Jim Furnish Op-ed On the Black Hills in The Hill

This photo is from the op-ed; copyright by Mary of the Norbeck Society. I’ll take it down if they prefer, but it is the photo in the op-ed.
Thanks to Matt for finding and posting this op-ed by frequent TSW commenter Jim Furnish in the thread about the Black Hills. Some of his claims are more generalized about the Forest Service in general, and so I think worthy of a separate discussion.

(Note: the infamous Forest Service Retirees’ Info Network has suggested that there is a media campaign by ENGOs brewing about the Hills.. stay tuned for more press stories)

First of all, you gotta love the headline (I’m suspecting Jim didn’t pick it but..) “Forest Service Putting National Forests in Peril”. We’re all glad, I’m sure, that after four years of “Trump Administration Does Bad Things” the power has returned to non-politicals within a federal agency. Whew, thanks for delegating, Congress and the Biden Admin!

This is a good time for recycling this quote from Earl Butz.. in a piece by Char Miller

Earl Butz, Richard Nixon’s controversial secretary of Agriculture, was a profane man known for his hair-trigger temper and rough handling of subordinates. So when the chief of the Forest Service stood him up for a meeting, Butz unloaded in response: “There are four branches of government,” he reportedly snarled, “the executive, legislative, judicial and the Gawd-damn U.S. Forest Service.

But back tot he op-ed..

Perhaps the saddest part is that big old trees, if left to grow, are the natural outcome of ponderosa pine ecology, storing carbon, providing wildlife habitat and seed for new trees and stabilizing soils. But the Forest Service requires that loggers cut down all the big old trees, reducing the forest to ecologically impoverished, even-aged tree farms, and increasing susceptibility to future fires.

It sounds like this is about the Hills, but the photo shows apparently some big old trees.. so I’m not sure if the photo is relevant to the argument Jim is making.

Note that the link goes to a piece by Law and Moomaw.. I noted that these scientist were heavily cited in the letters of some ENGO’s in the Response to Comments in USDA’s Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry request, by groups who were against tree cutting. IMHO the stand in the photo also doesn’t look more susceptible to future fires, at least not for a while.

The Black Hills logging debacle represents a decades-long drama playing out on most forests across the country. Commercial logging trumps other forest values like carbon storage, clean water, wildlife habitat and old-growth woods.

So the FS is still logging old growth, across the country? Seems like in the plans and projects I’ve looked at there has been a great deal of concern for carbon storage, clean water, wildlife and old growth.

But most curious to me was this, back to “thinning for fuel treatment” but now using anecdotes.

A raging debate questions whether thoughtful logging can actually limit fire risk and severity by reducing fuels in advance. The Forest Service says emphatically “yes,” but anecdotal evidence yields troubling results throughout the fire-prone western United States. The arson-caused Jasper Fire burned through a thinned landscape thought to be in ideal condition. High temperatures, low humidity and heavy winds — the usual culprits — blew the fire up mercilessly.

Reduced logging is long overdue in this treasured landscape. What the Forest Service is doing in the Black Hills reminds me of its tragic liquidation of mature and old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. Then, as now, I urge the Forest Service to follow the advice of its own scientists.

I think Jim means the Hills and the silviculture report, but if you follow the advice of scientists, conceivably you would also follow the many scientists who support tree thinning as a fuel reduction measure either on its own or prior to prescribed burning.

So maybe this media campaign is designed to put pressure on the Admin to reduce harvesting on the Hills. That’s fine, but don’t blame the FS as an independent political actor out to destroy America’s forests, nor question the utility of fuel treatments; a “raging debate” ??. I don’t think that those arguments are 1) accurate nor 2) necessary to make the case, which specifically is for reduced commercial harvesting on the Black Hills.

6 thoughts on “Jim Furnish Op-ed On the Black Hills in The Hill”

  1. You have to understand that what is happening on the Black Hills right now is the implementation of the Black Hills Resilient Landscape Project. This involves 185,000 acres of overstory removal. That photo was an overstory removal (OR). Those are not large trees, less than 6 inches. The OR’s generally are removing all trees greater than 9 inches. The story coming from the timber industry is that we need to continue thinning the Hills to save them. Never mind that there is only a little thinning going on here, most of it is OR. There is virtually no old growth left here. The Forest Plan calls for 5% of suitable acres be old growth and there is currently around 1%. He mentioned the Jasper Fire because that was good logging ground and had been heavily managed for a long time prior to the fire. It was kind of the bread basket for the District. Yet, if you look at it today, the majority is now a prairie. The management there did not really mitigate anything. So, that is the local example of pre-fire treatment. Thinning plus burning could probably be more effective but very little burning happens here. Industry is not very supportive of it since it can kill some of their future harvest. The General Technical Report was clear that current harvest levels are not sustainable, yet, no changes have been made. Hints are that this will be dealt with in the plan revision effort that may take 4 years or more. The timber inventory will be in an even worse situation by then. So, what is defensible in all this with what the Forest Service is doing here? And this is not just a blame the Black Hills NF thing, this goes all the way to the top. It is politically inconvenient to them to have a forest that wants to reduce its cut. I would be glad to share some photos of what is happening here if there is a way to do that.

  2. It’s important to remember the Black Hills were largely prairie until European settlement.

    Pinus ponderosa is not native to the Black Hills having reached the region less than four thousand years ago. When the Custer Expedition came through the Black Hills bringing invasive cheatgrass for their horses stands of ponderosa pine were sparsely scattered but a century and a half of poor ranching and land management practices have created an unnatural overstory best controlled by the mountain pine beetle, prescribed fires, periodic wildfires, yes even mechanical treatments as long as no new roads are built and burns applied to stimulate hardwood release.

  3. Dave Mertz, you are right on target! It is a shame this is happening to a National Forest. I am a timber person, some folks called me a “timber beast”, I bleed green; however, I have never seen anything quite like this, and it is quite unsettling….

  4. I appreciate Mr. Furnish’s expert assessment and his sounding of the alarm; a very responsible thing to do. His advice urging the Forest Service to follow the advice of its own scientists is also apropos (one can often express a more open and honest opinion after retiring from the official pressures of political life, I suppose).

    I also listened to some of the apolitical USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station webcast where they discussed the FIA metrics that detailed the unsustainability of current harvesting rates. The timber industry is not the ONLY benefactor of our forests. If they are allowed free and unregulated privilege to harvest unsustainably, they will quickly do so and exhaust long-term capital for short-term gains (i.e., trees take decades to regenerate; harvesting is relatively quick and easy). We should stay ever mindful that the USFS’ overarching mission is to “sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present AND future generations (USDA 2020a).” The USDA research analysis makes it abundantly clear that “the current standing live saw timber volume does not support the current harvest levels.” I believe this is the case in many national (and private) forests today.

    Jim’s comments on current logging/thinning practices being of questionable effectiveness against wildfires are also worth pondering in greater detail, despite the overwhelming chorus of those advocating its use as some silver bullet solution; the data is still too limited to jump to sweeping conclusions, IMHO.

  5. Seems like the idea that the FS is still logging at an unsustainable rate and the timber companies are to blame just won’t go away. Well I don’t know about all FS lands but those in west have seem harvest rates drop by about 90%. Thinning sale may of brought it back some.
    I get tired of such comments. It’s time to get up to date. It has been over 20 years since the implementation of the Northwest Forest Plan.

  6. Text describes the photo as having “a stand” of “big old trees”. — There are too few trees to be a “stand” and none appear “big” or “old. What are our standards for these terms?


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