How timber sells, through timber sales in the Black Hills

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a series of stories where the Black Hills Pioneer will explore in more detail the economic impact of the forest, the forest products industry, the overall health of the forest, and what makes the Black Hills such a unique and diverse ecosystem.

SPEARFISH — In 1899, Gifford Pinchot, the very first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, developed the very first set of logging guidelines for the federal government’s very first timber sale, which took place right here in the Black Hills.

It was located south of what is now Nemo.

Today, that tradition has carried on as the Forest Service continues to monitor, investigate, and develop timber sale programs in the Black Hills National Forest.

There is a misconception that the Forest Service and the timber industry exist at odds with one another. A more accurate picture is that of a symbiotic relationship. On the one hand, the Forest Service needs the resources brought by industry – money – automation – innovation. In return, the timber industry vitally relies on the raw material produced from a well-stocked forest, which is only achieved through proper, well thought out, scientific management.

So how does that relationship work? How does industry adapt to a forest, which can drastically change in just a few years? The short answer is through constant strong and open communication from the professionals charged with maintaining the forest. For the long answer – read on.

It all starts with scoping.

“When the Forest Service wants to do anything, through NEPA, or the National Environmental Policy Act, or the National Forest Management Act, they have to scope it,” explained Ben Wudtke, executive director of the Black Hills Forest Resource Association.

Wudtke said a scoping period generally is open to public comments for 30-60 days depending on scale of the project. Once the comments are collected and reviewed, a draft environmental impact statement is produced.

“Then they collect comments on that as well. They review those comments, they continue doing work, continue doing environmental analysis and specialist reports, then they come up with a final environmental impact statement,” he said.

The environmental impact statement gives the Forest Service a broad picture of the current state of the forest and provides scenario-based estimations of how the proposed action could affect the health and wellbeing of the forest moving forward.

Once the final environmental impact statement and the accompanying specialist reports are reviewed and further comments recorded, appendices are added, a record of decision is reached, and the environmental statement can be finalized. From that finalized statement, the Forest Service can begin to formulate the management plan that will dictate the timber sales for the duration of the plan.

It’s at this stage in the process that things generally start to get sticky.

The whole process from initiation of the scoping study to formalizing a forest plan ideally should take around three to four years, Wudtke said. The management plan is designed to prepare a detailed blueprint for building a healthy and productive forest from its conception; however, the step between finalizing an environmental statement and formulating a management plan is fraught with appeals and litigation.

The appeals process can last for several years and is governed by the optional appeal procedures document established by the United States Department of Agriculture, the agency which oversees the Forest Service.

“This procedure provides a process by which a person or organization interested in the management of the National Forest System may administratively appeal decisions to approve, amend, or revise a national forest land and resource management plan or approve or amend a regional guide prepared pursuant to (36 CFR part 219.) This procedure establishes who may appeal such decisions, the kind of decisions that may be appealed, the responsibilities of the participants in an appeal, and the procedures that apply. This procedure provides a review of such decisions by an official at the next administrative level,” the document reads.  

Wudtke explained, “So, we check that, and now for this forest plan we do a phase 1 amendment, and then you do a phase 2 amendment, and you have all the scoping and all the comments and all those steps in between (then) you can arrive at your final forest plan.”

The forest plan lays out the goals for managing the forest by dividing the land into sections and initializing and prioritizing the best usage for each section of the forest. The forest plan also establishes a set of standards and guidelines to be followed while executing those goals.

“So, then you have a forest plan that really dictates what types of actions you can take and when you’re taking those actions what you can do with them,” Wudtke explained.

The Black Hills National Forest is one of the most diverse multi-use forests in the country, ranging from livestock grazing, hiking, camping, mountain biking, off-highway vehicle riding, horseback riding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, rock climbing, mining, wildlife refuge, ecological research, and timber production all interspersed with a mosaic of private lands. One function of the forest plan is to designate what areas of the Black Hills can and will be used for what type of activity. Sometimes usages can overlap with others, but certain sections of the forest have exclusive usages, and those areas can shift, grow, or contract depending on the plan’s revisions.

“It goes through all this stuff by different management areas and those management areas talk about what you want the desired future condition (of the forest) to look like,” Wudtke said.

After the forest plan has designated what areas will be used for what type of activity or activities, forest officials design projects to build those areas up, or down to meet the standard they’re looking for. Wudtke explained that each of those projects repeats the same process of forming the overall plan; following the scoping, public comment period, environmental impact study, reviews, and final announcement.

“The planning documents describe what they want to do and how they want to do it. The purpose and need for the action, the proposed action, how many acres, where it’s at, and the types of treatments they’re wanting to do,” he said. “Some of it may be overstory removal (the removal of the highest level of vegetation in the forest, also known as the canopy), some of it could be commercial thinning, some of it could be pre-commercial thinning, some of it could be prescribed burn, some of it could be replanting in areas that have had wildfires. There’s a suite of things they can do to start getting things looking more like they should according to the forest plan.”

Wudtke said there have been some new regulatory tools, starting with the 2014 Farm Bill, which can expedite the process; but those new regulations only shave off a few draft steps and still require public input, specialist environmental research, and recommendations. Additionally, those tools only apply to projects of a certain scope.

Wudtke explained that the entire planning process is designed to ensure that all users of the forest have a clear understanding of the part they play in the well-being and health of the forest. When it comes to the forest products industry, which relies on timber production, it serves as guidebook for the future of their businesses.

“There’s a lot more to it than marking trees, selling the timber, and making a product,” he said. “There are so many steps in between and there are so many regulations and restrictions on it that it really is done in a very scientific and heavily regulated manner on National Forest lands, including the Black Hills National Forest.”

That regulation can sometimes stand in the way of itself as Black Hills Forest Supervisor Jeff Tomac explained – work can’t begin on any management projects until all the regulatory environmental studies have been completed. Without the proper staff resources to complete those studies, the whole process slows to a crawl, and last year when much of the federal government was required to work from home and funds had to be redirected, even less of that work got done.

“The numbers last year were also reflective of the (financial and personnel) resources available on the Black Hills. I’m not using COVID as an excuse, but COVID played into the opportunity to get work done.” Tomac said.

And just because there may be gridlock and lack of funding in the process, that doesn’t stop the forest from growing. South Dakota State Forester Greg Josten said there is currently a backlog of 200,000 acres worth of small diameter trees that need to be managed, but the resources needed for that work are limited.

“It’s a problem, and it’s been a problem for a long time,” he said. “The cost of thinning that is probably somewhere in the area of about $60 million.”

Josten suggests that if timber sales could be expanded to include those smaller diameter trees, those moneys could help offset that cost as well as largely solve the work load issue. However, the commercial market for those smaller trees isn’t strong enough in the Black Hills to support those sales.

“We’re kind of isolated out here in the Black Hills, and it’s a long distance to markets, so whatever products we produce from our wood, it needs to have enough value in order to be able to transport it to market,” he said.

It’s the job of forest officials, like Jeff Underhill, a silviculturist for the Black Hills National Forest, to walk the areas designated for tree removal and mark the trees to be taken, and which ones need to be left by physically marking them with a special kind of paint. Even at that stage of the process, the trees must be meticulously studied for the best result based on what the forest plan says about that particular area.

“Unfortunately, it’s the, ‘it depends,’ answer,” Underhill said of the process. “During the mountain pine beetle epidemic, we were trying to bug-proof stands and create open conditions.”

Underhill explained that a lot of trees were marked for removal that otherwise might not have been during normal forest conditions, but the Forest Service was not only trying to get bug infested trees out of the woods, they were also trying to create wider spaces to make it harder for the insects to migrate.

“We created a higher number of acreage of these open areas than what the (current) forest plan calls for,” he said.

Typically, however, tree markers would inspect an area and determine how dense they’d want it to remain. Once they determine just how many trees need to go, the markers will either mark the trees that are to be taken, or the trees that are to remain, based on which number is smaller.

“If your starting density is such that you’re going to remove more trees than you’re leaving then you would ‘leave tree mark,’” he said, adding that prescriptions are written based on many factors surrounding tree condition and desired stand density.

For areas designated for timber production, Underhill said silviculturists like him traditionally prescribe a more uniform density, with equal distance between trees.

“You can put growth on trees through a variety of conditions but that’s been a traditional silvicultural practice on the Black Hill National Forest with the intent to improve growth,” he said.

Underhill said the Forest Service also partners with private landowners in the Black Hills to discuss the impact their personal land management with the overall forest management plan and can help formulate those plans.

“It’s certainly not our decision to implement forest management on private lands but if a landowner is interested in that type of work then they can also consult with state forestry organizations who will prepare management plans,” he said.

One of the most effective ways the Forest Service executes its density control projects is through commercial thinning programs. These programs operate by the forest service selling the rights to harvest trees designated to be removed to forest product industry leaders through timber sale contracts. The money made by the forest service from the timber sales is then directed into the agency’s non-commercial thinning programs.

Typically, timber sale contracts are purchased by sawmills. The mill then contracts with logging companies to harvest the material and haul it in from the forest for processing.

Sometimes timber sale contracts are left on the table unsold, but that’s a rare occurrence.

“I don’t think that we’ve had many in recent years,” Underhill explained.

Terrain, haul distance, how much timber is designated for harvest, and the type of timber available for harvest; Underhill said, are all factors purchasers need to consider when they bid of a timber sale contract.

Sawmills need to count costs when bidding on timber sales. When a contract comes up for bid, they are presented with the specific species of tree to be harvested, the amount (CCF) allowed to be taken, the average diameter of the trees they are allowed to take, and the minimum acceptable bid for the contract. From there, the sawmill must determine if the conditions of the contract are cost effective. Additionally, each contract lists a brush removal fee and a road maintenance fee, which the purchaser will have to pay.

”If you can’t source material economically, then you’re not a business,” Wudtke said.

Purchasers are also required to follow the thinning prescriptions laid out by the silviculturists to the letter. If a commercial logging endeavor cuts down a tree that is marked to be left, Wudtke said the consequences could be dire.

“It’s a really big deal,” Wudtke said. “The purchaser, which is typically the saw mills, they’re put into breach of contract, everything gets shut down immediately, there’s a law enforcement investigation, and it can be punishable by jail time, fines, and disbarment so you can’t bid on a timber sale for ‘X’ amount of time. It’s a really serious deal.”

By and large, the most harvested trees in the Black Hills are ponderosa pines that are at least nine inches in diameter.

Josten said it takes an area of ponderosa pines approximately 20 years to grow enough to warrant a prescription after being thinned. If a timber sale area contains trees that are either too large or too small for a mill to process, that timber can be sold by the sawmill to other processors; but only after the contract has been finalized with the forestry.

“The logs can flow between sawmills based on who can use that material,” Wudtke explained.

From there, the ponderosa pine timber harvested from the Black Hills can be shipped all across the country for a variety of uses. Depending on the diameter of the logs being processed, Wudtke said much of the timber produced from the Black Hills is used to build window and door frames; the smaller trees can be used for post and pole production, and some of it finds its way to post production plants where it can be carved for tongue and groove paneling or decoratively for added value. Wherever the logs end up once they’ve been cut to specifications, Wudtke said many secondary markets are supported by the waste generated by the process.

“You cut a log and you get sawdust from it and they’ll take that sawdust and little chips and things and they’ll make heating pellets out of that and sell that off,” he said.

Even the bark that get’s stripped from the log can be used for mulch and landscaping.

Dakota Panel in Rapid City manufactures particleboard from the residue from sawmills. Wudtke said 40% of the material used by Dakota Panel to produce their products came from the Hill City sawmill, which will close it’s doors at the end of this month.

“In the Black Hills, we’re blessed with the right growing conditions that we typically get very good regeneration … and you get really good diameter growth as well so long as they’re well managed.”

Forest management is a delicate balancing act between the sustainability of the forest, and the sustainability of the forest products industry, which not only benefits from harvesting, but is also an invaluable tool in forest management itself. To illustrate that point, Wudtke pointed to other ponderosa pine forests throughout the country that do not have an effective forest products industry.

“Broad areas of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, where they are begging and pleading companies to come in; offering them 20-year contracts. Paying them to cut the trees instead of the purchasers paying the Forest Service, the Forest Service is saying, ‘we’ll pay you thousands of dollars an acre to cut the trees,’” he said. “All the while, they’re burning up, they’re getting hit by insect epidemics, nothing good is happening in those forests. And if we don’t have the companies here to do the work, that’s what we’re going to end up with.”

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