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Forest Service "Debacle" In Black Hills Must Not Be Repeated Elsewhere

Former second in command of US Forest Service questions agency's accelerated push to thin forests and log big trees in response to fire, insects and climate change. Felling forests, Jim Furnish says,

Thinning the forest to "save" it from fire, beetles and climate change? For years, forestry projects on the Black Hills and on other national forests in the West focused on removing old trees which have negative ecological impacts and may actually hamper the ability of forests to be more resilient, Furnish says. Photo courtesy Norbeck Society
Thinning the forest to "save" it from fire, beetles and climate change? For years, forestry projects on the Black Hills and on other national forests in the West focused on removing old trees which have negative ecological impacts and may actually hamper the ability of forests to be more resilient, Furnish says. Photo courtesy Norbeck Society

Guest Op-ed Essay by  Jim Furnish

A shock to the eyes. That’s the only way to put it. 

 I’ve just returned from a trip to my treasured Black Hills of South Dakota and found them stripped to the bone, the lovely ponderosa pines sent down the road to make boards—and lots of them. The Black Hills, home to Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial and among the first national forests created by President Teddy Roosevelt, have been part of my life and career since childhood. 

The bed of my dad’s 1957 Willys pickup truck was my roost as we headed to the University of Iowa’s geology summer field camp, where he was a professor. The Black Hills have been timber country since the early gold mining days, and have always been an important part of the local economy. 

But the recent push to pull massive amounts of timber out of the hills runs afoul of ecological and common sense. In my 35-year career with the U.S. Forest Service, including three years as deputy chief, I’ve been to almost all our 125 national forests and have rarely seen anything so unnecessary and damaging. And so heartbreaking. 

 In 2000, the Jasper Fire burned nearly 10 percent of the Black Hills National Forest, then a bark beetle epidemic followed. All while Forest Service logging continued unabated. The Forest Service’s own researchers recently analyzed forest conditions and concluded that the current logging levels are unsustainable and must be reduced by 60 percent or more.

“Not a sustainable option” at current logging levels, the report said, even where logging is done in the name of “restoration” and “resilience.” This is quite damning for an agency bound by law to also protect water and wildlife and the forest. 
“Not a sustainable option” at current logging levels, the report said, even where logging is done in the name of “restoration” and “resilience.” This is quite damning for an agency bound by law to also protect water and wildlife and the forest.
The recent fires and beetle mortality, both common ecological disturbances, combined with much too-aggressive logging, have plunged standing timber to half of what existed a mere 20 years ago. Not only does the Forest Service promote too much logging, but the harvesting methods also now in vogue are appalling.

The agency calls it “overstory removal” but any person off the street would call it clearcutting. Be damned the 40-acre legal limit on clear-cuts, spreading across the tortured vistas of hundreds of acres gone. Perhaps the saddest part is that big old trees, if left to grow, are the natural outcome of ponderosa pine ecology, storing carbon, providing wildlife habitat and seed for new trees and stabilizing soils. 
Observes ecologists with the Norbeck Society of this thinning project on the Black Hills National Forest: "This photo shows a 'corridor' where the regeneration has been driven over to retrieve the mature trees. With th removal of the larger trees, the remaining smaller trees will grow a little faster, but will soon stagnate into the kind of area that attracts mountain pine beetle infestation. It is already a fire hazard."
Observes ecologists with the Norbeck Society of this thinning project on the Black Hills National Forest: "This photo shows a 'corridor' where the regeneration has been driven over to retrieve the mature trees. With th removal of the larger trees, the remaining smaller trees will grow a little faster, but will soon stagnate into the kind of area that attracts mountain pine beetle infestation. It is already a fire hazard."
But the Forest Service requires that loggers cut down all the big old trees, reducing the forest to ecologically impoverished, even-aged tree farms, and increasing susceptibility to future fires. I am concerned that the same rationale being applied in the Black Hills may be repeated in other forested public lands where climate change is rapidly altering forest ecology. 

Old trees matter. Treating them as prime merchantable targets under the guide of thinning forests in order to save them is not dealing with reality. National forests are not tree farms. They are forests in the fullest sense of the world, profound mysterious and freely gifting us with so many things essential to life beyond mere wood products. The variety of life zones and their resiliency depends on management that accentuates forest diversity. 

Lest we forget our 58 million acres of roadless lands that were set aside from commercial logging and road building in 2000, let’s revisit why the Forest Service protected these landscapes. Agency research indicated that after 100 years of Forest Service stewardship, unlogged roadless areas were the most environmentally healthy. 

Roadless lands anchored landscape diversity, while providing the best fish and wildlife habitat and water quality. Much of the thinning I’ve seen being employed ostensibly to protect watersheds is far too heavy handed, and even removes the biggest and most valuable trees.

 Moreover, recent changes in procedures allow the Forest Service discretionary authority to approve very large projects without public disclosure and review. That’s not good for accountability and democracy. We need to rid ourselves of the bias that all fire is bad. 
The Forest Service requires that loggers cut down all the big old trees, reducing the forest to ecologically impoverished, even-aged tree farms, and increasing susceptibility to future fires. I am concerned that the same rationale being applied in the Black Hills may be repeated in other forested public lands where climate change is rapidly altering forest ecology. 
Almost all forests in the West evolved with fire. We’ve never been able to avoid all large fires, and the current situation is a poignant reminder of that fact. We are sadly a long ways from balancing our ecosystems’ need for fire with our human need for protection from fire. 

The Black Hills, like all national forests, especially the one(s) you cherish in the Northern Rockies and greater Greater Yellowstone region, belongs to the people, and we have every right to ask the Forest Service to wisely steward these treasures. 

Concerned citizens in South Dakota and beyond have sought for years to convince the Forest Service of the recklessness of their ways, to no avail. The Black Hills logging debacle represents a decades-long drama playing out on most forests across the country. 
At top: The recent 244 Fire that burned in Mount Rushmore National Monument and adjacent Black Hills National Forest. Is thinning working? Furnish asks. Just above: this scene from the Black Hills National Forest looks a lot like Forest Service-sanctioned logging and/or cuts that have occurred on private land in the Bangtails, Bridgers, Madisons and other mountains in the Northern Rockies. There is debate over whether logging really does stop wildfires in windy drought years and whether trees will grow back, as they used to, after logging or fire as climate change effects deepen. Photos—(top) Black Hills National Forest; (just above) courtesy Norbeck Society.
At top: The recent 244 Fire that burned in Mount Rushmore National Monument and adjacent Black Hills National Forest. Is thinning working? Furnish asks. Just above: this scene from the Black Hills National Forest looks a lot like Forest Service-sanctioned logging and/or cuts that have occurred on private land in the Bangtails, Bridgers, Madisons and other mountains in the Northern Rockies. There is debate over whether logging really does stop wildfires in windy drought years and whether trees will grow back, as they used to, after logging or fire as climate change effects deepen. Photos—(top) Black Hills National Forest; (just above) courtesy Norbeck Society.
Commercial logging trumps other forest values like carbon storage, clean water, wildlife habitat and old-growth woods. So it is that the smoke of distant fires that blankets our nation as federal land managers struggle to cope with a forest fire crisis decades in the making and exacerbated by years of inaction on climate change.

A raging debate questions whether thoughtful logging can actually limit fire risk and severity by reducing fuels in advance. The Forest Service says emphatically “yes,” but anecdotal evidence yields troubling results throughout the fire-prone western United States. The arson-caused Jasper Fire burned through a thinned landscape thought to be in ideal condition. High temperatures, low humidity and heavy winds — the usual culprits — blew the fire up mercilessly. 

The truth is there is much we don’t know, but the Forest Service is so driven to deliver millions of board feet of timber that it undermines appropriate management. There are also concerns in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Rockies about proposed thinning projects, at the same time that climate change is making forests more prone to burn whether they are thinned or not. What we do know is that where the regions iconic wildlife is concerned, we need to be smarter and more sensitive than we’ve been in the past.
There are concerns in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Rockies about proposed thinning projects, at the same time that climate change is making forests more prone to burn whether they are thinned or not. 
The Black Hills is a prime example of an ugly, out-of-control debacle in forestry gone wrong. It begs for Forest Service leaders to take bold steps to reduce logging to a sustainable level and correct gross mismanagement. 

 The Trump administration openly pushed excessive logging to favor the local timber industry, and recent bullish timber markets resulted in windfall profits for local sawmills. Now the Biden administration pushes a climate change agenda, but the Black Hills’ forest carbon reserves disappear ever faster. Reduced logging is long overdue in this treasured landscape. 

What the Forest Service is doing in the Black Hills reminds me of its tragic liquidation of mature and old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. Then, as now, I urge the Forest Service to follow the advice of its own scientists.

NOTE: What are your thoughts? If you would like to reply to Jim Furnish's piece and have your comments posted below, write to us by clicking here.  Where possible, we encourage you to provide links to scientific studies that support your position. Also below are stories about recent proposed logging projects in Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem


Proposed logging west of Yellowstone National Park




Editorial from The Montana Standard published a decade ago about frustration by US Sen. Jon Tester of Montana that more thinning projects were not proceeding in Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest

A READER RESPONDS:

Mr. Furnish,

As a high-level USFS policy-/decision-maker, what did you do to try to prevent the type of "thinning" and mismanagement that you witnessed in the Black Hills?

Jim Hoylan
Idaho


Dear Jim: 

Thanks for the question. I'd say the most important thing was the Roadless Conservation Rule which protected 58 million acres from further commercial logging and road constr. Importantly, we also made the rule legally impregnable, successfully withstanding 12 years of incessant court challenges.

Further, I chose policies that managed for mature and old growth forest, not short rotation young forests.

I also established stewardship contracting mechanisms to replace commercial timber sales contracts so that the FS could protect the biggest and most valuable trees from logging rather than cutting them down (the FS has not used this approach well in the last 20 years).

And the Black Hills "thinning" you refer to is really not thinning. It is technically "overstory removal" that  should be characterized as high-grading or removing the biggest, most valuable trees. Thinning can be effective (as it was on Siuslaw NF in improving overstocked clearcut units to achieve high quality old-growth) but this is predicated on keeping enough of the biggest and best trees to achieve a fully stocked mature forest.

I also should get some credit for keeping national timber harvest levels relatively low, which prevented broad scale abuses.

Jim Furnish
Jim Furnish
About Jim Furnish

Jim Furnish was deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service from 1999 to 2002 and spent 34 years with the agency. During that time, he helped usher forth critical reforms that brought the Forest Service into the modern age, using science as a guide, moving away from treating forests as commodities there to be liquidated and rewarding ecological thinking. He was one of the principle architects in protecting 58 million acres of roadless lands essential to wildlife,  clean water and wilderness character.. He is author of Toward A Natural Forest: The Forest Service in Transition. He currently is a consultant.
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