Timber sale causes controversy

Jason Ferguson

What exactly is taking place during the timber sale off Limestone Road in Custer County?
The answer is clear cut.
What kind of clear cut? That’s being debated.
Rob Hoelscher, district ranger for the Hell Canyon District of the Forest Service, said the Bull Springs Timber Sale has a focus of removing overstory (larger, older trees) so that younger trees have the space, sunshine, etc., to flourish.
Those who live in the area where the logging is taking place—and some former Forest Service employees—say the project is more of a literal clear cut in that it is wiping out trees in an area that was already heavily logged 15 years ago due to the Mountain Pine Beetle infestation.
Jessica Brown, who lives along Elliott Road, is among those who sees the project as a clear cut in some areas.
“Where they did appropriate fire mitigation looks great,” she said. “(But) this is clear cutting. There isn’t a tall tree left.”
Hoelscher, on the other hand, said the operation will harvest mature overstory where there is regeneration.
“A lot of people see it as a clear cut,” he said.
In reality, he said, when the Forest Service gets a fully-stocked stand of trees after an overstory thinning like was done with bug trees, an overabundance of thinly stocked overstory still stood, and this treatment takes off that overstory and releases the understory growth.
Hoelscher points out a clear cut is when every tree is taken, saying there are numerous younger trees underneath the overstory that will grow more quickly because of the project.
Brown said she has heard the discussion that younger trees won’t grow if the larger trees aren’t removed, but said there are so many jack pines growing so close together they can’t possibly grow.
“They aren’t solving any problems,” she said. “They are just taking the timber for greed.”
Two former Forest Service employees, Blaine Cook and Dave Mertz, are also concerned about the project.
“The issue the Forest is having with the timber industry (is) they still need a lot of timber and it’s well established they don’t have enough to supply their needs anymore,” Mertz said. “What they are doing is going into these places that were thinned 15 years ago and taking off all the big trees. They don’t call it clear cutting. To the average citizen they look at it and go, ‘holy smokes, you’re clear cutting.’”
The sale, which is north of Custer centered around the Limestone Road, Elliott Road, Saginaw Road and Black Granite Road, saw 21,000 hundred cubic feet (ccf) sold, with a five-year window for the contractor to remove the timber. Four ccf is equivalent to five cords of wood, or 15 face cords (also called rick cords or a rick). A cord of wood is four feet by four feet by four feet. A face cord (or rick) is four feet by eight feet by 16 inches. There is about 4,300 acres of commercial cutting in the project.
However, the total size of the project area is 13,000 acres, as the sale is what is known as a stewardship sale, where receipts from the timber come back to the Forest and the purchaser is contracted to do a bunch of  service work.
For example, the 21,000 ccf appraised for right around $859,000, and another $771,000 will be used for the service work that is going to take place, which includes clearing down woody material, thinning some stands of pre-commercial sized trees, some understory cutting and mastication of trees downed by the beetle infestation.
The sale was sold last year, a result of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis done for the Black Hills Resilient Landscapes Project that was completed in 2017. The project overlaps a more recent Black Hills Timber Sustainability General Technical Report that recommends the Forest Service cut its harvest by as much as half, saying timber is being harvested faster than it can regenerate on the forest. It is that report that led to the closure of Rushmore Forest Products in Hill City.
Mertz said the Black Hills Resilient Landscapes Project covered a lot of the forest and made cutting trees in those areas a possibility in the future, something many people who live or moved into those areas would not have known about.
“All of a sudden one day you’re driving along and you see there is marking paint on the trees,” he said. “They start logging, and with modern logging equipment they can cover a lot of ground pretty fast.”
Mertz said the timber industry continues to fight the conclusions of the sustainabilty report, and have many politicians on their side. He also believes the Forest Service wouldn’t continue to conduct these types of sales if not for the pressure to keep producing volume for the timber industry.
“It’s not good forestry. They are just doing it to keep the level of the mills up,” he said.
“I don’t think (Sen. John) Thune, (Sen. Mike) Rounds, (Rep. Dusty) Johnson and (Gov. Kristi) Noem understand what it looks like,” Brown said. “I think they think they are supporting the timber industry, but they are destroying the beauty of the Black Hills.”
Gary Chappell lives off Custer Limestone Road and said the project has taken down trees on both sides of his property. He said it’s the aggressive nature of the logging that has him concerned, as he also labels it clear cutting.
“If you go west of us right along the Limestone, they’ve taken down everything but three or four trees that are of any height,” he said. “When they clear cut it makes it look not so good to me.
“I trust what the Forest study showed in terms of the total take in the Black Hills. We just can’t sustain this.”
All involved are quick to point out they are not directing their ire toward the loggers, who are merely doing their job. Brown said she and her husband own a construction company and both recognize the need for lumber.
“This is not an anti-logger rant,” she said. “This is a responsible logging rant.”
“We aren’t opposed to logging, and realize it’s important to do,” Chappell agreed.
Cook said there are reports of people in the area harassing the loggers, which he called “local people raining on local people.”
“We are all in this together. Let’s figure it out without getting too mad at each other,” he said. “We need (loggers). We do.”
“I don’t blame the loggers. They are doing their job,” Mertz said. “This is above them. The timber industry and Forest Service need to reach an agreement and both do the right thing for the betterment of everybody.”
Mertz said with the Forest Service planning to dramatically ramp down thinning starting this year (Hoelscher said in the next three years the Forest Service has in fact outlined a reduction of volume it will offer), it may be inevitable that more sawmills close. The closures and people losing their jobs is never a good thing, he said, but it’s a tradeoff to have a forest.
“What’s the alternative? Cut down the entire forest? Then you will still have (sawmills) close,” he said. “The timber industry is eating themselves out of house and home. They have overbuilt their mill capacity. It’s just a case of they have more demand than supply. There’s no correcting that. Trees take a long time to grow.”
Mertz said by calling attention to sales such as Bull Spring, he hopes such sales won’t take place in the future.
Brown said those who are skeptical should drive down Limestone and see for themselves.
“This isn’t about a healthy forest, it’s all about money,” she said. “If someone can look at it and say it’s not about greed, I would be interested to hear that.”

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