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The Black Hills National Forest reduces the number of trees available for timber sales

J. Stephen Conn
Flickr via CC BY-NC 2.0

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the parent agency of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), has reduced the number of trees that are available for sale to commercial operations from the Black Hills National Forest, leading to questions about the future of the area’s forest products industry.

“Basically, our commercial timber harvest program is really based on the need to really achieve the desired condition of the landscape,” said Scott Jacobson, public information officer with the Black Hills National Forest. “We use commercial timber harvests as a way to thin the forest and treat the forest based on what is called for in our forest plan. The ecological conditions along with the ability to sustain a future supply of commercial timber all play a part in developing our yearly management plans.”

The Black Hills National Forest held the first government-regulated timber sale in the U.S. in 1899. Since then, it has consistently held sales that have been a major part of the area’s timber and forest products industry.

The USFS’s Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS) released a report on the sustainability of timber harvesting in the Black Hills National Forest last year. One of the main findings was that previous harvest levels aren’t sustainable and should be reduced. It also states that historically, allowing for the forest to recover provides opportunities to adjust future harvest levels.

“I just say like the preliminary numbers for the next three years represents kind of less timber volume than previous years obviously,” Jacobson said. “The forest has experienced a significant change in the last 20 years because of our large wildfire[s] [that] have occurred here, [and] we had that 20-year Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic. Then we also increased our commercial timber harvests program during the Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic just to slow the spread of the beetle infestations.”

The beetle epidemic has since passed and was declared as such approximately five years ago.

The changes have already been felt. Neiman Enterprises, a forest products company that operates two sawmill facilities in Hulett and Spearfish, South Dakota, was forced to close its Hill City, South Dakota operation last year due to a lack of available timber.

“Under the proposed scenario from the Forest Service, they’ll lose the Hulett mill as well and there’s almost no doubt about that if something can’t be done long-term,” said state Sen. Ogden Driskill, (R-Devils Tower), whose district includes Crook and Weston counties where the Wyoming portion of the Black Hills National Forest is located. “The argument is, ‘Well, it’s just industry, why are we doing industry?’ And I will tell you I would way rather overcut a renewable resource, so you know what you manage all the way back into it and have it green and healthy then to let it turn into a very dense stand, which is exactly what their plan does.”

According to Driskill, approximately one third of Hulett’s population works at the sawmill, which also functions as a major economic driver for the community. Earlier this year, both the Wyoming and South Dakota congressional delegations sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack that expressed their serious concerns about the reductions to the timber sale program.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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