A project intended to make the Black Hills National Forest more resilient to natural threats has received final approval over the objections of some who say the project will result in over-logging.
Mark Van Every, the forest supervisor, announced Monday that he has approved the Black Hills Resilient Landscapes Project.
“With the mountain pine beetle epidemic now over,” he said in a written statement, “this project will allow us to begin management actions that will help get the forest back in line with the forest management goals and objectives.”
The Norbeck Society, a local nonprofit conservation organization, criticized aspects of the project in a recent news release.
“The Norbeck Society views it as unfortunate,” said the news release, “that what was supposed to be a project to promote resilience on the forest will actually result in unnecessary and even harmful harvesting of big trees from areas that essentially pose no threat of insect infestation or catastrophic wildfire.”
The project proposal had been under review since 2016 and has undergone some changes as a result of public input. The project’s aim is to create conditions in the forest that will make it better able to withstand mountain pine beetle epidemics — such as the one that killed millions of trees from 1996 to 2016 — and wildfires.
Project activities will be spread throughout the forest and will occur on about 620 of the forest’s roughly 1,900 square miles over the next several years. But it will take up to 40 years to realize the full effect of some project activities, according to Van Every’s written decision.
The project has four overall aspects: reducing the amount of vegetative material in the forest that could serve as fuel for wildfires; diversifying the ages, sizes, densities and shapes of pine-tree stands; encouraging the growth of non-pine species such as aspen, and stopping tree encroachment on grasslands; and improving and building roads in the forest.
The Forest Service will strive to meet those goals through a wide variety of work, to include logging, trimming and prescribed burns.
Van Every’s 23-page decision on the project does not include a cost estimate or funding source. Scott Jacobson, a spokesman for the Black Hills National Forest, fielded questions about costs and funding from the Rapid City Journal and responded by email.
"There is no specific budget line item for projects within BHRL," Jacobson said. "We will accomplish projects within the scope of BHRL as funding allows from our annual funding program."
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The Norbeck Society contends that the amount of logging allowed by the project is unsustainable, given the millions of trees that died or were removed during the mountain pine beetle epidemic.
To support its contention, The Norbeck Society referenced a recently released report, “Forests of South Dakota, 2017,” from the Northern Research Station of the Forest Service. The report said that among ponderosa pines — the predominant species in the Black Hills — the volume of trees logged or killed by disease or fire exceeded the volume of tree growth, resulting in a negative rate of net growth.
“The Black Hills National Forest needs a chance to recover,” the Norbeck Society said, “and this report shows that there are serious issues with the sustainability of timber management on the forest at the current timber harvest levels.”
The amount of logging allowed in national forests is governed by federal law and by maximum 10-year average annual benchmarks.
In the Black Hills National Forest, the maximum 10-year average annual sale quantity of sawtimber is 18.1 million cubic feet. The forest exceeded that number in 2017 when 18.6 million cubic feet of sawtimber were sold. Van Every wrote in his approval of the resiliency project that the logging authorized by the project will not violate federal law “as long as the average annual volume sold remains at or below the long-term sustained yield for the decade.”
Van Every also wrote that the Forest Service is compiling a new inventory of trees in the forest, which will help forest managers determine if changes in harvest levels are needed to ensure sustainability.
In response to the new “Forests of South Dakota” report, Van Every said the need for the resiliency project remains.
“Although this is a new report, the fact that timber harvest combined with volume loss due to mortality is exceeding growth is not new information,” said Van Every’s decision on the resiliency project. “The agency was well aware that the spatial and temporal extent of the bark beetle epidemic combined with vegetation management activities would outpace growth.”
Van Every highlighted a line in the report that said the negative net-growth trend will “likely reverse as mountain pine beetle activity decreases.”
Ben Wudtke, executive director of the Black Hills Forest Resource Association, a timber-industry group, said companies in the association support the resiliency project.
"The greatest lesson learned from all the beetle epidemics in the Black Hills is that you can’t wait until the next epidemic to be thinking about forest health," Wudtke said in an email to the Journal. "Our actions from now into the future determine the scale of the next epidemic.”