More timber is cut annually in the Black Hills National Forest than any other national forest, but timber management in the Black Hills is at a crossroads following the recently ended mountain pine beetle epidemic.
Now, the Forest Service is scurrying to complete in two years an analysis of available timber that would typically take up to 10 years to compile.
Black Hills National Forest Supervisor Mark Van Every explained the project Wednesday during a meeting of the Black Hills National Forest Advisory Board at the Mystic District Ranger Office in Rapid City.
“We need to think about, what does the long-term timber program look like in the Black Hills National Forest after the pine-bark-beetle epidemic?” Van Every said.
In March, forest officials revealed aerial survey results that indicated the end of a 20-year pine-beetle epidemic. The epidemic affected about 450,000 acres, which equates to about one-third of the total area of the Black Hills National Forest. Large areas of the forest turned brown as pine trees were killed by the bugs.
Logging continued during the epidemic and even increased in some areas as forest managers tried to clear out dead trees that presented fire hazards and also tried to thin dense tree stands where pine beetles thrive.
The volume of timber cut last year in the Black Hills National Forest was about 192,000 CCF, with 1 “CCF” being a unit of volume equal to 100 cubic feet. That’s a little less than the 128 cubic feet in a cord of firewood, which is a stack measuring 8 feet long, 4 feet high and 4 feet wide.
The second-biggest timber harvest among all national forests last year was about 188,000 CCF in the Willamette National Forest in Oregon.
Van Every said in a Journal interview after Wednesday’s meeting that it wasn’t just the stepped-up logging in response to the beetle epidemic that pushed the Black Hills National Forest to become the nation’s biggest timber-producing national forest. That status, he said, is due to a combination of additional factors, including the high natural rate of tree regeneration in the Black Hills, the economic health of the local timber industry and the comparatively low number of legal challenges to logging.
Timber is cut by private logging companies that bid on timber sales conducted by the Forest Service. The timber goes to mills where it is turned into products including board lumber, posts, poles, particle boards and pellets for wood stoves.
To estimate the amount of timber standing in the Black Hills, the Forest Service periodically visits hundreds of representative plots scattered across the forest.
Each of the plots has typically been visited every seven years in the South Dakota portion of the Black Hills and every 10 years in the Wyoming portion. Because of the tree die-offs caused by the pine beetle epidemic, Forest Service officials and timber-industry leaders now want to take a quicker snapshot of timber availability.
So, Van Every said the Forest Service has visited about 200 plots this year and hopes to visit 200 more next year, to complete an analysis in two years that would typically take up to a decade.
The accelerated analysis will help Forest Service officials make decisions about the appropriate amount of logging to allow in the post-beetle-epidemic era.
“It’s something we’re going to have to wrestle with,” Van Every said. “What does a sustainable program look like in the Black Hills going into the future?”