The Black Hills National Forest, which straddles the Wyoming-South Dakota border, has always been a friend of the timber industry. Since the first commercial timber contract in the country was secured there in 1898, the industry has logged 97 percent of the 2 million-acre ponderosa pine forest and carved 8,000 miles of road.
In early September, environmental groups forced the Forest Service to see some value in the Black Hills' living trees. Sued by a handful of green organizations which claimed logging was threatening wildlife, the agency settled out of court, agreeing that some areas of the Black Hills deserve greater protection.
Under the settlement, one of the last roadless areas in the forest, the 5,000-acre Beaver Park section, will be left untouched, along with the few remaining stands of old-growth trees. The Forest Service says it will also consider designating wildlife study areas to monitor the rare goshawk, land snail and a small bird called the pygmy nuthatch.
"We've had to detail extra staff to handle new biological and mapping needs," says Charon Geigle of the Forest Service. "We're serious about these issues."
The Forest Service's concessions led the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society and Laramie, Wyo.-based Biodiversity Associates to drop their 1999 lawsuit. The groups also relinquished their rights to sue over 30 timber sales in progress in the Black Hills.
"It's a mixed bag," admits Don Duerr of Biodiversity Associates. "But the settlement marks a shift in perspective in terms of recognizing biological issues in the area."