MISSOULA, Mont. - Recently, the National Forest Protection Alliance (NFPA) issued a report challenging the way the 1,242,713-acre Black Hills National Forest (BHNF) is being managed. Working with the Black Hills Group of the Sierra Club, Biodiversity Associates and the Black Hills Sioux Indian Treaty Council, NFPA published "America's 10 Most Endangered National Forests," featuring it as the third-most endangered in the national forest system. Our profile of this remarkable island of mountains and forest documented numerous ecological problems from a century of industrial exploitation and private development.
NFPA launched this project to assess the current ecological state of our national forests. Groups were asked to assess the physical impacts of timber sales, road building projects, grazing permits, mining projects, oil and gas leases, ski area expansions and other significant resource development on the landscape. While NFPA wrote and edited the report, it is the groups, activists and scientists who live near their nominated forests who deserve most of the credit. They compiled information from Forest Service documents, independent scientific studies and their own field expertise in forest ecology and forest management.
Water quality and native fisheries on the forest are in serious decline due to grazing, logging and water diversion. Consequently, the biological integrity of the Black Hill's aquatic ecosystems is extremely low. The BHNF harbors rare wetland plant communities like McIntosh Fen, but most of the marshlands, beaver complexes and willow thickets have been drained and cleared for mining, cattle grazing and homesteading. Many streams now resemble little more than a ditch through a pasture.
Grazing activities have not only hampered water quality and reduced water tables but have impacted the integrity of the BHNF's endemic montane grasslands - an ecosystem found nowhere else in the world. In short, the Black Hills are drying out and invasive weeds are replacing its uniquely evolved grassland vegetation.
Mining has taken a heavy toll on both the forest and the water of the Black Hills. Heavy metal contamination from leaks at cyanide heap-leach gold mines is a major problem on several streams in the BHNF. Some 15,000 mining claims have been filed on the BHNF, and more are filed each year.
So much mining has taken place that a majority of the 250,000 acres of privately-owned land inside the forest has been acquired as a result of the 1872 Mining Law according to the BHNF Revised Forest Plan. With so many private developments, roads have exploded across the Black Hills further fragmenting wildlife habitat and inhibiting the functioning of natural processes. The BHNF is the most densely-roaded forest in the West, with more than 8,500 miles of inventoried roads. The BHNF's Travel Plan clearly favors off-road vehicles (ORVs) over non-motorized uses by allowing ORVs access to 97 percent of the forest. The combination of ORVs, an excessive road network and ground disturbing activities like logging, mining and grazing have allowed noxious weeds like Canada Thistle and leafy spurge to reach epidemic levels.
From a socio-economic perspective, the existence of so much private land has caused forest managers to fear fire, prompting even greater fire suppression and more commercial logging and thinning for fuels reduction and breaks. While this may make landowners feel more secure, these activities have not and will not maintain the natural processes that regulate the health and the vitality of this ponderosa pine forest. Unquestionably, private development has also contributed to the cultural loss and impoverishment of the Lakota Nation who claim the Black Hills under treaties broken by the U.S. Government.
Only 2 percent of the BHNF is classified as roadless land, according to the Forest Service and there is only one small designated wilderness area. Two of the three small remnant roadless areas, Beaver Park and Sand Creek, were released for road building and logging due to their older, denser forest composition. Protecting the last 2 percent to allow people to enjoy some wildness seems not only fair to other public interests, but is ecologically critical given the lack of older forest habitat found in the Black Hills.
Photo records and historical accounts reveal that, prior to white settlement, forest composition on the BHNF was dominated by dense areas of old growth Ponderosa pine. This is contrary to the Forest Service and the timber industry's contention that the BHNF has always been a naturally "open" forest. Logging figures indicate over a billion board feet of prime ponderosa were high-graded from 1876-86 in the Northern Black Hills to supply mining timbers. Typical ponderosas averaged 20-24 inches in diameter. To give some context to this volume, the BHNF has removed five billion board feet during the last century.
Historically, large ponderosas were mixed with pockets of spruce in wetter areas and on north facing slopes and with scattered stands of aspen, birch and oak.
Native hardwoods stands have declined on the BHNF due to fire suppression, grazing and conversion, which at one time involved bulldozing aspen for pine promotion. Currently, there are very few old ponderosas left - less than 2 percent of the Black Hills remains in an old growth condition - and the average size ranges between 8-10 inches in diameter.
Roughly 25,000 acres are logged each year making it one of top national forests in terms of acres logged and the largest timber producer in the Rocky Mountain Region. Nearly every acre of the BHNF has been logged at least once, and most areas have been logged repeatedly. During the decade before the forest plan revision, 26.5 percent of the forest acres were harvested. The revised BHNF plan calls for increasing the amount of forest harvested each decade to 27.5 percent.
Intensive shelterwood cuts (staged clearcuts) have gradually reduced the age and size of pines on the BHNF to the point that stands are cut down when they are still too young and haven't maximized their growth potential - what foresters refer to the Culmination of Mean Annual Increment Growth (CMAI). Due to the arid climate and slower growing conditions in the Intermountain West, pine stands don't achieve CMAI until an age of 135-175 years when trees are over 16 inches in diameter.
Over the last 95 years, Forest Service logging practices have created a younger, more fire-prone ecosystem on the BHNF in violation of the National Forest Management Act for and reflects poorly on the Forest Service's commitment to forest conservation.
It is time to give the Black Hills a long rest from commercial resource management and focus on putting loggers to work on fixing many of the problems outlined above.