Everyone wants a solution to the wildfire dilemma across the west. A very common answer is we need more logging. So many sawmills have closed and gone away and now the chickens have come home to roost, they say. There is certainly some element of truth there but what happens when you have the opposite problem? When you have too much sawmill capacity and demand for volume exceeds timber sustainability? How does a situation like this come about and does it even exist?
I am Dave Mertz and I was the Natural Resource Staff Officer on the Black Hills National Forest (BHNF) from 2011 to 2017 when I retired. I provided oversight and management of the Forest’s timber program. One thing that I regret from that time is that I wish I had gotten out of the office more and out on the Forest. I should have had better knowledge of what was really going on out there. Fortunately, since I retired, I have been able to spend quality time on the Forest and learn a whole lot more about the situation we are in. It’s a somewhat complicated story and I am going to try and tell it here.
Prior to 2000, the BHNF was sitting fat, dumb and happy. There were plenty of trees, you could argue too many trees. There was certainly lots of sawmill capacity. The 1997 Forest Plan had set an Allowable Sale Quantity (ASQ) of 202,000 ccf. This was an achievable goal and would be met or exceeded many times over the next 20 years. Then the mountain pine beetle (MPB) came to the Forest with a vengeance. Along with that, a series of large fires including the Jasper Fire in 2000. This is the largest fire on the Forest at over 80,000 acres.
The MPB epidemic continued until 2016. In the meantime, the Forest carried out an aggressive thinning program to mitigate the epidemic. The timber industry was happy, they were seeing years where the timber volume sold exceeded the ASQ, sometimes significantly. There was a problem though, the good times would eventually end. The Forest Silviculturist began warning as far back as 2012 that there would be a future problem with timber sustainability. The MPB had killed over 200,000 acres of trees and wildfire another 200,000 acres on a 1.2 million acre Forest. Meanwhile, the timber industry was modernizing their mills and making them more efficient. They needed fewer employees and could run more volume through their mills even faster. If they ever believed that there would be a future problem with timber volume, they certainly didn’t act like it and never admitted it publicly.
Finally, by 2016, when the MPB epidemic ended, the Forest took a drawn-out approach to addressing the timber sustainability problem. They would work with Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) to intensify their survey by doubling the plots. They did this in response to the timber industry’s insistence that the data was not good enough to make a reduction in the annual volume sold. They insisted that in spite of the beetle epidemic and wildfires, the timber volume sold could continue on as before. Of course, they had some assistance from SD and WY politicians putting pressure on the Forest Service (FS). Not that the Regional Office and Washington Office took much convincing. They had no interest in reducing the volume sold. It would go against the narrative that the FS wasn’t cutting enough. Oh no, they weren’t sticking their necks out for the BHNF! The Forest was often in the lead or top 2-3 of annual timber volume sold for the Agency. They needed that volume!
Once the FIA gathered the additional data, which took three years, the Forest worked with FS Research to analyze the data and develop a scientific recommendation for long-term sustained yield. A General Technical Report (GTR) was produced in April of 2021 that recommended an annual volume of 72,000 CCF to 90,000 CCF would be sustainable. The day before the GTR was released, it was announced that one of the local sawmills would be closed. The FS was blamed for the closure because timber sold in the current and previous fiscal years was below ASQ.
Six months later, the Forest came out with a tentative three-year plan to reduce timber volume sold to 80,000 CCF by FY 2024. With much negotiation, alignment was reached with the Regional Office and Washington Office to make this tentative plan possible. Meanwhile, significant pushback from the timber industry and politicians continues.
It should be said that the BHNF is one of the most managed Forests in the National Forest System. Much of the Forest’s suitable timber base has been thinned, either through logging or the MPB. What do you do to keep the timber volume sold levels up when much of the Forest has already been thinned? Well, in 2016 a Forest-wide project was developed to conduct overstory removal (OR) on 183,000 acres. Never mind that many of these acres were not ready for OR due to insufficient regeneration or that they were still putting on significant growth resulting from the recent thinning. This was really the Forest’s only option to keep high timber volumes flowing.
A major justification from timber industry to keep sale volumes high is that the Forest needs to be thinned to save it from wildfires. As stated earlier, much of the Forest has already been thinned. Also, even though the Forest has been heavily logged for decades, this had minimal impact on the MPB epidemic (until they started thinning down to 40 basal area) and very little, if any impact on mitigating catastrophic wildfires.
I took a look at the Jasper Fire from 2000 using Google Earth to see how much logging had occurred in the fire’s footprint prior to the fire. I was able to go back to 1986 and look year by year to see what logging had occurred there. Much of fire area had been thinned prior to the fire. This thinning did little to mitigate the fire’s impact. Granted, the fire occurred in late August in very dry, windy conditions, resulting in extreme fire behavior. Extreme conditions, however, have been present for all of the large fires in the Black Hills, that is why they get big. Thinning alone, without prescribed burning, has not proven to be effective in the Black Hills for mitigating catastrophic wildfire. Very little prescribed burning takes place on the Forest for a variety of reasons. The Forest uses wildfire mitigation to justify most of its timber projects. They should be up front about its effectiveness.
Attached is a link for a video that I produced which shows what occurred in the Jasper Fire.
Not having enough sawmill capacity is a problem but what happens if you have too much? All it takes is one large wildfire and a Forest can be in that position, when you have an industry that is highly dependent on FS timber. The FS has not proven itself to be very adept at handling this kind of situation. It has shown that overcutting can continue for years in spite of significant evidence that it is unsustainable.
Here are a couple of interviews that I have done with South Dakota Public Broadcasting regarding this topic.