Congresswoman calls for Black Hills timber harvest report redo

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GILLETTE, Wyo. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture is being asked to redo a recently published report that recommended timber harvest levels in the Black Hills National Forest be cut in half for sustainability.

The request was made earlier this month through a letter sent to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack by Congresswoman Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, who expressed concerns over allegations from state forestry agencies and groups who identify “significant flaws” in the report, according to an Aug. 3 release from Cheney’s office.

Published in February 2022 and corrected in July 2022, researchers with the U.S. Forest Service authored and submitted a general technical report that suggested timber harvest levels in the Black Hills National Forest be reduced from 181,000 CCF (hundreds of feet) per year to more sustainable levels between 72,400 CCH and 90,500 CCF a year.

The report supported its recommendation based on tree mortality rates in the forest that are impacted by mountain pine beetle infestations, wildlife, weather, fire, and weather, according to the Forest Service.

Additionally, the authors of the report factored in other public resource needs such as timber, water, wildlife habitat, recreation, and a sense of place in making their recommendation, per the Forest Service.

The supposed flaws in the report were detailed in a lawsuit filed against the Forest Service by the Black Hills Forest Resource Association in September 2021, who claim the authors of the report were adhering to objectives, side boards, and direction of what relevant information to consider and what information to exclude when they wrote it.

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In the lawsuit, the petitioners allege the authors of the report were directed to focus solely on ponderosa pines, the species of the most concern given recent beetle infestation and wildfires. As a result, their data did not incorporate spruce trees into their estimates despite the species contributing to overall harvest levels in the Black Hills National Forest.

And while spruce trees were excluded from the most resent GTR, previous reports have been included the species and their numbers were used alongside ponderosa pines for comparisons in the 2021 report, according to the lawsuit.

“As a result, and as discussed herein, the GTR is a deeply flawed document,” the lawsuit states, claiming the authors compiled data by relying on a fraction of the acres available for estimating timber resources and exaggerated mortality rates.

The lawsuit also claims the authors misrepresented timber resource conditions in the forest and that the ensuing repercussions have resulted in dramatic timber harvest levels in the Black Hills and have only worsened mountain pine beetle infestation and wildfire risks.

“Continued reduction in the timber sale program based on the recommendations of the flawed GTR will unjustly impact communities in the Black Hills,” Cheney wrote in her letter.

At least one lumber mill, Rushmore Forest Products in Hill City, South Dakota, has closed due to declining timber sales in the Black Hills National Forest, according to the lawsuit, which left 150 people unemployed.

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Other curtailments were recently announced by sawmills in Hulett and in Spearfish, South Dakota, per Cheney.

“As such, I urge the Forest Service withdraw the GTR and prepare a new report through a collaborative process that includes Wyoming, South Dakota, and relevant stakeholders,” she wrote.

Collaboration with state agencies and stakeholders to develop courses of action for the data compiled in the report was promised several times by the Forest Service, according to Cheney, which did not happen.

“Instead, the GTR was released and the only input from stakeholders or the states was allowed through a brief comment period,” according to the letter. “The lack of collaboration in analyzing and determining how to use the data is very concerning.”

Additionally, the GTR was advertised by the Forest Service as being for informational purposes only, though Cheney pointed out in her letter that the report was referenced heavily in the Black Hills National Forest plan assessments, making it appear that the informational report has become a decisional document that will be relied upon heavily in the future management of the forest.

“This report cannot be taken lightly as it will have a significant lasting effect on the people in the Black Hills communities,” Cheney wrote, and advised Vilsack of the importance of him creating an opportunity for the errors to be corrected and produce an accurate report with the collaboration previously promised.