Timber Sustainability


For a number of years, the timber harvest of the Black Hills National Forest has exceeded developed standards for sustainable harvesting. During the planning process for the Black Hills Resilient Landscapes Project the Sierra Club Black Hills Group advised the USDA Forest Service of its concern that the timber harvest on the BHNF was not sustainable, based on the required sustainable yields under the National Forest Management Act of 1976 (16 USC §1611). If the BHNF is to be managed on a sustainable and particularly under an ecosystem basis, the annual allowable sale quantity of the forest must be revised. Sellable quantity cannot be determined solely from an economic standpoint and the condition of the forest’s timber resource, but must also take into consideration forest fragmentation, the loss of wildlife habitat for certain species, loss of security and loss of biodiversity. A report done by the Rocky Mountain Research Station found that the 2019 sawtimber harvest of 153,534 CCF per year (CCF = 100 cubic feet) would not maintain current forest size under present tree mortality rates. They suggested an allowable sale quantity of 70,000 to 115,000 CCF  per year to maintain and grow the Black Hills National Forest. Currently, the allowable sale quantity (ASQ) is 181,000 CCF (100 cubic feet). This rate is dictated by policies created two decades ago and has resulted in the Black Hills National Forest being the most logged national forest by volume.

Timber harvests do provide revenue for the Black Hills. The Pennington County Board of County Commissioners estimates that reducing timber sales would affect the industry in the Black Hills, which contributes approximately $120 million annually to the local economy and supports about 1,400 jobs. However,  the Outdoor Industry Association estimates that outdoor recreation in South Dakota generates $4.7 billion in consumer spending, $48,000 in direct South Dakota jobs, $1.2 billion in wages and salaries $255 million in state and local tax revenue. At least 70% of South Dakota residents participate in outdoor recreation each year. In addition to quantifiable revenue provided by a thriving biodiverse forest, there is the much more difficult to measure aesthetic and natural value of the forest. How much would you pay for your kids to experience the same beauty you value in the Black Hills? Your grandkids? Their kids? Forest management now determines the land they inherit. 

Forest management is challenging, especially since timber harvesting is not the only factor in forest size and growth. Natural threats like fires and the infestation of the mountain pine beetle also contribute to the mortality rates of the Ponderosa Pine within the BHNF. These natural threats vary year to year, but are factored into estimates of sustainable sale quantity of timber. It is also uncertain how much climate change will impact these natural factors or tree mortality in the future.

The USDA estimates that in order to sustainably meet the current allowable sale quantity of 181,000 CCF  a standing live ponderosa pine sawtimber inventory of approximately 12,000,000 CCF would be necessary. If the 2019 mortality rates from both natural factors and timber harvest levels are projected into the future, the overall forest size will decline.

Currently, the USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station is preparing a publication describing changes that have occurred in recent decades in the forests of the Black Hills. You can view a draft of the report here. The Forest Service will utilize this report to guide its decisions regarding allowable harvest amounts in the future.