Wyoming loggers fear extinction as federal forest policy evolves
WYOMING -- The Pearson family is as much of a fixture in this corner of Crook County as Devils Tower.
Wade Pearson’s ancestor, John Pearson, was among the region’s earliest white settlers when he arrived in the late-19th Century, and the family ranch has stood for five generations.
Wade Pearson still occupies the land held by his father and father before. He was raised and schooled in the logging community of Hulett, a popular stop on the route to Sturgis, South Dakota, that has never claimed more than 500 full-time residents.
He’s rarely strayed from the ranch, and his family’s fingerprints are all over town. At the Hulett Museum on Main Street, a photo of his ancestors’ general store, “Bush & Pearson,” hangs on the wall alongside artifacts from the early days of the timber industry: a two-man saw, a corroded drawknife, markers from an early timber sale. As he drives Highway 24, Pearson talks about the stands of ponderosa pines along the hillsides like old friends, each tied to his memories of logging the same stands with his father three or four decades ago.
“Managing a hillside, it’s something when you’re done and look back on it, you kind of appreciate how it looks,” he said. “It makes you proud. My kids are teenagers, just starting to figure things out, and we’ll drive up through the forest and will go through Forest Service grounds we’ve logged over the last 25 to 30 years I’ve just forgotten about. It makes you stop and think. Things haven’t changed a lot.”
Things also haven’t changed in Hulett and nearby Aladdin since the communities were just scattered timber-company camps, established to fuel the breathless expansion around them. Timber was needed to construct nearby mines. Logs were in demand for railroad ties and homes for newly arrived workers and the businesses who served them.
In 1899, the region became the site of the first federal timber sale in U.S. history. And when business at the mines began to slow, the timber trade persisted, keeping the towns alive.
While summer brings tourists to the area these days, those who make their living on the wooded slopes of the Black Hills remain the lifeblood of the local economy.
Several small businesses — a garage, a pair of cafés, an antiques shop and motel — dot Main Street, but most agree the majority of Hulett’s economic activity originates from the two sprawling timber facilities on its fringes: Devils Tower Forest Products and Bearlodge Forest Products, a pallet mill owned by Doug Mills and Dena Mills (née Neiman).
“We have very high seniority,” Tom Schaffer, general manager at Devil’s Tower Forest Products, a sawmill owned by three generations of the Neiman family, told WyoFile. “Lots of people have been here for 25, 30 plus years. They’ve lived here their whole life. This is not just a place where if you lose your spot, you go look for another job.”
But some fear the way of life that has long defined the region is in peril.
Earlier this year, a Neiman-owned sawmill across the border in Hill City, South Dakota, shut down, taking roughly 120 jobs with it. Industry analysts predict that unless things turn around, another mill — either in Spearfish or Hulett — could close within a year. And that, local officials fear, could have a catastrophic effect on the region. “The town would dry up,” said Jeanne Whalen, a Crook County Commissioner and Pearson’s second cousin.
The threat doesn’t stem from simple economics alone. Resource management policy also has a role to play and federal foresters believe the current pace of logging threatens to collapse of the forest ecosystem.
The U.S. Forest Service, in an internal document from last March, said recommendations from the logging industry regarding continuing operations “will result in a rapid decline of the forest timber program and the availability of sawtimber in the Black Hills operating area.” Those recommendations are “not sustainable and … not compliant with the National Forest Management Act of 1976, federal regulations, and agency policy concerning sustainable timber production.” (Officials with the BHNF did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Several former Forest Service Employees, meanwhile, say that the timber industry’s rate of logging could not only damage the forest beyond repair, but inadvertently lead to the premature demise of the industry they are hoping to save.
“None of us that are working on this issue want to see the timber industry go away,” Dave Mertz, a former Forest Service employee in the Black Hills, said. “In fact, it’s the exact opposite. We want to see the timber industry stay around …. But we do feel that they have a point. The Black Hills National Forest needs to be managed. But it needs to be managed correctly, and needs to be managed sustainably. And we feel that on the track that they’re on right now, it will lead to their own demise.”
Whatever the root cause, industry officials say, decreased logging is putting the town’s future at risk.
“We provide 85 to 90 jobs here,” Schaffer said. “And there is no alternative industry here for them that spreads out beyond that. And that will trickle down. It’s not just timber workers. It’s grocery stores, it’s gas stations. I can’t tell you this for a fact, but it is very possible the school wouldn’t be sustainable if the mill were to go away.”
Pearson pulls his truck into a timber claim high in the hills outside Hulett, opening a crude cattle gate before turning down a gravel road into the shelter of the forest. This is private land, he says, accessed under a contract to thin trees around a clients’ newly constructed home. Pearson pays $5 a ton for the right to log here, with an expected yield of 25 to 30 tons of timber per acre. And the payoffs can be sizable. Before the cost of processing the timber and paying his crew, Pearson can expect to earn $600 to $800 from each acre.
As he approaches the site, the forest begins to thin. Felled trees lie in neat piles beside the road or strewn across the forest floor, their stumps evidence of what once filled the space. Young trees the thickness of a beer can remain standing, left for future harvest. And the incoming crop is always present: Saplings brush the underbelly of Pearson’s truck as he navigates the site.
Some sites, Pearson said, require thinning-out every 4-5 years, thanks to robust growth of certain trees.
“Ponderosa pines are definitely a weed,” Pearson says.
This forest is resilient, Pearson and other stakeholders say. When talking about the forest with newcomers to the region, Whalen – the county commissioner – will often tote a copy of one of her favorite books, “Exploring with Custer,” which superimposes photos of the modern Black Hills with those taken on General George Custer’s 1874 expedition of the region. In many of the 50 locations featured, the woods still resemble those early years, the deep green slopes covered in dense stands of Ponderosa Pine, grassy meadows and craggy rock faces. Some areas have thicker growth than they once did. Others are now needled meadows, with handfuls of defiant pines standing isolated amid a graveyard of stumps.
For decades, the U.S. Forest Service has argued otherwise, warning that the Black Hills National Forest is over-logged, with the seasonal yield taking more trees than the forest ecosystem can sustainably shed. Prompted by the concern, the Forest Service has gradually lowered the volume of timber it sells each year. Those decreases have had devastating impacts on the timber industry, locals contend. When the USFS amended its plans for cutting yields in the Black Hills National Forest in 2000, numerous mill closures throughout the region followed.
Despite a temporary boon resulting from the harvest of mountain-pine-beetle killed trees in the region, yields have only continued to decline.
The Forest Service evaluates how fast trees are growing and how fast they are dying to evaluate the sustainability of the ecosystem, a calculation described by industry and forestry officials as the forest’s “mortality rate.” If the region is over-logged, the forest ecosystem could collapse. If the region is under logged, the timber industry will collapse.
Supply-and-demand and commodities-market-fluctuation considerations factor into operators’ economic calculus too. Timber sales are often made years in advance of harvest, industry officials say, and require significant upfront capital. If there is no guaranteed return on those products, there is no guarantee the businesses will remain viable.
“You’ve got to put a lot of money in before you get it back,” Dan Neiman, the former president of Bearlodge Forest Products, said.
But for years, total timber sales in the BHNF far exceeded levels recommended by federal foresters. And following a significant bark beetle epidemic at the start of the millennium, the Forest Service has drastically cut those sales over fears of rising timber mortality, selling far less timber than the maximum levels recommended in the forest’s master plan.
And those levels could fall even further.
Foresters say the level of timber cut needs to be slashed substantially from where it sits today to sustain the forest. The current Black Hills National Forest Plan calls for 202,000 cubic feet of federal timber and smaller trees to be sold each year. The proposed new plan allows for a total of 72,400 cubic to 90,500 cubic feet.
“The current harvest level […] is not a sustainable option,” a Forest Service document released in February reads.
Opponents of the plan, however, have long contended that the Forest Service’s estimates are based on a faulty and selective reading of the forest’s health. In 2016, representatives from the Black Hills Forest Resource Association — an industry group based in Rapid City, South DAkota — and the U.S. Forest Service agreed to collaboratively analyze forest health and management issues in the Black Hills and define a path forward amenable to both parties. Over the course of several months, the group analyzed growth patterns, fire risks and areas with the potential for loggers to engage in pre-commercial thinning, a type of logging experts say can actually bolster forest health. The group eventually produced dozens of recommendations to improve logging practices in the Black Hills, and a methodology for evaluating forest health.
Those recommendations, industry allies say, were largely ignored. Industry representatives and county officials also say they were given only limited opportunities to provide public comment on the proposed forest plan despite having numerous concerns with the plan.
The Forest Service’s current plans for the forest, they said, are based on bad assumptions about growth rates in the forest and ignored thousands of acres of productive forest lands in the region. The plans also ignored more than a century of sustainable logging in the region at much higher yields than currently proposed, they said. Regulators, industry advocates argue, also failed to account for the consequences of an end to commercial-scale logging in the region — most notably the fire-mitigation role of timber harvests in the Black Hills and beyond.
And loggers in the Black Hills play a critical role across Wyoming. As the Bighorn National Forest outputs went down in recent decades, “the local mills didn’t have enough timber coming in to keep to keep their doors open, and they had to shutter,” said Ben Wudtke, executive director of the Intermountain Forest Association, an industry-affiliated lobby group, requiring even greater numbers of out-of-town loggers to do fire mitigation work in those mountains. “So now you have to bring folks in from hundreds of miles away to do that to do the work. We’ve just seen closures of facilities in Montana because of a lack of timber, and we’re looking at closures in the Black Hills. Pretty soon, there’s not going to be anybody to do the work. And that’s the real concern.”
Even state officials have raised concerns with some under-forested areas of the BHNF. In a joint letter to BHNF Forest Supervisor Jeff Tomac in August, South Dakota State Forester Greg Josten and Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser raised concerns about wildfire risks posed by high-density conditions in several areas of the forest. “Allowing dense stands of coniferous forest to persist across the landscape creates the potential for detrimental impacts to public and private forests and Black Hills communities,” they wrote.
Others, however, argue the forest’s enduring health trumps the economics of the industry.
Jim Furnish, an outspoken critic of the U.S. Forest Service who helped implement its controversial “Roadless Rule” as the agency’s deputy chief from 1999 to 2002, has argued that excessive thinning of tree stands actually helped accelerate the Jasper Fire in the region five years ago, and that over-management counters beneficial facets of wild timberlands, including carbon sequestration and water quality.
“From the standpoint of the Forest Service, they’re supposed to take care of the other natural resources of the forest,” Furnish told WyoFile. “Between the fires and the bugs and the accelerated harvest they’ve had over the last 15 or 20 years, the standing volume on the Black Hills is half what it used to be 20 years ago. It’s just simply not sustainable to keep harvesting at that level.”
Companies in the Black Hills, which rely on Forest Service timber sales for 80 percent or more of their annual yield, say the harvest reductions proposed by the agency is tantamount to a death sentence. Within months of the Forest Service’s February report, the Neimans announced the closure of the Hill City mill. Owner Jim Neiman estimated the closure had a roughly $115.5 million economic impact on the Black Hills area, including $16.5 million in payroll.
While the Dakota Black Hills boast robust tourism industries to soften the blow, communities on the Wyoming side don’t see similar visitation. According to numbers compiled by the Wyoming Department of Tourism, Crook County saw just $30.2 million in total tourism spending last year, the eighth-lowest haul in the state.
Though timber provides just under 2 percent of the total jobs in Crook County, according to an analysis by Headwaters Economics, officials on the ground say the industry is critically important to communities like Hulett, where generations of residents have raised families and sustained businesses on the wages earned from the timber industry. According to a 2020 analysis by the Black Hills National Forest Advisory Board, the timber industry directly employs approximately 1,400 people throughout the Black Hills while generating tens of millions of dollars more in direct and indirect financial activity to the region — far outpacing the contributions of recreation and tourism.
While some have accused the Forest Service of putting too much emphasis on the economic arguments of industry, rather than science, others have accused the Neimans and other industry leaders of pressuring BHNF officials to overlog the forest. Pressure has come from Washington as well, with Congress members, including Wyoming’s delegation, urging Wyoming and South Dakota to adopt the advisory group’s recommended timber yield of 202,000 total cubic feet per year.
Critics maintain that approach is shortsighted.
“There’s a lot of pressure, economic pressure,” Blaine Cook, another former Forest Service employee in the Black Hills said. “I think everybody at the poker table understands the economic pressure, or at least the short-term economics. If you keep going at it at this level in the long-term, we will have a bigger crash.”
Pearson saw the writing on the wall a long time ago as Wyoming’s logging industry began a three-decade-long contraction.
Pearson initially expanded his timber operations to balance out the volatility he’d often see in cattle markets, he said, often contracting to assist in logging federal timber claims on behalf of some of the larger mills in the region. However, that trade became volatile too and, in 2005, he began to work for himself, opening a small doweling mill on his property and focusing primarily on fuel mitigation contracts with private landowners and the state.
“My goal is 100-percent self-sufficiency,” he said.
It’s unclear if his community will be able to accomplish that same goal before it’s too late.
While the local museum depicts Moskee as a bustling hive of activity, the former logging camp has disappeared without a trace — today it’s nothing more than an open field along Interstate 90. On the road to the South Dakota town of Belle Fourche, a timber-frame coal tipple near the old Aladdin mine crumbles behind a barbed-wire fence, a sign warning of its imminent collapse.
“The small-town forest products industry is kind of like farming or ranching,” State Forester Crapser said. “It’s what they do for a living, yes, but it’s more than that. This is who they are and their whole self. In these small towns, their whole self-identity and self-worth is wrapped up in being a logger or working in a sawmill. And I think a lot of times as a society, we miss that part of this story.”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.