This story was produced in collaboration with the O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism at Marquette University.
DEADWOOD, South Dakota — One morning this winter, John D. Johnson put on his long underwear and went out to feed cattle on his Black Hills ranch. He looked, not happily, at a distant hillside.
For the third time in under 15 years, by his count, a private timber company was cutting ponderosa pines on land owned by the U.S. Forest Service.
“I’m not what you call a tree-hugger by any stretch of the imagination,” Johnson, a former logger and civil engineer in his 80s, said later in his living room. “They’re just trying to meet a quota and they don’t give a damn.”
It bothered Johnson enough to write his local newspaper. “Our Black Hills forests are under attack, not by their natural enemies of beetles, fire and wind but by the U.S. Forest Service,” he wrote. “This insanity has gone too long and must be stopped.”
Johnson didn’t know it, but alarm over the scale of timber harvesting was sounding within the agency itself. A new report from the service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station predicts that if timber harvests continue apace in the Black Hills, the inventory of sawtimber — mature trees at least 9 inches in diameter at breast height — will collapse within decades.
In other words, one of the country’s most commercially productive public forests, home to the nation’s first government-run timber harvest, would be played out, altering the Black Hills and its diverse plant and animal habitats for decades to come.
The report, “Timber Growth and Yield in the Black Hills National Forest: A Changing Forest,” outlines a half dozen ways to avoid that. But they involve reducing harvests. That shift is opposed not only by local companies determined to retain jobs and preserve access to timber but by their political allies in the state capitals of Pierre and Cheyenne — and all the way to Washington.
The report is undergoing a required technical peer review. This Friday, its findings will be dissected at a long-planned summit. How that meeting plays out could signal whether the Forest Service is inclined, and able, to adopt recommendations from three of its top scientists.
After years of delays, data collection and studies, questions about the wisdom of extensive logging in one of the country’s most historic forests will get their fullest public airing yet.
John D. Johnson at his home near Deadwood, South Dakota. “Our Black Hills forests are under attack, not by their natural enemies of beetles, fire and wind but by the U.S. Forest Service,” he wrote in a letter to the Rapid City Journal. PHOTOS BY THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE
At his ranch, Johnson didn’t need data to conclude cuts have gone too far. At his age, he knew the difference between a forest and what had become of the landscape around his boyhood home, where in some places stumps outnumber trees. “I probably personally know every tree for 6 miles,” he said. “I can see that bare hillside every day.”
The local timber industry’s advocate in the Black Hills isn’t persuaded “the cut” needs to be reduced — or that the health of the forest hangs in the balance.
“It’d be a tough case to make for continuing to increase the harvest right now,” said Ben Wudtke, executive director of the Black Hills Forest Resource Association. “But I think it’s equally difficult, if not more difficult, to make the case for reducing the harvest right now. And it’s because nobody really has solid enough information to make that level of decisions.”
The Forest Service spent the last years doubling the amount of field data it normally collects on the condition of the Black Hills National Forest. The findings, produced by the service’s Forest Inventory & Analysis program, were then examined by scientists with the agency’s research facilities in Fort Collins, Colo., and Moscow, Idaho.
Others close to the situation, including retired Forest Service staffers, say the new information provides an unprecedented level of insight into on-the-ground conditions — and moves the debate forward.
A landscape within the Black Hills National Forest, where officials and timber interests will soon debate whether ongoing timber harvests could leave the forest unable to provide a sustainable supply of wood.
For them, it’s no longer about understanding the impact years of insect damage, wildfires and timber cuts have had on the forest’s condition. The question now, they say, is what must be done to ensure the 1.2-million-acre forest can meet its mandate, under federal law, to serve the public in multiple ways — not only as a supplier of timber.
On its website, the Black Hills National Forest boasts of the allure of its 110-by-70-mile "Island in the Plains, full of rocky outcroppings, canyons and gulches. Millions of people visit every year, many of them drawn to Mount Rushmore. Most of the forest is in South Dakota but includes land to the west in Wyoming.
"The Forest is a multiple-use Forest with activities ranging from timber production, grazing, to hiking, camping, mountain biking, horseback riding, rock climbing, mining, wildlife viewing and many others," the agency says.
“Now we’ve got data,” said Blaine Cook, the former top forestry expert for the Black Hills districts, freed by retirement to speak out. “The timber volume ain’t there any more. That’s why we’re at a crossroads. Now it’s time to make an adjustment.”
The Forest Service press office in the Black Hills declined repeated requests to make an official available to discuss forest conditions and timber sales.
Blaine Cook served for years as the lead silviculturist for the Black Hills National Forest, responsible for overseeing the health of the forest. He believes the Black Hills cannot sustain current levels of cutting. "We're at a crossroads."
The people debating how much timber to cut have been around this dance floor.
In late 2018, at a “timber sustainability” meeting that drew the Forest Service, local timber companies and other stakeholders, Wudtke questioned why the agency was pressing the issue of a “changed forest.” He said additional facts on its condition hadn’t been compiled; the industry later weighed in on what the expanded study, its results now in hand, would examine.
“Here we are without the data that we agreed upon,” he said, according to a transcript of the Nov. 8, 2018, session. “Why are we here without the data?”
Wudtke accused Mark Van Every, the Black Hills forest supervisor at the time, of having already decided to reduce the harvest. “The forest products industry has had a long-standing position that we should be harvesting more,” Wudtke said that day, as representatives of the region’s members of Congress sat listening.
Van Every, who led that November meeting, took a diplomatic tack, the transcript suggests. “We want to continue to have a diverse wildlife habitat, reduced fire danger, and healthy forests,” Van Every said. As he got started, he noted the devastation of the Jasper fire of August 2000 in the southern Black Hills, which burned 80,000 acres.
A view across the Marble timber sale unit within the Black Hills National Forest.
Much could have gone unsaid. Everyone in the room knew the damage mountain pine beetles had done to trees in the last decade, even as that epidemic ebbed. The insects, endemic to the forest, had damaged or killed trees on 450,000 acres — half the size of the forest deemed to be suitable for timber cuts. “So we are here to talk about what that means for the future management of the forest,” Van Every said.
CARDS ON TABLE
As the meeting went on, Van Every’s message grew more specific. “Does it trigger a need for change in our management program and in particular our timber program?” he asked. Later still, he all but put his cards on the table regarding how hits to the forest from fire, bugs and timber extraction should affect future logging, asking: “Are we at the point … that it would trigger some kind of an interim adjustment?”
The question brought a quick reaction. No, politicians said. Three weeks later, the chief of the Forest Service received a stern letter from four U.S. senators, from South Dakota and Wyoming, and one U.S. representative. The letter called on Chief Vicki Christiansen to postpone any discussion of reducing the Black Hills harvest. Keep the cut up, they said. [A copy of the letter is available at the end of this story.]
“Given that increasing the national timber program is a priority for this administration,” the letter read, “it seems counter-intuitive to reduce the timber harvest. Local forest products companies are in dire need of raw material.”
The lawmakers urged Christiansen to wait for new information and analysis. It wasn’t the first time members of Congress had weighed in on how the Forest Service should manage resources in the Black Hills.
A similar letter, sent Jan. 14, 2016, to Christiansen’s predecessor, Tom Tidwell, was shorter but no less insistent. It asked that the size of the timber sale be increased. “We are concerned that the sawtimber volume planned for sale in FY 2016 is inadequate to sustain the existing forest products infrastructure,” six lawmakers wrote.
They knew precisely how much more timber they wanted to see taken out of the Black Hills by local companies. It was 220,000 hundred cubic feet (ccf), a standard measure. A typical logging truck with a “pup,” a secondary trailer, carries 8 ccf of timber. Lawmakers wanted to see 27,500 trucks rolling because of sales that year.
The Rushmore Forest Products Inc. mill in Hill City, S.D., is one of several in the Black Hills owned by Neiman Enterprises Inc. Its owner, Jim Neiman, says any lessening in the timber harvest could shut mills and be economically devastating.
Along with keeping mills operating, they argued, stepped-up removal of commercial timber would thin the forest and help stop a periodic outbreak of mountain pine beetles, which the Forest Service believed to be already in eclipse.
The agency had already increased the cut above the “allowable sale quantity” identified in the 1997 forest plan. Timber interests view that quantity of sawtimber (it’s 181,000 ccf, or 22,625 truckloads) as a promise; the Forest Service treats it as a maximum.
“There have been frequent requests to increase the timber sale program,” a Forest Service briefing paper noted in 2016.
Several options outlined in the new report take an ax to any such expectations.
One calls for the timber harvest to fall from last year’s level of 153,534 ccf to 125,000 ccf for the next decade, then step down to 70,000 ccf — or 8,750 truckloads. Other options outline an interim cut to 125,000 ccf, then allow for slightly more than 70,000 ccf in the years that follow.
No one disputes that such numbers would cost jobs in the timber business and put existing companies in jeopardy. But the Forest Service’s research team, and local environmentalists, believe people should be taking a longer view.
Under a law passed in 1960, the Forest Service is expected to manage its lands in a way that allows a timber yield “in perpetuity.” The new report, by Russell T. Graham, Mike A. Battaglia and Theresa B. Jain, says that for the service to be able to provide the current “allowable sale quantity,” the Black Hills needs 12 million ccf of standing live timber. The new FIA data shows that number to be 5.9 million ccf, half of the inventory required to allow harvests to continue without compromising the forest’s ability to continue to provide timber to local companies.
An Experimental Forest within the Black Hills National Forest has been the subject of timber harvesting this year.
Even by scaling back harvests to the range the report outlines, it will take a century for the number and size of trees to be able to support what the forest plan terms “allowable” harvests.
For years, the service’s staff in the Black Hills had warned that fires, beetles and extensive timber cutting had transformed the forest. But in South Dakota, as throughout the West, Forest Service officials must tend not only to trees, but to politics and public relations, particularly when it comes to timber interests.
Forest Service reports, memos and correspondence reviewed by The Berkshire Eagle show the agency to be willing to accommodate requests — and even let Wudtke edit meeting agendas.
In 2017, Wudtke objected to the phrase “increased intensity of timber harvests” in an agenda for an April 19 meeting in Deadwood between the service and local companies. It was changed.
In internal emails, Forest Service officials take pains to align their public statements, knowing pushback will come. They speak of the industry’s overly optimistic view of the forest’s resources and angle for ways to avoid getting “chewed” by industry critics.
An in-house memo in 2016 accepted that conditions had dramatically changed in the Black Hills, prompting questions about future logging. But it acknowledged that such a view was toxic outside the agency’s Custer headquarters. “Forest information regarding existing timber inventory and conditions is an ongoing disagreement with [the] timber industry,” it read.
Officials began to lock in on the need, if they were to make their case in an uphill fight, for facts and figures.
At the same time, the service needed to respond to the industry’s demands — and to what powerful lawmakers were putting on their Black Hills shopping list.
Dave Mertz, a former natural resources staff officer for the Black Hills National Forest, supports a new report’s finding that only a reduction in the timber harvest can ensure the 1.2-million acre forest will be able to provide timber decades from now. “There is no other national forest in the country that has data this good on their forest right now.”
A briefing paper in late 2016 about the coming year’s sale program started by citing the congressional request to hit a timber target of 220,000 ccf. In response, the agency set a target of 207,000 ccf (once again, to put this in visual terms, that’s 25,875 truckloads). The service actually managed to reach 213,680 ccf.
But in the next two years, mindful of all the stresses on the forest, the service pared back the timber sale. For the previous decade, timber sales averaged 195,000 ccf.
It might have taken time, but in the last five years, driven in part by questions raised by longtime Forest Service employees, the agency put the question of future timber cuts more squarely on the agenda.
And now, nearly a year and a half after its last big sit-down with the timber people, the Forest Service has that bigger picture Wudtke said it lacked, thanks to field surveying that doubled the usual pattern of data collection. Reams of new data from the FIA were distributed in January. People able to interpret the raw numbers, before they were put into context by the March report, knew they contained evidence that could swing the debate.
“Until this survey came out, we really didn’t know the answer,” said Bob Burns, president of the local Norbeck Society, an environmental group named for a former South Dakota governor, senator and conservationist.
“They’re almost like ‘Thelma & Louise” with their foot on the pedal headed for the cliff,” Burns said, referring to the 1991 movie. “We’re at the cliff.”
In a newsletter sent last October to its members, the society described what it saw as worrisome changes in the forest. The message accurately anticipated findings of the service’s new report and still-unreleased FIA data. “If over-cutting continues long enough, there could be a crash of [the] timber industry … and a permanent loss of jobs and an important management tool for the Forest Service.”
All agree on the need for a federal-private partnership. Throughout the U.S., the Forest Service relies on commercial timber operations to do the cutting that enables it to manage forests.
Mary Zimmerman, a member of the Norbeck Society who lives close to the site of the nation’s first regulated timber cut in 1899, isn’t optimistic the agency will be able to reconcile differences between what science shows and what timber companies want.
“It’s becoming more and more apparent that only a lawsuit will stop this,” Zimmerman said. “What’s coming into the inventory is a shadow of what’s going out. All of the mortality is from logging. It’s a massive violation of public trust with this land asset.”
Mary Zimmerman, a member of the Norbeck Society, an environmental group, is monitoring the steady depletion of trees in the Black Hills, due to fire, insect infestations and timber harvests. “What’s coming into the inventory is a shadow of what’s going out. All of the mortality is from logging. It’s a massive violation of public trust with this land asset.”
Sandra Seberger, a member of the Black Hills Sierra Club, believes habitats within the forest are threatened by the current scale of logging. “More and more roads. More and more and bigger slash piles close together,” she said.
JOBS NO. 1
Wudtke, the pointman for local timber companies, refutes the idea that forest health is at a crossroads. In a podcast appearance late last year, Wudtke told an interviewer with Midwest Marketing that trees are as dense as they’ve ever been in the Black Hills. Asked about that later, as new data arrived, Wudtke affirmed that view, over coffee at a Rapid City cafe.
“We’ve had some fluctuations recently, but nothing of significance,” he said. “This is certainly a serious discussion for us, when we talk about sending employees home and putting families out of work and reducing our ability to maintain the health of the forest,” he said. “I wouldn’t label it as saving the industry, to be honest. I label it as saving the forest. I think the industry here is the No. 1 conservationist group advocating for saving the forest.”
Wudtke is fond of saying there are more trees in the Black Hills today than when Gen. George Armstrong Custer came through with the 7th Cavalry in 1874 on a surveying mission.
And then there’s the matter of preserving jobs — always a powerful argument when it comes to public policy. It might be even more persuasive in the midst of the economic stall brought on by the coronavirus.
In a follow-up interview this month, Wudtke leaned into that argument.
“If we see any reduction (in sales), I think it’s very likely we’ll see at least one sawmill close and impacts to other facilities as well,” he said.
In some small Black Hills communities, mills are a major source of employment. One example, Wudtke said, is Devils Tower Forest Products in Hulett, Wyo., a community with a population under 450. The sawmill employs 125 people. The company with the most at stake is Neiman Enterprises Inc., a third-generation timber company that owns three sawmills and one pellet company in the Black Hills, including Devils Tower Forest Products. Its president and CEO, Jim Neiman, declined repeated requests for comment.
When Neiman attended the Forest Service’s last timber sustainability meeting, in November 2018, he told the group that he’d promised his father he would keep the family business going for two more generations. He argued against any change in logging levels. “If we back off … we’ll be shutting a mill down. … If we react too quickly, the results will be devastating.”
For perhaps the first time, environmentalists are finding common cause with dissident former Forest Service staffers like Cook and Dave Mertz, who worked as a natural resources staff officer. Both now believe, adamantly, that timber harvesting at current levels threatens the forest’s well-being and is not in the public interest.
After talking at a diner in Hill City, S.D., home to one of the Neiman mills, they took me on a drive through the Marble sale, an active timber cut in the Black Hills, pointing out slash piles and denuded hillsides. Looking across one fold in the land to a distant hill, Cook described how, early in his career in the Black Hills, that far-off ridge of ponderosa pine, thinned and craggy, was dense and green. He likens the forest to a picked-over grocery store, its shelves half empty.
The Marble timber sale is underway in the Black Hills National Forest.
Mertz believes the new data removes any doubt about the report’s finding: that only a reduction in the harvest can ensure it is able to provide timber decades from now. “There is no other national forest in the country that has data this good on their forest right now,” Mertz said. “The truth is, the people within the Forest Service, at least on this forest, want to do the right thing, but they’ve not been allowed to. That’s really the truth of it. You probably couldn’t get them to actually say that, but it’s the truth.”
“Most of us know there was a big problem already. But now, the data is here,” he said. “Either they use that data and make a big adjustment or they just push it to the side and continue on as they were. Clear-thinking people would have been adjusting years ago. And yet here we are.”
When the battle is joined Friday, the coronavirus will have changed its logistics. The meeting was converted into an online conference due to contagion fears. (Information on how the public can call in to listen will be posted on the Black Hills National Forest website.)
A full five pages of instructions and ground rules were prepared for the session — dispelling any thought this is just another Friday at the Custer office. Those pages detail who can and cannot weigh in. Top regional leaders of the Forest Service will be heard, along with an equal number of timber industry representatives. The cast will be rounded out by members of local environmental groups and the state foresters who serve South Dakota and Wyoming.
Mertz will represent fellow Forest Service retirees. “I don’t know how someone can argue with the findings of this report, but I’m sure they will,” Mertz said. “What happens here is the timber industry talks to the congressional representative staffers and then they call the chief of the Forest Service, or they write a letter and that goes to the chief of the Forest Service. And then the next thing you know it’s just continuing on with business as usual.”
The retirees say their former employer has been reluctant to choose between what’s best for local sawmills and what’s best for the Black Hills — and its owners, the American public. Mertz believes the law, including the National Forest Management Act, demands the forest be safeguarded.
“We’ve just kicked this can down the road for four or five years and it’s just made it worse,” Mertz said. “They just pretended that it didn’t exist. I think the Forest Service is truly looking for something tangible to come out of this meeting. It’s their last chance.”
Cook isn’t sure his old employer can withstand local political pressure — not to mention heat from above at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose secretary, Sonny Perdue, appointed Christiansen and oversees the Forest Service.
“Who should make that choice?” Cook asked, referring to the report’s outline of ways to sustain the Black Hills for use by future generations. “The Forest Service should. But they’re going to be reluctant to say anything because of the political fallout. Because this Forest Service is getting run by Washington, D.C. Every time you turn around. Dave and I have seen it.”
Wudtke doesn’t see any urgency.
“The debate is still alive and well,” he said, as new data arrived. “I don’t expect it to be resolved, maybe not even this year.”
This stump remains in the Black Hills from the first government-managed timber harvest in the United States, a cut known as Case No. 1. The harvest began in 1899 before the U.S. Forest Service was founded.
Normally, the agency would have said long before April how much timber it will make available to Black Hills timber companies for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. The timing leaves the agency hard-pressed to prepare units for sale. The service can’t delay a decision much longer, though it could, as before, kick the can.
The afternoon’s agenda ends with the weightiest topic of all: “Facilitated discussion of the pathway forward.”
Though he welcomed people to the last discussion, Van Every, the forest supervisor at the 2018 session, will not chair this week’s sequel. A person familiar with operations of the Custer office said Van Every was told by a superior to resign or be fired because he hadn’t held the line on keeping harvest numbers up, as at the November 2018 meeting, when he spoke of “an interim adjustment.”
Van Every left his post at the end of 2019. He did not reply to a letter mailed to his home seeking comment.
Caroline White of the O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism contributed reporting to this story.