The rest of the Black Hills forestry story

Artifacts of Crook County’s timber industry at the Hulett Museum and Art Gallery in September 2021. (Nick Reynolds/WyoFile)

Forestry professor seeks to expand, contextualize and inform the debate over logging policy.

By Dennis Knight, WyoFile

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.

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