U.S. Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), and Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) and U.S. Reps. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) and Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) today expressed their concern with the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS’s) plans to reduce the timber sale program for the Black Hills National Forest (BHNF). The members are also urging the Forest Service to expedite treatment of the BHNF, which would help maintain the timber sale program that plays a critical role in keeping the forest healthy and supporting the local economy.
“We urge the Forest Service to immediately use all NEPA authorities available – including the fuel and fire break categorical exclusion and emergency actions authority recently passed by Congress – to expedite treatment on the BHNF in fiscal years 2022 through 2024, while planning additional work in subsequent years,” the delegations wrote. “Also, in light of additional funding recently provided by Congress to the Forest Service for wildfire reduction efforts, we urge the Forest Service to provide funding and staffing resources necessary to be successful in this task.”
Full letter below:
The Honorable Tom Vilsack
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20250
Dear Secretary Vilsack:
We write to express our deep concerns with the recently announced drastic reductions to the Black Hills National Forest (BHNF) timber sale program over the next three years. Unless the Forest Service swiftly reverses course, its ability to care for the forest will be severely compromised, and the economically-vital forest products industry that supports families in small communities throughout the Black Hills will be decimated. Last year, a mill in Hill City, South Dakota, closed due to log shortages, even in the midst of a robust lumber market, and we are concerned that additional mill closures are imminent. Even if some smaller companies survive, the Forest Service’s capacity to manage the BHNF will be greatly diminished. If the remaining mills are lost, the BHNF will ultimately turn into yet another overly dense national forest at risk of expansive insect mortality and wildfires.
For more than 100 years, the timber sale program on the BHNF has been the primary tool for successfully managing the forest and minimizing insect epidemics and catastrophic wildfires that continue to plague other western national forests. In recent years, the BHNF successfully defeated the mountain pine beetle epidemic because of its collaborative work with partners to target and coordinate forest treatments, thereby increasing the overall amount of management. While the forest products companies’ limited annual capacity to treat acres was a primary bottleneck in those efforts, retaining and utilizing the forest products companies’ sawmill infrastructure was central in the strategy to eradicate the pine beetle and protect the BHNF. This was further confirmed in lessons learned documents prepared by the BHNF and others through the collaborative process.
The recent Forest Service 10-year strategy to combat wildfires clearly states the need to drastically increase the number of acres treated on our national forests, and the corresponding need to build and retain an industry-driven infrastructure to complete the work. The 10-year strategy includes the BHNF, which, for now, does not yet need to undertake the long (and often unsuccessful) process of attempting to attract companies into an area to help manage the forest. In the Black Hills, timber sales have historically been the primary means to treat hazardous fuels, and the local forest products infrastructure has completed this important work. If the Forest Service moves forward with significant reductions in the timber sale program, the infrastructure that plays a critical role in implementing the strategy to confront the wildfire crisis will disappear, crippling the agency’s ability to manage and protect the forest in perpetuity.
In recent correspondence, Forest Service Chief Moore stated that the vast majority of the BHNF suitable base for timber production has been analyzed under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) at least once. Yet, as described by the state foresters of Wyoming and South Dakota and confirmed by the Forest Service’s 10- year strategy, BHNF data shows areas currently at risk of high severity wildfires. We believe the amount of previous analysis, acres designated as insect and disease treatment areas, and the immediate need for management in ponderosa pine systems optimally positions the BHNF to use many NEPA authorities to reduce wildfire hazards.
We urge the Forest Service to immediately use all NEPA authorities available – including the fuel and fire break categorical exclusion and emergency actions authority recently passed by Congress – to expedite treatment on the BHNF in fiscal years 2022 through 2024, while planning additional work in subsequent years. Also, in light of additional funding recently provided by Congress to the Forest Service for wildfire reduction efforts, we urge the Forest Service to provide funding and staffing resources necessary to be successful in this task. Thank you for your prompt consideration of this request.