Wild places sustain and define us; we, in turn, must protect them.
On November 29th, the U.S. Forest Service published their decision to approve the Commercial Harvest in the Beaver Creek Watershed timber project on the Cumberland District of the Daniel Boone National Forest. The decision allows the Forest Service to move forward with 268 acres of new commercial harvests in areas on the southwest side of Cave Run Lake. Of that acreage, commercial thinning on 133 acres will remove about 50% of the canopy, while the remaining 125 acres will be cut using shelterwood harvests – a regeneration method removing about 80% of the canopy.
The project originally included a total of 303 acres of timber harvests. However, Forest Service biologists recently found an endangered Virginia big-eared bat (Corynorhinus townsendii virginianus) in a cave less than a quarter mile from a 35-acre stand proposed for a shelterwood cut. That particular stand is a nice area of forest with mostly mature white and black oaks near the head of Joes Branch, upstream from the Leatherwood Loop Trail. Logging the stand would have required many stream crossings to haul out the large amount of merchantable timber. Removing this stand from the harvest plan was necessary to comply with the Forest Plan and the Endangered Species Act. Regardless, the Forest Service should be commended for doing the appropriate surveys and modifying the project accordingly. This hasn’t always been the way of things.
The proposal originally included the construction of 0.9 miles of new permanent road that would provide no public access and dead-end in a harvest unit on the shore of Cave Run Lake. The Forest Service currently does not have the resources needed to maintain their existing road system, and is supposed to be reducing their road liabilities. Another 1 mile of “temporary road” construction was also part of the proposal. These so-called “temporary” roads are anything but, and are a blight on the forest. They are bulldozed through the forest and across slopes to get to timber and then abandoned. But they’re not gone from the landscape, can act as vectors for invasive species introductions, and provide access to off-road vehicles. The roads issue was something that Kentucky Heartwood pushed hard on, and many of you submitted comments expressing these same concerns. As a result, the Forest Service adopted an alternative approach (the “swing landing” method) that will enable timber removal without any new road construction (permanent or temporary).
As part of this alternative harvest system, the footprint of the log landings will be reduced by half. Log landings represent some of the most severe and lasting impacts associated with timber sales, with large areas cleared and compacted for processing and loading logs. The Environmental Assessment (EA) stated that the original landings would have been about 0.2 acres each, though we have seen them much larger in some project areas. As approved, the landings will be only about 0.1 acres each. In addition to making them smaller, after harvest the Forest Service will plant native “soft mast,” including plums, persimmon, dogwood, black cherry, and native hawthorns, in the landings. These native trees are often underrepresented in our current forests and provide benefits for wildlife.
The project had also included 170 acres of herbicide applications (stump-treatments) on cut red maples and sassafras to promote oak regeneration. Instead, the Forest Service has now agreed to a follow-up non-commercial thinning in 10 years to reduce competition, largely to promote oaks and hickories. Without some kind of follow-up treatment, the harvested stands could end up like many previously harvested oak-hickory and oak-pine stands in the Daniel Boone that are now dominated by stump-sprouted red maples. The Forest Service also agreed to reduce the impacts of non-native invasive plants in harvest areas through manual and mechanical treatments. Kentucky Heartwood raised concerns about non-native invasive plants early, particularly because some of the harvest units have significant infestations of aggressive species on their edges. Harvesting them without mitigation would encourage encroachment of invasive plants into forest interiors.
Knowing that the impacts of this project will be lessened because of our involvement doesn’t offer much consolation when standing in a beautiful forest that will, as a result of this decision, be cut. Kentucky Heartwood made clear to the Forest Service – as did many of you – that we believe these areas would be better off left alone. But the reality of this project was that there wasn’t much to stop the timber harvesting from moving forward. Our laws are not designed to stop logging, and while we’re not completely satisfied with the analysis, the EA was well-documented and thorough. Absent a significant public outcry, in many cases the best we can do is work around the edges to make sure that important places are spared and the impacts are as limited as possible. Sometimes better is better. And sometimes that’s not enough.
Below you can download comments submitted by Kentucky Heartwood to the Forest Service for both the scoping period and Environmental Assessment. Forest Serive documents for the project are available here.