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Black Hills National Forest officials are proposing to thin nearly 3,000 acres of forest in a portion of the southern Black Hills they say is especially vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires.

The Tepee Canyon Project would be conducted on 2,669 acres (about 4 square miles) located 17 miles west of Custer, along the south side of U.S. Highway 16 between Jewel Cave National Monument and the Custer Highlands residential area.

Matthew Daily, the acting timber program manager for the Black Hills National Forest, said the area targeted by the project is prone to dry conditions and is densely forested, making it susceptible to the kind of wildfire that spreads quickly and climbs to the treetops, wiping out everything in its path.

That kind of fire could endanger lives and property in the neighboring residential area and at the national monument, so Forest Service officials hope to thin the area with methods including selective logging of larger trees and the removal of smaller trees. Project documents say the project would create a “defensible space.”

“The whole premise here,” said Matthew Daily, the forest’s acting timber program manager, “is we’re trying to break up the landscape to avoid a running, catastrophic fire event.”

To get the project done more quickly and cost-effectively, the Forest Service is using a tool it was given by federal legislation last year. That tool — an expansion of an existing power called “categorical exclusion” — allows the Forest Service to forgo the preparation of an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement for projects that affect 3,000 or fewer acres and are intended to make forests more resilient to wildfires.

Categorical exclusions have been criticized for their diminished public involvement. Unlike the process for drafting an environmental impact statement, which includes an initial public comment period and a later objection period, the process for a categorical exclusion includes only the initial public comment period.

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The public comment period for the Tepee Canyon Project is open until Friday, July 5. Within weeks after that, the district ranger for the Black Hills National Forest’s Hell Canyon Ranger District, Tracy Anderson, could decide whether to approve the project, and whether to make any changes to the project plan based on public comments.

Even with the quicker timeline allowed by a categorical exclusion, the project could take years to complete.

Daily said part of the project will be accomplished with a timber sale, which will be open to logging companies. He said the timber sale could be prepared this fall and conducted next summer. After the sale, the logging company that wins the contract could take up to five years to do the work.

Proceeds from the timber sale could help fund some of the other work, such as the removal of smaller trees. Daily said the Forest Service will pay a contractor for that, but he did not have an estimate of the total cost of the project.

Once the project is complete, Daily said, the project area will remain forested, but less densely so.

“You’re going to see fewer trees on the landscape, more open vistas, better airflow, more distance between crowns of trees,” he said. “You’ll see more sunlight hitting the forest floor, and probably an increase in the amount of grass, forbs and shrubby plants.”

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Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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Enterprise Reporter

Enterprise reporter for the Rapid City Journal and author of "Calvin Coolidge in the Black Hills."