All things considered, sustainable forest management in the Black Hills National Forest and much of the West now requires a viable timber industry. I’ve never met anyone in the Forest Service who disagrees with that.
Thus, I was intrigued to read WyoFile’s recent story, “Wyoming loggers fear extinction as federal forest policy evolves,” which described loggers’ frustrations and those of the small-town residents they support. For sure, federal policy makers often are frustrated as well. It’s a complicated issue that is difficult to summarize in one report. Here are a few pertinent points that were not addressed.
First, the Black Hills logging industry developed a bad reputation in its early days. Something clearly had to be done. Laramie historian John F. Freeman documented this well in his book, “Black Hills Forestry: A History.” Concerns about the industry were first noted in the late 1800s, which led to congressional passage of the Forest Management Act of 1897. Timber harvesting practices improved, but not sufficiently to ward off passage of additional federal laws decades later. Logging practices today are much better, thanks to these federal policies and an industry that is becoming more sensitive to what is acceptable on public lands — or anywhere.
Second, the industry has an important role to play in fire suppression, demand for which is largely driven by a superabundance of private inholdings in, and adjacent to, the National Forest. The prescribed fires typical of many ponderosa pine forests — even surface fires that usually only burn the understory, killing mostly small trees — often seem too risky when homes and other private property dot the landscape. But fire suppression leads to fires that cannot be suppressed.
Mechanical removal of small trees can be an alternative in many places. Unfortunately, there is little demand for small-diameter wood. The industry needs to harvest some big trees as well to stay in business. Deciding how many and from where is often contentious, with logical arguments on both sides. It’s not surprising that the industry has become smaller, but there will always be a demand for the public good that it does — more than providing wood. Loggers should be compensated for that.
Third, debates about forest management often involve nonsensical, overly dramatic terms. In this story, there is the implication that the forest ecosystem will “collapse” if it is harvested too much or too little. The long history of ponderosa pine forests indicates that native ecosystems, with their relatively high biological diversity, are both resilient and continually changing.
The same can be said for most small towns as their traditional primary sources of revenue change. Few would deny that ponderosa pine typically grows on real estate where people like to live. Neither towns nor the industry are likely to go “extinct.”
Finally, and most importantly, the future of both the Black Hills forests and the industry should be discussed in the context of climate change. Wood production requires a long-term investment, at least to the end of the century. During this time frame, peer-reviewed research indicates that ponderosa pine forests will become less dense and less widespread in the Black Hills. While mature trees may be able to tolerate the anticipated higher temperatures and longer droughts, delicate new seedlings are less likely to survive to replace older trees dying from old age, beetle epidemics, fire, wind or timber harvesting. Without planting, open meadows are likely to become more common (as seems to be happening in a large area following the 2000 Jasper Fire). I too have seen ponderosa pine growing like a “weed” in some places, but those dense patches of trees typically originated during a period of abundant seed and favorable climatic conditions for seedling survival. The managers of public lands are now obliged to consider such results in a way that the industry is not — one of several reasons that federal policies are evolving.