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. 

Opinion

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.”

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.

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.

Dennis Knight

Professor Emeritus Dennis Knight taught forest management and ecology at the University of Wyoming for 35 years. He is the lead author of "Mountains and Plains: The Ecology of Wyoming Landscapes" (2nd...

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  1. Professor Knight – Please take a look at what Trust for Public Land Northern Rockies is doing in Montana to work with timber companies to negotiate sustainable forest practices through conservation restrictions to be held by Montana NGOs in perpetuity. I suspect this work in not as realistic in S.D. because of the size of the holdings, but it’s work that should be understood by all logging entities and their opponents.

    1. This has the potential of bringing antagonistic stakeholders to the table. Something similar could be done in other states where the forest industry depends on public lands and where the national forest management planning process seems insufficient. Reducing the amount of uncertainty for all involved would be helpful. However, considering the long-term perspective required and the effects of on-going climate change, there will still have to be adjustments in federal policies as more is learned about the effects of climate change.

    1. The Eco Tech proposal implies that it would use diseased and dead trees for the production of synfuels, trees that might otherwise be piled and burned. Once established, will the industry also make an appeal to harvest live trees? Could small-diameter live trees be used, thereby helping to compensate in some places for many years of fire suppression, reducing the chances that the next fire will be uncontrollable? Ecologically, dead trees are not “wasted” if they are left in place, but if USFS management plans call for their removal, they could be used for various purposes, including the production of synfuels. Will that lead to a level of harvesting that conflicts with other forest values? With regard to taking sides on this debate, and about whether or not trees (dead or alive) could be converted to a renewable biofuel that could reduce carbon dioxide emissions, I would need to know more. How much carbon dioxide is emitted in the process of creating the synfuels? Scientists have concluded that burning wood pellets, like burning ethanol, generally is not carbon neutral. To reduce carbon emissions in a timely way, the best long-term strategy is to maintain the ponderosa pine ecosystem over large areas, which is likely to be a challenge in this century. You might want to do a web search for “Biofuel from Wood Schlesinger.”

  2. Dennis: The future of forest management is for the USFS to pay loggers to perform services which the loggers previously paid for the right to harvest. its already happening in California and in Colorado the “new” forest industry is for private property owners to hire logging contractors to create defensible space around their properties – so much for managing the public lands. Remember when the CCC lived and worked in our forests?? Its a dying industry.

  3. Great editorial! I hope all concerned read it carefully. We need informed and reasonable decisions instead of wild, simplistic, and too often false claims. Thanks. (from a Black Hills botanist)