Weston commissioners blame saw mill closure on forest mismanagement


NEWCASTLE — Weston County Commissioner Tony Barton expressed concerns on April 6 over the recently announced closure of the Hill City Saw Mill, saying the U.S. Forest Service is “drastically reducing timber sales” in the Black Hills. 

According to Barton, while the effect on Weston County may not be direct, he sees potential for local impact and suggested that the other commissioners stay up-to-date on the topic. 

As previously reported by the News Letter Journal, last year the Forest Service held several virtual meetings to discuss a proposed reduction in logging in the Black Hills. This report, created by the USDA Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station was published on March 23, according to a release from the Forest Service. 

“The USDA Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Team Station scientists today published the general technical report, A Scenario-Based Assessment to Inform Sustainable Ponderosa Pine Timber Harvest on the Black Hills National Forest. The report, based on forest census data, provides context, rationale, and evaluation of harvest level scenarios across a range of mortality and growth rates in the Black Hills,” the release says. “This report offers scientific information that can inform discussion concerning future harvest levels on the Black Hills National Forest.” 

A primary finding is that the current level of live sawtimber does not support a sustainable timber program at current harvest rates. 

The Forest Service plan allows for 181,000 CCF of timber (CCF is a unit of volume equal to 100 cubic feet) to be sold. Research was conducted using aerial imaging and test plots over the past few years to determine if this number was sustainable moving into the future, the report says. 

Hobie Perry said during an April 2020 discussion that the forest’s volume of living trees suitable for logging, known as sawtimber, is 5.9 million CCF. Perry is the FIA program lead for the Northern Research Station. Forest Service research indicates that the number needs to be at least 12 million to maintain the current allowable harvest, he said. 

In order to ensure the highest quality of data and scientific standards, a comprehensive review process was used, according to the release. 

“Scientists, technical and blind peer reviews, and an open public comment period produced over 350 comments,” the release says, the result of which is a significantly revised document.

Before the April 7 webinar scheduled to share the outcomes of the study, Barton told the county commissioners that there is a need for the county to be aware of the issue. He stated that while “doing some digging,” he had discovered that this study “reeks of adjusting the science to get the results you want.” 

Barton also stated that personnel within the Forest Service had a “no logging” agenda that is a detriment to the forest and community. He noted the mismanagement of the forest as a reason that timber harvest needs to be reduced. 

Both Chairman Marty Ertman and Commissioner Ed Wagoner offered support for Barton’s ideas. Ertman said that the issue started when the mountain pine beetle infestation was mismanaged, saying that the Forest Service should have let the timber industry have the trees and not the beetles. 

Forest Supervisor Jeff Tomac disagreed during a conversation with the News Letter Journal, stating that the Forest Service is not attacking the industry but relies heavily on a positive relationship with the industry to maintain a healthy forest. 

“That relationship [between the Forest Service and timber industry] is hugely important. In order to manage the forest, it is a vital component,” Tomac said. “We need the industry’s infrastructure to manage the Black Hills National Forest.” 

Tomac said that the agency has focused on establishing and continuing a relationship with the industry with the hopes of understanding the dynamics, complexities and concerns of the industry as far as timber sustainability is concerned. 

Part of this relationship, according to Tomac, was working with the industry throughout the pine beetle epidemic with the hopes of managing the forest properly. The premise of the “joint attack” was to get ahead of the beetle to minimize the impact of the epidemic, which Tomac said, heavily used the timber industry.