CUSTER CITY, SD
Looking up at a hill strewn with tall stumps and almost treeless, two retired US Forest Service employees lamented the logging policies they helped craft to deal with two warning signs of change climate – pine beetles and forest fires.
Timber production increased dramatically two decades ago in the Black Hills National Forest along the South Dakota-Wyoming border as beetles ravaged vast swathes of forest and wildfires in forest worried.
The beetles are gone, but the loggers are not – and they are now cutting down trees at a rate twice as fast as government scientists say it is sustainable. This means that the forests of the Black Hills are shrinking, with fewer and smaller trees.
Sales of lumber from federal forests nationwide have more than doubled in the past 20 years, according to government data. In Washington, DC, Republicans and Democrats have pushed for more aggressive stand thinning to reduce vegetation that fuels wildfires.
But critics of the federal forest management say that in their fervor to do something about climate change, authorities are allowing the removal of too many older trees that can actually resist fire better.
In the Black Hills, centuries-old ponderosa pine stands have been thinned over the past two decades and then thinned again. In some areas, most of the remaining older and larger trees are cut down, leaving the hills almost bare.
“Eventually you won’t have big trees all over the forest,” said Dave Mertz, who worked as a government natural resources officer overseeing Black Hills logging until his retirement in 2017. “L he lumber industry is pulling the strings now. The Forest Service has lost its way.
In the western United States, more and more trees are dying as climate change dramatically alters the landscape and makes forests more vulnerable. Forest fires, insects and disease are the main killers, researchers say.
A thorough government review of forest health surveys since 1993 found that tree mortality rates have increased during this century and exceeded new growth in all eight states examined – Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana , Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Timber harvested from Forest Service lands over the past two decades has also increased.
In the Black Hills, these two trends collided. With more trees cut down and even more killed by beetles and fires in recent years, government scientists say the forest cannot grow fast enough to keep up.
The lumber industry and its allies in Congress oppose this conclusion. Representatives of forestry companies predict dire economic consequences if forest managers sharply reduce harvest levels. And they say wildfires and beetle outbreaks would get worse.
One of the region’s seven factories closed in March, cutting 120 jobs in Hill City, South Dakota. Owner Neiman Enterprises said a recent slowdown in lumber sales meant he wouldn’t have enough logs.
“These companies are not tech startups. They are multigenerational family businesses that want to be there for the long haul.” said Ben Wudtke, director of the Black Hills Forest Resource Association of sawmills and logging companies.
FIGHT AGAINST THE FIRE
To counter the growing ravages of wildfires in the west, the Biden administration wants to double the area of forest thinned or treated with prescribed burns to 6 million acres (2.4 million hectares) per year, or more than New Hampshire.
One method of reducing the risk of fire is to remove dense stands of small trees and thick undergrowth that have built up over decades as forest fires – a natural part of the landscape – have been suppressed.
It is expensive and labor intensive, and small trees have little market value. When he was sworn in this summer, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said tackling climate change will require it to be worthwhile harvesting smaller trees, for example using vegetation as biomass for generate electricity.
“It doesn’t pay for itself and we don’t have markets that seem to be growing fast enough,” he said.
Former deputy head of the service, Jim Furnish, criticized the agency for being too focused on timber production and too slow to respond to climate change, to the detriment of the forest.
There are signs of change under President Joe Biden, including the administration’s decision last month to end large-scale commercial harvesting of ancient trees in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.
But other projects that include the removal of old growth forests are on hold, including in Montana’s Kootenai National Forest along the Canadian border, the Kaibab National Forest just north of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and the Nez Perce National Forest. -Clearwater of Idaho.
“The Forest Service’s approach to date has been to attack this as a management problem: ‘We need to cut more trees,’” Furnish told The Associated Press. “You cannot get out of this problem.”
Moore, the head of the agency, acknowledged that global warming was forcing changes, but said he hoped to find a “sweet spot” between environment and industry – while removing enough vegetation to reduce the risk of forest fires. In the Black Hills, officials said they would consider the latest science as well as the economic impacts as they seek to make logging sustainable.
“We need industry to help us,” Moore said, referring to climate change. “It’s not really about selling wood or cutting down big trees.
“BEAT IN HELL”
The Black Hills played a disproportionate role in the initial formation of national timber policy. In the 1890s, excessive logging to meet the demand for timber for a nearby gold mine helped spur the creation of the national forest system. The first regulated timber sales in the history of the forestry service took place there in 1899.
When artist and conservationist Mary Zimmerman bought property in the Black Hills in 1988, the nearby public lands where this first timber sale took place had grown so successfully that huge branches above “were like a tree. cathedral ”.
The site was cleared up in 1990, removing a few large trees but leaving many behind. It was further thinned out in 2016. Then the logging crews returned last year and felled the remaining large trees. Cattle now graze in the area.
“It’s just beaten to hell,” Zimmerman said.
His account was confirmed by Blaine Cook, a forest management scientist for the Black Hills for more than two decades until his retirement in 2019.
Cook said his surveillance had started to show the past decade that the rate of forest growth was not keeping up with aggressive logging which was a response to the mountain pine beetle epidemic that began in 1998. The rate of forest growth High harvest continued after the epidemic peak in 2012 and even after it ended in 2017.
Cook said his warnings that the forest was damaged were dismissed by superiors who were under political pressure to provide a steady supply of logs to sawmills in South Dakota and Wyoming.
Disagreement within the agency over whether there was too much logging resulted in an unequivocal report in April by scientists from the Forest Service’s research branch: Logging of Black Hills must be reduced by at least half, maybe more, to be sustainable.
The problem is that the forest has changed but the exploitation rates haven’t, said Mike Battaglia, one of the lead authors.
“In the late 90s you had twice the volume” of trees in the forest, he says. “To withdraw the same amount now, you take too much. “
Forest industry representatives criticized the government’s multi-year study for including only parts of the forest, saying it created an incomplete picture of the number of trees available for harvest.
They estimated that up to 80% of the region’s lumber industry jobs would be lost if the forest service reduced logging to recommended levels. If that happens, they said the agency would struggle to find companies willing to do less profitable thinning work for wildfire protection.
“You have to have someone around you to do it,” said Wudtke of the forestry industry. “It’s really essential that we keep these businesses going. “
Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP
Learn more about AP’s climate coverage at http://www.apnews.com/Climate