suggest the state's logging industry was out-cutting new growth, breaking into its "savings account" of standing timber.
The pine beetle and forest fires created a "double-whammy," said Terrie Jain, a researcher based in Moscow, Idaho. "So we had to dip into the savings account of the standing live volume."
While the 6 million trees of the Black Hills have been a productive going-concern for loggers over the last 20 years, nearly doubling the average cut rate compared to other national forests, a series of disturbances — from the ravages of the mountain pine beetle epidemic to the rapid, devastating increase of forest fires — has left the Hills' vulnerable to overlogging, says the report.
Federal researchers predict bleak timber scenarios for the tree-rich region which, in addition to logging, also supports a $2 billion tourism industry. In one instance, Forest Service researcher Mike Battaglia pointed to the 2003 Jasper Fire, which burned over 80,000 acres in the Black Hills, as evidence of the ongoing changes in the region.
"Basically, we no longer have that land producing trees," Battaglia said.
The silviculturists also discussed the mounting challenge of climate change with respect to the pine beetle. While the mountain pine beetle is native and even beneficial to the region, the insect may continue to persist through less-hardy winters as a result of warmer temperatures. That, researchers say, means the beetles may disproportionately kill more trees than in past cycles.
"Basically, there is consensus these disturbances will increase in intensity, including bark beetles," said Hobie Perry, a scientist with the Forest Service in St. Paul, Minn.
After the presentation, Jacque Buchanan, Acting National Director of Forest Management, clarified the report — which recommends cutting an annual allowable timber harvest from 181,000 hundred-cubic-feet to no more than 115,000 CCF and as low as 72,400 CCF — is not "a decision document," holding open the possibility that the tree production won't necessarily be sawed as drastically as the scientists' report recommends.
"We understand the significance of all that's happening on the Black Hills," said Buchanan, noting the coming forest revision plan will consume up to four years.
Nevertheless, the timber industry, which in 2019 cut 150,000 CCF of pine, has already seized on the report as evidence of their death-knell.
Neiman Enterprises, owners of a handful of facilities in the Black Hills, announced the coming closure of the sawmill in Hill City, S.D., which employs 120 persons. The Black Hills Forest Resource Association, a logging industry group in the Black Hills, has also criticized the report, noting the forest industry props up 1,400 jobs.
South Dakota's Republican leaders have expressed reservations about the report, with U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson visiting the Hills last week to meet with impacted sawmill workers. In an interview with Forum News Service, he said he was worried the report underappreciates "what we know and what everybody knows in this space ... thinning the forest makes it healthier."
A state report estimates "forest industry" generates $243 million of wood products annually in South Dakota.
One of the report's authors was not at the webinar: Leading Black Hills researcher Russ Graham, born in Sundance, Wyo., died before the publication of the report.