Retired Forest Service Leader: Major Logging Reforms Needed In The Black Hills

The following interview comes rom South Dakota Public Broadcasting:

Jim Furnish grew up visiting the Black Hills National Forest with his family and later worked for the Forest Service. He rose through the ranks and served as the deputy chief of the agency from 1992-2002.

Furnish said he was saddened by findings about the Black Hills timber industry that were revealed in a February National Forest study.

“This general technical report clearly shows that the levels that they’ve been logging at are not sustainable,” he said. “In fact the technical report said if you keep logging at the level there won’t be any trees left in the Black Hills in 50 years.”

Furnish says it’s shocking that the Black Hills harvests the most trees out of all 154 National Forests, even more than the huge forests of the Pacific North West.

He said the forest is prioritizing timber over other natural resources and this will result in negative long-term effects for timber workers and fire safety.

This unsustainability violates the Multiple-Use Sustained Yield Act, Furnish said. He also said he’s found evidence of logging in areas that haven’t been approved through the National Environmental Policy Act.

Ben Wudtke is the director of the Black Hills Forest Resource Association, which represents businesses and workers in the timber industry.

“The partnership between the forest products companies and the Forest Service in the Black Hills has long been heralded by both the agency and the communities as a success in mitigating mountain pine beetle mortality, mitigating hazards for wildfires that threaten our communities and the lives of firefighters and the public alike,” Wudtke said.

He said Furnish’s vision for the forest would eliminate about 80 percent of the local industry.

The 22 minute interview with Furnish comes from a recent interview on SDPB’s weekday radio program, “In the Moment.” Listen to the full interview here.

20 thoughts on “Retired Forest Service Leader: Major Logging Reforms Needed In The Black Hills”

      • Thanks, Ted! I’d like to find out more from the Forest, is this the key paragraph?

        “Further, our review of timber sales implemented under the BHRL decision revealed the Forest Service has regularly sold timber outside areas analyzed and authorized as potential Commercial Treatment Areas, in violation of the BHRL decision. Because this conduct effectively modifies the BHRL decision and poses impacts that were not properly studied and disclosed in the original NEPA documentation, the agency must reevaluate all pending harvesting authorized under BHRL and suspend logging found to be outside of areas authorized for potential commercial harvesting under the original decision.”?

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        • I think Jim’s doing what Jim has always done: exaggerate and cry fowl” no matter the reality. IF he says he has evidence of wrong doing then he needs to prove it, and let the chips fall where they may.
          In my opinion, Jim is so far into the “environmental camp” that it’s hard for him to see the good “in a thing.” For many of us, what the combined agencies in the Black Hills have done “for long term health of the forests,” is a good thing. It may not look like it now but in the long run, which forests require, I believe it will turn out well. I visit this area for a few weeks at a time, just about every other year.

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          • Next time you visit, go on the Mystic RD. Check out Reno Gulch, Battle Axe Road, Bobcat Road, Newton Fork Road, East Slate Road, Long Draw Road, Flag Mountain Road, go up to Flag Mountain and look north. Let me know what you think.

          • I’ll do it.
            Most of that country I’ve seen.
            The real question is: what were the purposes and objectives behind the harvesting.

        • Sharon – I can email you a couple of attachments prepared by The Norbeck Society which compared maps of cutting units and maps of potential treatment areas identified in the BHRL EIS. Those analyses were persuasive enough that the Black Hills NF withdrew 3 or 4 sales that it had out for bid, which the Region and the Forest could confirm for you.

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          • Thanks, Ted! I have an info request in… so the Norbeck Society caught the errors before the area was cut?

  1. It sounds to me like Furnish is trying to gain attention rather than analyze the problem. The Black Hills is experiencing a bark beetle outbreak, which tends to leave most of the pines dead. I do not live anywhere near there, but my experience in forestry tells me that the national forest is removing the dead trees which would lead to removing a higher volume than would be sustainable with live trees. Those trees are dead whether they are left standing or removed to provide lumber products for people wanting to build homes for themselves – removing them is not over harvest. To state no trees in 50 years is a sound bite to gain attention with no basis in fact. The number of older trees may decline, followed by an increase in younger trees.

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    • Norm, I am sorry to say this but you are incorrect in everything you said. The mountain pine beetle epidemic ended here in 2016. When the trees were killed by the bugs, they only had commercial value for a couple months or so. There are no trees to salvage, that ended years ago. The dead trees have long since broken up and fallen down. Read the General Technical Report “A scenario-Based Assessment to Inform Sustainable Ponderosa Pine Timber Harvest on the Black Hills National Forest”. There are the facts for you. Furnish is not trying to gain attention, he is working hard to try and get the Forest Service to do the right thing. As retirees, we are trying to save their soul in spite of themselves. It will be a shameful chapter in the history of the Forest Service.

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    • Thanks for finding this, Matt, I’m going to post that separately as Furnish is making more generalized claims than the BH.

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  2. In 2002, the National Forest Protection Alliance (NFPA) named the Black Hills National Forest the third most endangered.

    Most of today’s wildfire potential is clustered in Republican counties. And, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center that trend will continue through August or just in time for the Sturgis Rally.

    Yes, that means the Black Hills are tinder dry as an insect called the Ips engraver beetle is culling trees that are highly stressed by drought conditions. According to Kurt Allen, an entomologist for the US Forest Service in Region 2 impacts from the Ips beetle typically only last for two or three years but pine trees that are completely brown or red are dead and the beetle has moved on. The Forest Service generally allows the beetle to run its course and doesn’t treat affected stands. Bark beetles shape water supplies throughout the Mountain West.

    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 and periodic wildfires. The BHNF is trying to restore limber pine (Pinus flexilis) in the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve but native Douglas fir and lodgepole pine are virtually extirpated from the Hills.

    As many readers are aware the first US Forest Service timber sale took place in the Black Hills near Nemo but only after nearly all the old growth of every native tree species had been cleared for mine timbers, railroad ties and construction.

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  3. In the summer of 2020 near Nemo South Dakota, on the Black Hills National Forest, I performed a post-harvest soil disturbance audit on a unit in the Merlin Timber Sale. The prescription for this unit was “overstory removal”. I also noted fire hazard issues & ecologic trends. We performed the survey using the Forest Service Monitoring Protocol. I have performed hundreds of these surveys as a contractor to the agency. Forest Service soil quality standards require work that does not exceed 15% detrimental soil disturbance within the activity area. Our findings document detrimental disturbance over twice the allowed coverage.
    Clearly no soil scientist or technician visited the described unit before the harvest. On this unit sensitive soils are easily observed just by noting the sedge beds, large spruce trees (now missing), and dark moist soils.
    Overstory removal in a ponderosa forest is nothing less than ridiculous. These trees are just old enough to survive a low severity fire. The dense stands of remaining small trees are a hazard. If you were a forest landowner, would you do this to your own forest? Of course not. The overstory trees are not worth the ecologic damage.
    The upshot, if this small unit we assessed is indicative of the type of work the Forest Service promotes, then expect the expense of restoration activities (including weed abatement) to add to the taxpayer’s burden far into the future as we the people attempt to fix this mess.
    Regarding bark beetles and Ips beetles, as stated by Mr. Kurtz, the bark beetle infestation are mostly behind us. Unfortunately, in the Black Hills, where pine slash is left in large landing piles for many months, logging increases bark beetle populations by providing brood habitat for ips bark beetles. Ips can produce 3 and even 4 broods per year when slash is piled high. These bugs fly to the nearest healthy pines, kill the tops, weaken the tree, and allow the more damaging bark beetles to attack. Take a flight over the Black Hills and note the red ring of dead trees around many of these slash piles. And there are many very slash piles.

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  4. Dave Mertz, you ever think we’d be actually seeing this unfold? Yeah, about as surprised as to se hot weather in the South in August!

    I still recall just like it happened yesterday hearing “ if you can’t lead and make this program work, we’ll find someone who can”…..

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    • Yep, that was the marching orders! No, certainly not surprised, disappointed but not surprised. The FS has a history of doing things like this over its lifespan. Sometimes they have gotten caught and someone had to jerk a knot in their tail. We’ll see what happens here. Another surprise…..JB has still never visited the Forest to see what is going on here. I know, hard to believe, huh?

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  5. There is more to this than meets the eye. The timber industry around the Black Hills enjoy a consistency of operations that are efficient and profitable. Since the pines are often even-aged management, they are of consistent size. This allows the loggers to cut all logs to a preferred length, while losing the rest to ‘excess trim’. Most National Forests require maximum utilization of logs, varying lengths to reduce waste. In the Black Hills, all of the log trucks are self-loading. Changing that system represents a huge outlay of cash, from industry, to reduce the waste. It’s another reason why powerful people don’t want any changes. I guess the Forest Service could get paid for the gross timber volume, while leaving the decision of utilization up to the purchaser. The timber industry also fears a change to all-aged management, with thinning instead of Overstory Removal.

    It would surely be a ‘grand experiment’ to restore those forests to a more historically-natural state.

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    • Larry, there might be problems with that idea. 1. Is Natural what Native Americans did? Then should the idea be to either a) do what they did, or b) have them decide what to do given changed conditions.
      With all the towns, houses and recreationists in the way, would that work?

      2. Climatic conditions aren’t the same, nor are they likely to be in the future.

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  6. I’m enjoying the discussion. What I saw in the Hills concerns me greatly. There are a couple simple truths (for Ted Stubblefield) for which I rely on the FS Research GTR as “evidence” – not mine; the FS’s own. Three forces at work – fire, bugs, and logging – have reduced standing volume by about 1/2 in 20 years and annual cutting at 200,00 ccf levels is simply NOT SUSTAINABLE (MUSY, NFMA). GTR analysis says harvest should be reduced to 70-90,000 ccf AT MOST, likely LESS given other env constraints. Also, read the analysis of NEPA violations in the letter from Center for Biological Diversity to FS to fully appreciate FS missteps. The “overstory removal” methodology used by the FS leaves logged areas in a condition that will not support future commercial harvest for many decades to come, and the likelihood of hundreds of thousands of acres of dense regen that will NOT be pre-commercially thinned will substantially exacerbate fire risk overstocked.

    I am a strong proponent of thoughtful timber mgmt on the Hills, but I believe the FS should strive to create mature stands with persistent legacy trees. Overstory removal, when necessary, is much more suitable in every regard if the residual stand is populated with well-distributed 6-9″ pole timber, not 1-3′ tall seedlings. Logging occurring today on BHNF is simply – and I say it again – unthinkable and appalling, The FS can do so much better, and they better fix this mess NOW!

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