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Red flags raised over timber sustainability

Black Hills National Forest investigating impact of wildfire, pine beetles

 

May 14, 2020

The debt has come due across the Black Hills National Forest. Work is underway to figure out how best to manage the U.S. Forest Service’s commercial timber program in a forest that has seen serious negative impacts from wildfire and the mountain pine beetle epidemic.

A collaborative working group was established in 2016 to gather data about the current standing forest inventory because concerns had been raised about conditions across the Black Hills.

“Trends in data that we collect about the forest seemed to indicate a significantly changed condition of the forest resource,” says Jerry Krueger, Deputy Forest Supervisor and team lead for the working group.

A draft of the report commissioned to investigate the scale of the problem suggests a strict solution may be necessary. With current conditions, growth levels and mortality estimates in mind, reducing the number of trees that can be harvested each year by up to 60% would allow the timber to recover enough for a return to current harvest levels within a century.

Three Pronged Problem

The issue of dwindling resources can be traced to three issues, Krueger says.

“One is the nearly 20-year mountain pine beetle epidemic that caused more than 200,000 acres of mortality in our ponderosa pine forest. That was all across the Black Hills,” he says.

“Couple that with about 230,000 acres of wildland fire, some of them in very large, spectacular wildland fire events like Jasper that really altered the landscape. Between mountain pine beetles and fire, it’s changed the way our forest looks.”

The third element, he says, is high annual timber harvest levels: “Our use of timber harvesting to treat the forest, to improve forest health, to really increase resilience from disease, wildfire etc., also contributed to changing the landscape.”

The issue is spread all across the Black Hills, Krueger says.

Gathering Data

Numerous stakeholders have come together to figure out what should be done in terms of the management of public lands, and in particular with the forest’s timber resource. This began, says Krueger, back in 2016 and includes State Forestry on both sides of the border, the local timber industry, the National Forest Advisory Board, environmental groups and more.

“Where we landed after some initial consultations was that there was general agreement we needed to collect some really high quality data on the condition of the forest before we made any management moves,” Krueger says.

“Starting in 2016, we worked with our forest inventory and analysis group in the Forest Service, which is in our research branch of the agency, to double the number of [permanent] survey plots…to really increase our ability to rely on that data to make informed decisions about management of the Forest.”

The collection of that data by the Forest Service’s inventory and analysis department (FIA) concluded in the fall and the results were published early this year. The FIA was asked to answer questions concerning the standing live volume estimate on the forest, annual net and gross growth estimate, net growth to removal ratio and the ability to produce an available sustained yield for the next decade.

“We shared that information with our partners and stakeholders, with the public and, while we were concluding that data collection, we made arrangements with the Rocky Mountain Research Station to develop an analysis of sustainability,” Krueger says.

“As a group, collectively we agreed to invest time, effort and money in collecting all of this really high quality information and then we asked the Rocky Mountain Research Station to do an independent analysis of that data and tell us what are some recommendations around sustainability.”

A draft general technical report was released in March, beginning a 45-day comment period that expired on May 1 that Krueger says brought over 125 comment submissions about the analysis. Meanwhile, both an internal and external peer review was performed on the science used in the report to ensure an independent view of what the data means.

“They are in the process of reviewing all those comments, they are going to revise their report, and it looks like that will be out sometime in mid to late August,” Krueger says.

The draft report suggests the data demonstrates that the forest, “has undergone a substantial decline in the ponderosa pine standing live volume” and that the current sawtimber volume will not support the allowable sale quantity outlined in the Forest Service’s plan.

Suggestions are also made for accelerating the production of sawtimber, such as through pre-commercial thinning to reduce the density of smaller trees, which has been shown in studies to increase diameter sizes of the remaining trees and thus increase merchantable volumes.

Analyzing the Data

Though the report is not finalized, the working group will be conducting an analysis to make its own recommendations to the Forest Service in June as to what should be done with commercial timber programs in the Black Hills.

“The final version of the general technical report will be published in August. It will not tell us what we need to be doing, but will analyze the data using a number of different management scenarios that provide us information about what the outcome of those management actions would be,” says Krueger.

The scenarios start with a specific timber volume, he says, and include mortality and annual growth estimates. They then consider what would happen over time if a certain amount was harvested.

“They are going to run a suite of scenarios and make some recommendations about what we ought to be considering based on all the information about what are reasonable settings for all of those variables,” Krueger says.

The first of the scenarios included in the draft report looks at what would happen if timber harvests continued exactly as they have been in the recent past with mortality rates at the same 2.98% level as in 2019. The data suggests that sawtimber on the Black Hills would be depleted by 2054.

Public Interest

Interest in this process is understandably high, and Krueger stresses that the Forest Service is engaging with a number of groups and is keen to acknowledge the concerns of county and city governments. The next stakeholder meeting for state, county and city officials will be held on May 15, while the National Forest Advisory Board has a timber sustainability working group meeting weekly.

“There is a lot more chance to be engaged. The discussion hasn’t ended – we’re actually right at the beginning of the discussion,” Krueger says. “We’re casting a wide net and we’re looking for their voice in the room.”

Krueger warns that the Forest Service is obligated to take a multiple use management approach. While the concerns are specifically focused on timber sales, public land management must also take into account stewardship of all activities and ecological functions on the National Forest, from grazing and recreation to wildlife habitat and ecosystem diversity.

“There’s a wide range of simultaneous actions and often the controversy is around finding the balance point. Our charter is really to manage for multiple use, but to do so in a sustainable way in the long term,” he says.

“That sometimes makes people nervous, and my response to that is that we are being very considerate and very deliberate about making sure everybody’s opinion is heard, that voices are in the room and that they are taken into consideration. Our obligation to manage for long-term sustainability is written in law and that’s a pretty serious obligation, we take it seriously. I want my grandkids and your grandkids to have the same opportunities that we have.”

Stakeholders have said the same thing, he notes, even those in private industry that may be affected. Krueger says everyone wants a healthy, resilient forest because it’s in the best interests of all.

“Engaging with stakeholders is really about how we achieve that and the balance point is how we incorporate not only all of this input from the timber stakeholders but balance that with efforts to provide wildlife habitat, diversity on the landscape and support the tourism industry,” he says.

“I often describe it as that I’m trying to drive the jumbo jet through the knothole.”

The shared stewardship approach being taken, Krueger believes, is the very best of government.

“The odds are that we are not going to make everyone happy and not everyone is going to get what they want, and that’s the nature of multiple use management,” he says. “We have to achieve many different resource objectives.”

Offering a reminder that, “This decision isn’t being made by the Forest Service behind closed doors,” Krueger invites the public to learn more about the timber sales management project. To do so, visit fs.usda.gov and navigate to the “Resource Management” tab of the Land & Resources Management section.

 
 

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