Opinion | Energy & Environment

Forest Service putting national forests in peril

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

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. 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. 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.  

This forest, like all national forests, 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. 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.

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.

Jim Furnish was deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service from 1999 to 2002.

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