PIERRE, S.D. — South Dakota U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson is calling for "innovative" thinking in response to a lumber company announcing the permanent shuttering of a sawmill that employs 120 people in the Black Hills.
On Thursday, April 1, Johnson spoke with Forum News Service, acknowledging the distressing findings researchers have reported on the health of the Black Hills National Forest, but the Republican congressman called for a "more flexible, innovative approach" to loggers to access the forest's timber.
"I don't doubt its validity in measuring what it commits to measuring," said Johnson. "But it (the report) doesn't analyze that new timber roads could open up new roads of the forest, new technologies, and commercially available equipment could harvest in traditionally harder-to-access areas."
Last week, Neiman Enterprises released a press statement saying they'd decided to "shut down the sawmill in Hill City" in light of "a reduction of timber being sold in the Black Hills."
"If given the opportunity to purchase timber to keep the mill running, we would have done that," said Jim Neiman, the company's president.
That same day, researchers with the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station published a 68-page, draft report of extensive findings, documenting "disturbances" over 20 years, including a forest thinned by Mountain Pine Beetle infestation, an alarming uptick in wildland fires and climate change, all putting this "forested island in the Great Plains" at risk of being over-logged.
In one graphic instance, the report shows photographs documenting that many areas burned by the historic 2000 Jasper Fire have "still not revegetated."
The report called for reducing the timber harvest roughly in half to allow for a more "sustainable" production of timber in the national forest, complicating business for Neiman, who says they rely on the Forest Service for "approximately 80%" of the company's supply.
The facility's closure will mean over 100-plus employees without work, including 50 in Hill City, a town of 1,000, according to reporting by the Hill City Prevailer.
On Tuesday, Johnson, Gov. Kristi Noem, and the top Republican on the House Natural Resources committee, Rep. Bruce Westerman from Arkansas, met on Tuesday, March 30 with sawmill ownership and two employees, as well as the Forest Service, to hear firsthand the human toll of the plant's closure.
"It was one of the most powerful experiences I've had in Congress," said Johnson on Thursday, echoing sentiments he'd previously shared on social media. "These people weren't complaining. But they were, of course, concerned and a little bit frightened about what the future would hold for them."
Next Wednesday, the U.S. Forest Service will host a webinar with the report's lead authors, including one biologist who grew up in neighboring Sundance, Wyoming, to discuss their findings, tracking forest growth for three years.
Johnson notes that while the report counts 1.2 million acres as "suitable timberlands" for logging in the Black Hills, currently just over half are reachable by road and machine.
Neiman operates other plants across the Black Hills, including facilities in Spearfish, S.D., and Hulett, Wyo.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, the Black Hills National Forest is one of the agency's "highest timber producing" forests in the nation.