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Timber harvest needs to be reduced to sustain Black Hills National Forest, scientists say

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Sustainability of one of the nation's most vibrant forests through proper timber harvesting and management, while balancing the ecological needs of the Black Hills, was the focus of a meeting Wednesday morning with a group of scientists and residents.

The USDA Forest Service Research and Development Rocky Mountain Research Station held a webinar to explain its findings on the health of ponderosa pine trees in the Black Hills National Forest. The meeting follows the March 23 public release of a new report, where scientists recommended a 50% to 60% reduction in timber production over the next several decades.

The report recommends dropping the current level of harvesting 181,000 CCF (100 cubic feet) of ponderosa pine per year, to either 72,400 CCF per year or 90,500 CCF per year.

That recommendation prompted Neiman Enterprises to announce it would close their Hill City saw mill and eliminate 120 jobs.

The scientists behind the study, USDA Research Foresters Mike Battaglia and Terrie Jain, explained in the meeting that continuing to harvest 181,000 CCF of ponderosa pine per year in the Black Hills is not sustainable under any scenario they studied.

The methodology behind the recommendation is based on several factors, they said. Battaglia and Jain, along with the late Russell Graham, looked at historical data going back more than a century. The data looked at tree growth and tree mortality rates to determine sustainable harvest levels.

Prior to the early 2000s, the Forest Service only used periodic Forest Inventory and Analysis reports to assess the health of the forest. The Forest Service now produces annual reports.

Battaglia said comparisons between periodic inventory and annual inventory presented some issues.

"For example, periodic inventories tended to underestimate (tree) mortality," he said. "During those inventories, mortality was only calculated based on the trees that were still standing. So, if a dead tree had fallen, it didn't count toward mortality."

The annual inventory fixed that discrepancy, Battaglia said.

Additionally, with major wildfires in the Black Hills and the 20-year mountain pine beetle epidemic during the late 1990s and 2000s, the health of the Black Hills National Forest and the amount of sustainable timber took another hit.

"If you have higher mortality than you do gross growth, you're going to start losing volume. When you include (timber) harvest into that, it exacerbates that by losing even more volume," Battaglia said.

Jain said there is a way to balance the need for timber products and a healthy, sustained forest. But to get there, Jain suggests finding proper management to get to that balance.

"Even with the mountain pine beetle and the current condition, the Black Hills are in a good position to move forward, and there are numerous management opportunities if we are willing to be innovative," she said.

Jacqueline Buchanan, deputy regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region, said the report is not the only document the Forest Service will use to develop a revision to the Black Hills Forest Plan, which is being initiated this year.

"This (report) is one piece of information that will be a part of that process. It is not a decision document. It is not the only information we will rely on," Buchanan said. "We will use the best science available and this is a part of that. But there's quite a bit of other information that we take into consideration, including socioeconomics, and then the additional information that is gathered from when this piece of work ended and as we move forward."

Buchanan said the revised Black Hills Forest Plan will take somewhere between three to four years to complete. Black Hills National Forest Supervisor Jeff Tomac will oversee the development of the plan.

"This is the beginning of the conversation, from my standpoint as the forest supervisor leading this effort forward on forest plan revision, and how this information will be used," Tomac said.

Contact Nathan Thompson at nathan.thompson@rapidcityjournal.com.

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