Black Hills faces fire danger with proposed halving of timber sales

Ben Wudtke, Executive Director of Intermountain Forest Association knows a thing or two about how forest management affects fire. In the Black Hills National Forest, removal of trees has helped not only with parasites, but it has also made fires easier to control, he said. But now the U.S. Forest Service wants to reduce the number of trees that can be harvested, which Wudtke says puts the BHNF at risk of fires like the one in New Mexico and those that in California, Oregon, Idaho and other western states where logging is severely limited.

Wudtke explained that the mountain pine beetle infestation inspired tree removal in recent years. “There was a really concerted collaborative effort put forth to fight that war against the beetle. We didn’t win every battle but ultimately we won the war against the mountain pine beetle. That was all to target infestation. Ecologically, when you reduce insect infestation, typically, you reduce the risk of high severity of wildfire as well,” he said.

“Why has a disastrous fire (in the Black Hills) been avoided so far? Because we’ve been able to implement the forest management needed to avoid it. We average about 100 fires per year but they don’t have the fuel to burn like other forests, so they don’t grow out of hand,” Explained Wudtke.

In 2021, Wudtke testified before the Senate Ag and Natural Resources Committee in a hearing on forest management, forest products and carbon.

Senator Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, questioned Wudtke about prescribed burns.

“Talk to me about the role of prescribed fire in the active management of western North American forests, particularly those that have evolved from regular fire cycles such as ponderosa pine,” said Heinrich to Wudtke in the hearing.

“Prescribed fire plays a critical role in forest management,” said Wudtke. But he explained that prescribed fires are not safe in overgrown forests.

“It should be implemented on more acres. I think federal agencies should be looking at prescribed fire as a tool in a lot of places. The one caveat to that is that just as in the sense that our fires are burning unnaturally during wildfire season, those same unnatural conditions make it very difficult to implement prescribed fire safely, and to meet the objectives of those burn plans in a lot of areas. It’s a little bit of chicken and the egg, you need to first go in and create forest conditions that are conducive to promoting prescribed fire use. Often times, looking at historic forest conditions and tree spacing and making sure fuel is removed from the area before putting that needed fire back on the landscape. Fire can certainly be used as a main tool once those tools are put in place but it’s very difficult to just go in and use prescribed fire as a first step in any kind of treatment plan,” he said.

The New Mexico senator responded, “That’s exactly what we’ve found in many of these places where it may cost $1,000 an acre to treat something. To maintain it with prescribed fire is dramatically cheaper so creating those conditions for healthy maintenance really sets the stage for decades into the future.”

Now, Wudtke worries about a U.S. Forest Service proposal to cut logging in half in the Black Hills.

“As I said in that hearing, prescribed fire is an important tool in certain locations and forest structures, but the fact is that we aren’t going to burn our way out of this problem.”

Wudtke “Last fall, the BHNF announced a three-year timber sale program that effectively halves the amount of fuels reduction work and timber they are selling.”

“That reduction will only serve to worsen the health of the forest. In the Black Hills, like other forests, we have seen amazing success in mitigating catastrophic fires through traditional timber management.”

“Just this April, the Wabash Springs Fire broke out during a period of moderate drought and 60 mph winds, only a couple miles outside of Custer and in an area of housing.

“Unlike so many other headlines, this fire only grew to 110 acres and the forest is still green following the fire – owing to a previous timber sale, follow-up precommercial thinning, and the quick response from firefighters.

“It is this type of work I was referencing last year and this portion of forest is set up for more fire, prescribed or otherwise, in the future,” he said.

“The BHNF is also undertaking a formal process to revise the Forest Plan, and everyone is hoping they don’t forget about the importance of forest management and timber harvest in achieving the forest conditions that support resiliency in the face of increased threats from fire.”

This photo shared by Ben Wudtke, Executive Director of the Intermountain Forest Association, shows the healthy Black Hills forest even after a fire, due to good forest management/logging. Ben Wudtke
Courtesy photo

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