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A timber supply project will boost the forest products industry in the Black Hills National Forest

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The U.S. Forest Service approved a plan last month that will provide a boost to the forest products industry in the Black Hills National Forest by allowing for surplus fire salvage logs from areas with excess materials. The program was announced as wildfires in the West have been growing in size and severity.

Neiman Enterprises, a forest products company with facilities in Hulett and Spearfish, South Dakota, will receive these logs to supplement their operations.

“The project is actually starting in the Klamath National Forest, which is the northern part of California, [and then] transporting the salvage timber after the catastrophic wildfires over there and transporting it to Wyoming,” said Sonja Merryman, spokeswoman for Neiman Enterprises. “The reason is because the sheer magnitude of these fires far surpassed the capacity for the milling infrastructure nearby, so they're transporting this timber to sawmills that would have that capacity.”

It’s program is part of a new innovative timber transport pilot project to help local economies that have been impacted by a lack of available timber for commercial uses.

“Part of the benefit of this is to be able to support underserved rural communities [and local forest products industry] out in [the] California area, and so hopefully, we'll be able to restore some of these logging companies and even [by] expanding them with the hauling truck drivers as well,” she said. “On the economic side, it'll actually help support some of these rural, underserved communities as well as the restoration work being done on the land.”

Neiman Enterprises focuses on harvesting ponderosa pine, which Merryman said only a few sawmills even harvest and process. They’re also able to salvage burned timber, which only a few other facilities are able to process. These kinds of trees may be harvested if the severity of the burns aren’t too major but it also depends how long they’ve been laying out in the forest.

“Blue stain on timber, it creates different effects within the wood, but that also impacts the quality which degrades the value and the price, all of that,” Merryman said. “That's where some of this challenge comes in, especially with our timeline because some of this has been burned a year or two ago. And so as time goes by, the quality of that timber actually degrades day by day.”

The timber transit pilot project is part of a 20-year Forest Stewardship Partnership Agreement between the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the parent agency of the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF). Data from the program will be used in determining whether there is long-term viability of transporting timber in support of the 10-year Wildfire Crisis Strategy. As part of the 20-year agreement with the NWTF, the Forest Service has dedicated $50 million to address pressing ecological challenges that national forests and grasslands face. Funds came from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

“We are glad to be part of this innovative project because we understand that a successful Wildfire Crisis Strategy is dependent on a healthy forest products industry,” said Regional Forester Frank Beum in a press release. “This is as mutually beneficial to the Forest Service and industry as it is to the local communities and natural resources in the entire Black Hills region. We are proud to partner with NWTF and industry in identifying creative solutions for increasing the pace and scale of forest restoration while exploring new markets.”

Neiman Enterprises has invested $2 million in preparation for what the program will allocate to their Black Hills facilities. This includes transportation costs that are associated with the project. Logs will be shipped to Upton via rail and then by truck to Hulett and Spearfish, to a smaller extent, for processing. The company will still pay market value for the logs just as if they were being harvested locally. Once considered outdated to move timber by rail, the “immense ecological value” of reducing wildfire risk, carbon optimization, watershed health, wildlife habitat improvement and more means that it has the potential to set a precedent for getting fuels out of the forest and “transformed into carbon-storing forest products,” according to the NWTF.

Both the Hulett and Spearfish facilities previously had two shifts when timber releases were higher in the Black Hills National Forest. These had to be reduced when the Forest Service reduced the amount of timber available for commercial uses. This led Neiman Enterprises to shutter their Hill City, South Dakota facility in 2021 due to a lack of available timber. Other Neiman-owned facilities in Montrose, Colorado and Gilchrist, Oregon were not affected by timber cutbacks but will help with the pilot program by debarking the logs before they’re shipped by rail and trucked to the Black Hills.

“As of now, it will still keep Hulett at one shift, so potentially, we would be able to increase to two shifts in the future,” Merryman said. “That would also include still running and harvesting here in the Black Hills, it would not be solely just working on rail [with logs shipped in from elsewhere].”

Black Hills National Forest officials have been working to ensure a sustainable future for the forest. This includes working with local communities, tribal governments, local industry, elected officials, in addition to state and federal counterparts. The objective is not only to supplement local timber production but also to strengthen local economies in the two states.

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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