Wild places sustain and define us; we, in turn, must protect them.
The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) recently issued final revised regulations that dramatically shortcut environmental review, and public input and oversight, on projects that include up to 2,800 acres of logging and 2 miles of new road construction. The changes in long-standing forest policy come as part of the Forest Service’s overhaul of its rules for implementing the National Environmental Policy Act, or “NEPA.”
The changes to the Forest Service’s NEPA regulations come on the heels of a major revision of the NEPA regulations issued by the presidentially-appointed Council on Environmental Quality or “CEQ.” The CEQ regulations set the overarching rules and guidance that other federal agencies, like the U.S. Forest Service, must abide by in setting their own procedures and duties.
Each of these revised rules (CEQ and USFS) serve to speed up the process of environmental review at the cost of public input and environmental protections. In the case of the Forest Service, it’s a means to get more timber out of the forest more quickly, and with fewer impediments. While the Forest Service reigned back on some truly audacious provisions in their proposed rule (issued in 2019), the final rule will undoubtedly lead to substantial damage to our national forest lands. Leadership at the Daniel Boone National Forest have already said that they plan to use the new authorities to speed up logging on Kentucky’s national forest.
One of the more damaging provisions will be the expedited review and approval of logging up to 2,800 acres of forest at a time, along with up to 2 miles of new road construction. Most of these large logging projects will now be exempt from review in an Environmental Analysis (EA) under what’s known as a “Categorical Exclusion,” or “CE.”
Categorical Exclusions were historically used for routine things like mowing lawns at administrative sites. However, over the last 20 years, the Forest Service has been granted more, and ever-larger, CE authorities for logging on national forest lands. By using a CE, the Forest Service will be able to propose and approve large logging projects after issuing just one brief description of their plans (a “scoping document”) with a short comment period (“scoping period”), followed by a formal decision to approve the project. Typically the Forest Service allows scoping comments on categorically excluded projects anywhere from 2 weeks to 30 days, though the duration isn’t spelled out in the law or regulations.
Most scoping documents, at least in the past, have provided specific locations where logging and other management activities are proposed. However, with the recent Blackwater project near Cave Run Lake, the Forest Service is testing a new system called “condition based management,” where the specific locations for logging won’t be disclosed or decided upon until after a decision is made approving the project. Throughout the analysis of the Blackwater project, the Forest Service has been unwilling to disclose where they will log, how much they will log, where they will build roads, or where they will implement possible stream restoration activities.
The Forest Service has also adopted a new mechanism called a “Determination of NEPA Adequacy,” or “DNA.” The DNA allows the Forest Service to decide that an existing, previous project analysis can be used in whole as the analysis for a new project if the agency believes the two projects to be similar. Using a DNA means that the Forest Service would approve a project without examining or surveying a project area for any unique, special, or sensitive natural communities and habitats. The Daniel Boone Forest Plan, adopted in 2004, acknowledges that the agency doesn’t know the location of every rare natural community, old-growth site, and other resources, and defers to project development as the time to acquire that information. The DNA basically assumes that everything is known, and that there is nothing important that could be harmed by logging, road building, or other management.
Until recently, scoping was typically followed by an in depth analysis of the project and its likely environmental impacts, coupled with opportunities for public input and scrutiny. This period of analysis, and the opportunity for input, have led to important changes and protections in several projects on the Daniel Boone National Forest. Examples of those changes include:
These are just a few examples of the important, substantive changes that happen to project proposals through the analysis and public comment opportunities associated with the Environmental Assessment process. The Forest Service’s new systems do away with these opportunities, and assume that there is no worthwhile information to be had.
And further complicating things, while the new Forest Service regulations state that projects using a CE or DNA will still be publicly scoped, the new CEQ regulations suggest that scoping is only required – and potentially only allowable – when an agency is preparing a full Environmental Impact Statement. Therefore it’s entirely possible that scoping will be done away with altogether. Eliminating scoping was part of the Forest Service’s draft regulations, and could surface again.
The new rule does state that logging projects using the new 2,800 acre CE “shall be developed or refined through a collaborative process that includes multiple interested persons representing diverse interests.” However, nowhere is “collaborative process” defined.
In September, 2020, the DBNF proposed the “Upland Forest Restoration Project” to log 2,990 acres of mostly white pine plantations in the London District under a CE authority granted in the 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration Act as amended by the 2014 Farm Bill. That CE also requires that a project be developed through a “collaborative process.” However, there was no “collaborative process” through which the project was developed. Instead, the agency pointed to the few public meetings and field trips held as part of the Pine Creek project development. But nearly all of the logging in the Upland Forest Restoration Project lies outside of the Pine Creek analysis area, and nothing like the Upland Forest Restoration Project was discussed during the “collaborative” or analysis phases of the Pine Creek project. While the Forest Service did provide 30 days for submitting comments, the project was never included in the quarterly Schedule of Proposed Actions (SOPA).
Whether and how these rule changes (both USFS and CEQ) will change with the incoming Biden administration remains unclear. Undoing regulations is a lengthy and complicated process, and it is uncertain if the Biden administration is willing to prioritize the undoing of these terrible environmental rollbacks. It’s important to note that the Forest Service wants these authorities, and more, and the previous Obama administration tended to defer to the Forest Service on these types of issues.
The best hope for our forests, in the near future, are the various legal challenges underway against both the CEQ and USFS rules. Organizations like the Southern Environmental Law Center and Western Environmental Law Center, among others, have already moved forward with challenges to the CEQ rules with a focus on public lands protection. Legal challenges to the USFS rules are likely.
For now, the best defense that we have is a good offense. This means we need to be out in the forest as much as possible in anticipation of new logging, road building, and other development projects in the Daniel Boone National Forest. Recently, the Forest Service began developing a new proposal for the Jellico mountains along the Tennessee border. We expect the agency to propose about 2,000 acres of logging in the Jellicos, though we don’t know where. And, given statements from DBNF leadership, it’s likely that they’ll use their new CE authorities to rapidly approve an aggressive project.
Throughout 2020, Kentucky Heartwood made great strides to protect forests and native communities found around the Daniel Boone National Forest. Staff spent hundreds of hours in the field and covered thousands of acres documenting plants, old-growth and secondary old-growth, and landscape characteristics. Read on for our assessment of 2020 and what we anticipate for 2021!
On Monday, October 5th, Kentucky Heartwood and the Kentucky Resources Council jointly filed an administrative objection (“predecisional objection”) to the South Red Bird Wildlife Enhancement Project on the Daniel Boone National Forest. The project would approve 3,600 acres of logging in the Redbird District of the Daniel Boone in Clay and Leslie Counties. The project also approves the construction of nearly 100 miles of full-bench skid roads across extremely steep and highly erodible mountain slopes for hauling out the timber. Extensive field work by Kentucky Heartwood has demonstrated massive and ongoing landslides resulting from the same types of management in the adjacent Group One project. The Forest Service’s South Red Bird project could degrade or destroy up to 16% of designated critical habitat for the federally-threatened Kentucky arrow darter (Etheostoma spilotum), and degrade habitat for the federally-endangered snuffbox mussel (Epioblasma triquetra).
The South Red Bird project could also have major impacts to federally-threatened northern long-eared bats (Myotis septenrionalis) through large-scale habitat fragmentation (some logging units are 200 acres to nearly 400 acres in size) and logging the closed-canopy flight corridors they use to travel in the forest.
Throughout the Forest Service’s analysis, misleading and arbitrary characterizations of the landscape and potential adverse environmental effects – especially to aquatic and interior forest species – were used to excuse the aggressive and inexcusably destructive logging practices in the project. Despite the Forest Service’s lip-service to “collaboration,” the only public that they listened to were organizations like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which has lobbied the Forest Service to clear more of our native forests to make it easier to hunt introduced Rocky Mountain elk.
Kentucky Heartwood’s advocacy helped to identify and protect the 40 acres of old-growth on Little Flat Creek that the Forest Service had planned to log. However, this isn’t nearly enough. The Forest Service still has an opportunity to drop or make major, substantive changes to the South Red Bird project. But if they aren’t willing to do what’s right, and to fulfill their legal obligations under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and other laws and regulations, then we’ll be ready to take them to court.
The critical work that allowed us to develop such a strong, substantive objection, and to demonstrate that the Forest Service was misleading the public (and themselves), included nearly 300 hours in the field. That’s in addition to the hundreds of hours spent on research, analysis, and the drafting of comments and other materials needed to respond to the South Red Bird proposal.
We can’t do this level of work without support. To our members and volunteers who have helped us in this effort: Thank you. You have made a difference. But this isn’t over. We will need your continued support to take this project to court if the Forest Service remains unwavering in their willingness to bury our mountain streams in mud and rock, and destroy that habitat of at-risk species, to sell timber from our public lands.
You can join or donate to Kentucky Heartwood here.
Click the file below to download and read our administrative objection.
Join the virtual public meeting about the Jellico area
Tuesday, October 13, 2020
Read on for details and instructions on how to join the meeting.
The Forest Service has officially announced the beginning of a management planning process for the Jellico mountains in the southernmost part of the Daniel Boone National Forest on the Stearns Ranger District. We know from past experience that these Integrated Resource Management Strategy (IRMS) processes almost always turn in to massive logging projects, like South Redbird, Blackwater, and Pine Creek. And early indications are that this will be no different.
But early public participation usually leads to better outcomes for the ecosystem! Your participation does matter!
The Jellicos are a part of the Cumberland Mountains on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. Topping out at about 2200 feet, and with over 1200 feet in relief, the Jellicos are more mountainous than the rest of Daniel Boone National Forest. The area provides critical habitat for several threatened and endangered species, including the Cumberland darter (Etheostoma susanae) and Blackside dace (Chrosomus cumberlandensis). The Jellico analysis area includes nearly 1,300 acres of forest that could qualify as secondary old-growth (over 130 years old), but much of this older forest isn’t protected in the area’s “Designated Old Growth” area.
Resource extraction has already had a heavy toll on the forest. Nearly 2,700 acres were logged in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2011 the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service leased over 3,800 acres for oil and gas development. And legacy impacts from coal mining, along with significant problems with invasive plant species, add to the challenges of protecting and restoring this unique area.
Now is your chance to be a voice for the Jellicos! The Forest Service is hosting a virtual public meeting about the Jellico area on Tuesday, October 13, 2020, from 5:00-6:30 pm EST via Microsoft Teams. Click here to join the meeting.
Click here for a pdf with instructions from the Forest Service on how to connect to the meeting using a mobile device or computer.
The Forest Service has set up a public Facebook group called Jellico IRMS Assessment, where they have posted information about the IRMS process, and more details about Tuesday's meeting. Click here to join the Forest Service Jellico IRMS Facebook group.
To help spread the word Kentucky Heartwood has created a Facebook event, here, where we will also be posting updates and relevant information as we get closer to the meeting date.
Kentucky Heartwood remains committed to providing a thorough analysis of proposed agency actions using the best available science and the law. Protecting and restoring biological integrity to the Daniel Boone National Forest guides our efforts. As the Jellico IRMS process develops we will be providing analysis, information, and volunteer opportunities to help get to know, and protect, this unique part of the forest. To make sure that you can stay up to date be sure to sign up for our emails here.
If you value this work, please consider donating to Kentucky Heartwood. We're a small group, and every bit helps. You can donate on our website here.
Thank You. We couldn't do it without you!
Kentucky Heartwood is excited to announce that we have hired Ashley Lipscomb to serve as our new Director! We are thrilled to have her on staff, and look forward to everyone meeting her.
As Ashley steps into her new role, we have also promoted two other staff members to new roles. Jim Scheff, our Director since 2008 has stepped into his new role as Staff Ecologist (a lifelong dream of his!), and Tress La'Ree has been promoted from Administrative Associate to Administrator, reflecting her high level of service and leadership within the organization. See everyone's updated info on our Staff page here.
Here's a little more about Ashley:
Ashley joined Kentucky Heartwood as the Director in October 2020. She brings eleven years of forest watch experience learned in the wilds of the Northern Rockies. She started as a volunteer and became the Membership and Development Director for a small, grassroots group called Friends of the Clearwater. In her spare time, she co-led the Palouse Broadband of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness. Ashley gleaned many skills and strategies from some of the best forest activists in Idaho and looks forward to protecting biologically significant public lands in Kentucky through citizen engagement.
Ashley received her Associate of Science in Ecotourism and Adventure Travel from Hocking Technical College in 2009 and proceeded to earn a Bachelor of Science in Resource Recreation and Tourism from the University of Idaho in 2010. Post education, she monitored public lands across Idaho’s Clearwater Basin for ORV abuse, impacts of deforestation, and wildlife movements. Along the way, she made time to identify native flowers and swim in the cool, clear waters of the West.
At Kentucky Heartwood, Ashley is responsible for analyzing land management proposals using sound science and the law, creating communication lines with our supporters, growing a diverse membership base, grant acquisitions, and foundation relations. In her downtime, Ashley enjoys backpacking, drinking coffee, reading the newspaper, and walking her doggy named Akadia.
A few months ago, Kentucky Heartwood released information and allegations that the Forest Service was selling more timber in the Greenwood project of the Daniel Boone National Forest than what was approved in the 2017 project decision. We also asserted that trees had been marked for harvest in some riparian buffers along stream channels in violation of the Forest Plan. The Forest Service has since released their own data and analysis, insisting that everything (or most everything) is just fine.
So, who’s right?
Where reality stands is a bit complicated and muddy, and requires wading through some jargon and technical matters. I hope you’ll read on and get the details. They’re important. In summary though, our originally surveys overestimated the amount of timber being oversold. However, we believe that the data show that the Forest Service is still selling far more trees than approved (including in riparian areas) and, in some respects and locations, high-grading the timber.
For any of this to make sense, an explanation of the term “basal area,” or just “BA,” is in order. Basal area is defined as the cross-sectional area of trees at 4.5 feet above ground in a unit area. In American forestry BA is expressed in square feet per acre. In academic research, and internationally, the units are square meters per hectare (a very un-fun unit conversion). Overall, BA provides a measure how much of an area is taken up by trees, and relates directly to the numbers and sizes of trees in the forest. Because measuring every tree in a forest usually isn’t practicable, basal area can be estimated by using a number of different tools and sampling protocols, each with their own limitations.
A big, beautiful white oak marked for cutting.
Most “mature” and old-growth forests in our area have a BA ranging from around 90 to over 180 square feet per acre, but 110 to 150 is most common. Forest type, age, and disturbance history all play a big role. Several studies of regional old-growth forests have reported densities of trees over 4” (10 cm) in diameter ranging from about 65 trees per acre to around 250 per acre. A lot of small trees can be present in a forest and still contribute very little to overall basal area. On the other end of the management spectrum, most timber harvests on the Daniel Boone National Forest are shelterwood (or “regeneration”) cuts with a target BA of about 10 to 15 square feet per acre, and leave about 10 trees per acre.
Just under one-third, or 674 acres, of the logging approved in the Greenwood project was ostensibly designed to restore mid-density, fire-mediated upland forest communities through the “Woodland Establishment” prescription. There’s good evidence that this type of forest was historically important in the area. Kentucky Heartwood did object, however, to some of the locations chosen for the Woodland Establishment prescription because site selection seemed to be more about access to large timber than actual restoration potential and need.
We strongly advocated for the Forest Service to focus their Woodland Establishment and other management prescriptions in areas with known rare and declining grassland remnants, like those found along the Keno Road and Curt Pond Ridge area in Pulaski County. That particular area was identified in a 1988 Cooperative Inventory of Endangered, Threatened, Sensitive, and Rare Species for Daniel Boone National Forest conducted by the Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission, and Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Service. The 1988 report highlighted the Keno Road area and recommended establishing the area “as an experimental demonstration project.” Unfortunately, the site has been largely neglected, resulting in a major decline of this rare “Cumberland Barrens” remnant.
Despite our efforts, the Forest Service refused to include management of the Keno Road and Curt Pond Ridge areas (and other important sites) in the Greenwood project. The agency did, however, commit in their October 2017 response to our formal administrative objection to the Greenwood project, to working with Kentucky Heartwood and the Kentucky Office of Nature Preserves to develop a management strategy for the site. Unfortunately, other than a couple of on-site meetings in mid-2018, nothing has happened.
But let’s get back to talking about basal area.
The formal description for the Action 2: Woodland Establishment prescription in the Environmental Assessment for the Greenwood project is as follows:
“A woodland establishment treatment is proposed on approximately 674 acres in 20 stands. This treatment would retain an overstory canopy of dominant and co-dominant, vigorous, healthy, long-lived, and fire resilient trees, (e. g. shortleaf pine, chestnut oak, and white oak). The target leave basal area would be 30 to 50 square feet per acre.”
The selection of trees to be retained as “dominant and co-dominant, vigorous, healthy, long-lived, and fire resilient trees” is not incidental. While hollow, rotten, and declining trees are important ecological elements (and some must be retained per Forest Plan requirements), most won’t last long after logging. Particularly for structurally compromised trees, the increased exposure to windthrow following the harvest of adjacent canopy trees will hasten their loss from the canopy. And fire-intolerant species, like red maple, scarlet oak, and eastern hemlock, will be injured and decline following repeated applications of prescribed fire.
And it’s worth comparing the language for the Woodland Establishment harvest to that of Action 4: Shelterwood Preperatory Cut (a separate logging prescription in the project). The Shelterwood Preperatory Cut prescription states that:
“Trees favored for retention would be healthy, dominant, codominant, long lived, and fire-resilient species such as shortleaf pine, white oak, chestnut oak, and hickory with the best crowns.”
The deliberate use of the word “favored” in the prescription for Action 4: Shelterwood Preperatory Cut, but not in the prescription for Action 2: Woodland Establishment, is important. The Forest Service could have used similar equivocating language in the Woodland Establishment prescription, but didn’t.
In the Forest Service’s response to our complaint they report an overall retained BA of 37.5 square feet per acre. This is much higher than what we reported following our initial survey. Based on our subsequent surveys, we think that the Forest Service’s estimate for total, average BA is about right. The differences largely resulted from our use of transects instead of grid-based sampling. Despite our efforts to be non-selective while still collecting data representative of each harvest unit, we clearly missed some portions of stands which contributed substantially to the total basal area. However, reporting only the total BA misses a crucial part of the story.
Their report states that “For all stands sampled, trees with undesirable characteristics will comprise a small, but tolerable, amount of the future stand.”
However, the various data presented in their report, and one of their concluding statements, contradict this interpretation. The Forest Service reports states that:
"For all woodland stands and the shelterwood preparatory stand, the results indicate trees with desired characteristics comprise over 60 percent of the BA to be retained. Specifically, these trees are of a dominant or codominant crown class, a desirable species, and have a tree class of desirable or acceptable."
The corollary here is that up to 39% of the trees being retained (representing about 14.6 square feet per acre of basal area) do not meet the criteria of being long-lived, healthy, vigorous, and fire tolerant trees, and have a high likelihood of declining or dying within a short period after logging and burning. It is hard to see this as only a “small, but tolerable, amount.” The final BA of trees that actually do meet the criteria for retention, based on the Forest Service’s data, is around 22.9 square feet per acre, or about half of the target BA prescribed in the Environmental Assessment. This value is very close to the 20.5 square feet per acre that we reported in our initial complaint.
An astonishing number of hickory nut shells discarded by squirrels under a vary large hickory marked for cutting.
Our subsequent surveys suggest that some of the harvest units are in compliance with the prescriptions in the EA. But some are not. To meet the letter and intent of the Woodland Establishment prescription, the Forest Service needs to retain, at a minimum, an additional 7 square feet per acre of the healthy, merchantable trees that they have marked and sold. If the pattern holds across the 674 acres of the Woodland Establishment prescription, that would amount to about 4,500 fourteen-inch diameter trees, or over 2,000 twenty-inch diameter trees.
The Forest Service did concur that trees were inappropriately marked for harvesting in at least one of the riparian areas that we brought to their attention. In the Daniel Boone National Forest logging isn’t allowed within 50 feet of streams classified as “intermittent,” but is allowed in and along stream channels classified as “ephemeral.” Differentiating the two can be challenging. One location we took issue with was a headwaters tributary of Drury Branch, before it drops in to Beaver Creek Wilderness. The Forest Service did determine that the stream segment “confidently fits the definition of an intermittent stream,” but that the error was unintentional and understandable. However, the Forest Service is only reviewing the status of the approximately 300 acres that Kentucky Heartwood surveyed, and not any of the remainder of the more than 2,000 acres of logging in the Greenwood project.
We’ve yet to decide how to proceed with the Forest Service. These issues represent serious errors on the part of the government and are a breach of the public trust. It also comes at a time when we know that the Trump administration is putting pressure on the Forest Service to increase the volume of timber being harvested from our national forest lands. Our frustration is even more pronounced given the Forest Service’s foot-dragging on their commitments to manage the rare plant communities in the Keno Road and Curt Pond Ridge area. But the environmental impacts of these overharvests in the Greenwood project are less severe than the ongoing landslides resulting from recent logging in the Redbird District, and the thousands more acres of severe logging nearing approval in the South Redbird project. Given our organizational capacity, we have to be judicious in where we apply our resources. It’s not an easy call.
If you want to support this work, please consider donation to Kentucky Heartwood.
You can join or donate here.
I’ve struggled over these past few weeks with whether or not publish a statement on behalf of Kentucky Heartwood in response to the historic Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations that are happening across the country. And I continue to struggle with it. I’ve found the statements issued by some organizations, businesses, and institutions to be powerful, insightful, and heartening calls to action, both personal and political. However, a great deal have also seemed – at least to me – to be little more than platitudes lacking in substance, dispensed out of concerns over marketing and retaining market share. But I am one to get cynical.
To be clear, Kentucky Heartwood, including our Board and Staff, oppose racism in any and all forms. And if you know me personally (or follow me on social media) you probably have a sense of my thoughts on structural racism and police violence. These issues are real, and they are unacceptable.
However, I do want to offer some personal thoughts and observations regarding structural racism and the conspicuous underrepresentation of people of color in conservation and outdoor recreation spaces. I have been involved in public lands protection for 20 years, and have been enjoying and exploring wild places for many years more. Among the hundreds of activists, attorneys, scientists, organizational staff, board members, and volunteers I’ve met in my capacity as a public lands advocate, very few have been people of color. And even fewer (one, maybe two?) have been Black. This hasn’t gone without notice among the groups that I’ve been involved with. Most public lands advocates that I have known (though certainly not all) are sincerely concerned about issues of racial and social justice. I’ve participated in more than a few conversations about the lack of representation by people of color in our organizations, as well as the conservation movement more broadly. Despite heartfelt and genuine concern, efforts – including my own – have rarely moved beyond conversations and the setting of intentions.
For years I excused this absence of people of color from our organizations, campaigns, and spaces as a regrettable but understandable reflection of the nature of activism. People tend to pour in the time and energy on issues that are closest to them. For too many people of color, and especially for those in the Black community, that often and unfairly means that people’s energy is taken up by the countless daily, tangible struggles rooted in historical and contemporary systems of racism. Put another way, it’s not fair to expect someone to care very much about logging on a national forest when they’re worried that their son might be shot by the police for pulling out his cell phone.
But this perspective accepts too much exclusion, both within our organizations and in the outdoor spaces that we work to protect. It ignores the gross unfairness of the fact that centuries of white supremacist violence and structural inequities continue to affect so many Black people’s relationships with, and access to, America’s wild outdoor spaces and public lands. My understanding of these issues is at best shallow. What I do know is that there are stories that need to be heard, both of history and lived experience.
I think sometimes about the race riot in Corbin in 1919, just 18 years before the establishment of the Cumberland National Forest (later to be renamed the Daniel Boone National Forest). A vibrant Black community of roughly 200 people was summarily rounded up, forced on to rail cars, and removed from the state to the words “By God we are going to run all Negroes out of this town tonight.” For those families who’s stories and memories include this violent episode, what does it mean to pass Corbin on the way to Cumberland Falls? Does it mean something different today than it did a generation ago? What about the ways that “sundown laws” kept Black families from traveling to visit State and National Parks, National Forests, and other public lands? What is the legacy of the Commonwealth of Kentucky barring Black people, by order of law, from nearly all State Parks until 1955 when the Supreme Court ruled the practice unconstitutional? What does it mean when going to a park or stopping for gas on your way home could mean arrest, or worse? How are the outdoor experiences of a young person of color, today, affected by the stories of their parents or grandparents?
And it would be so easy, perhaps even comfortable, to pretend that the exclusion of Black people from outdoor spaces is some relic of the past. But it’s not. In February of this year, 25 year-old Ahmaud Arbery was shot dead while going for a run by armed vigilantes who assumed that he’d committed a crime. He hadn’t. In May, Audubon Society Board Member and notable comic book author Chris Cooper had his life threatened while birding in New York’s Central Park when a white woman got upset because he asked her to follow the rules and leash her dog. Her response was to call the police, frantic, and telling the lie that a Black man was threatening her. He wasn’t. Or we could talk about North Carolina botanist (and musician and chef), Justin Robinson who was handcuffed while looking at plants in the woods. I know a lot of botanists. All are white. And I’m fairly certain that none have been put in handcuffs while looking at plants.
Or we can talk about the Confederate flags displayed prominently on homes and farms along the road sections of the 333-mile Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail. How can a person of color experience the trail as I can, and find the same peace and ease in walking those long miles with so many Kentuckians proudly flying a flag that says “I’d rather you be in chains”?
And even within Kentucky’s outdoor community, racism continues to bubble to the surface. Over the past month, one of the only prominent Black people in Kentucky’s conservation and outdoor recreation community, someone I consider a friend, has been repeatedly attacked through social media with vitriol and accusations of racism for speaking with measured words about… racism. Their repeated message is “Shut up.” Over and again, “Shut up. Your story is not welcome here.”
I don’t know the answers. And I won’t pretend to. But I’m pretty certain that, at least for white people like me, now a time to listen. And it is okay if the voices and stories being lifted challenge your understanding of the world, or even your understanding of your self. But what is not okay is to respond to this moment, to the cries of grief and anger over generations of state-sanctioned violence and exclusion, to the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Stephon Clark, Philando Castille, Tamir Rice, and so many others, by dismissing the very real and contemporary effects of structural racism in America. Such denials are lacking in veracity and belie the facts. They are simply not serious.
Our public lands belong to all of us. The experiences they give us should be accessible to all of us. And it will take all of us to protect them in this age of accelerating climate change and biodiversity collapse.
The status quo is not acceptable.
Black Lives Matter.
Kentucky Heartwood has documented multiple ongoing landslides in the Redbird District of the Daniel Boone National forest caused by logging in the Group One project in Clay and Leslie Counties. To date, we’ve identified at least 6 landslides, including two that dumped sediment into streams and one that took out about 200 feet of mountainside. All of the landslides started at “full bench” skid trails that the Forest Service allowed to be bulldozed across the mountainsides for loggers to get at the timber. We also found that the Forest Service had allowed far more of the forest to be bulldozed and scraped clear than is permitted under the Forest Plan.
Prior to our bringing these landslides to their attention the Forest Service claimed that no landslides or other major erosion was happening as a result of their logging operations. Their position has been that Forest Plan Standards for the Daniel Boone National Forest, as well as Kentucky’s state forestry Best Management Practices, were effectively protecting forest soils and streams. They’re not.
In addition to erosion and landslides, infestations of non-native invasive plant species (NNIPs) is especially bad in the Group One project. We conducted surveys of one logging unit harvested in 2012 and documented 18 species of NNIPs. We sampled twenty-four 25 ft. by 5 ft. plots running perpendicular to skid trails and found that average cover of NNIPs was 39.8%. Thirty-eight percent of plots had more than 50% coverage of NNIPs. The Forest Service contends that all contract provisions for minimizing NNIP infestations were followed.
The Group One project was approved in 2008 after being withdrawn twice after challenges by Kentucky Heartwood. Over 1,000 acres of logging were ultimately approved for various "forest health" and "habitat improvement" purposes. The Forest Service is now nearing approval of over 3,000 more acres of logging in the nearby South Redbird project. The South Redbird project will allow the same types of logging on the same types of slopes and soils, but at a much larger scale - with individual logging tracts over 300 acres in size (10 times bigger than those in the Group One project). Up to 91 miles of full-bench skid roads could be bulldozed across the mountains. Most of the South Redbird logging will occur in watersheds that provide critical habitat for the federally-threatened Kentucky arrow darter (Etheostoma spilotum), and habitat for the federally-endangered Snuffbox mussel (Epioblasma triquetra).
In February, Kentucky Heartwood produced a video using drone footage showing logging at several sites in the Group One project. The video shows some of the landslides, along with the astounding amount of bulldozing that the Forest Service has allowed for removing timber. Shortly after we produced the video, we found an even larger landslide in a harvest unit on Ulysses Creek (unfortunately we did not have access to a drone at the time).
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In January the Forest Service published their final decision on the Pine Creek Forest Restoration Project. The final approval of the project comes 4 years after the Forest Service’s first meetings to gather input on this extensive project covering what is, arguably, one of the best parts of the Daniel Boone National Forest. Over these four years, Kentucky Heartwood submitted multiple rounds of formal comments and filed an administrative objection (with the Kentucky Resources Council) challenging portions of the Draft Decision and Finding of No Significant Impact. We covered thousands of acres in the field, documented old-growth and rare plants, exploding user impacts at Pine Island Double Falls, and walked the length of the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail as it traverses the project area. We led field trips, hosted a public forum in Corbin, published numerous articles and blog posts, and shared stories and images of this outstanding piece of Kentucky. We worked hard to spread word about this project, and to help get the public involved.
We think that our efforts had a big impact on the final outcome. There are certainly aspects of the Pine Creek project, and the environmental analysis, that we are not happy with. However, there’s also a lot in this proposal to be pleased with. This is a complicated project – in many ways reflecting the complexity of the landscape, it’s biodiversity, and the myriad of ways that the public connects with it.
First let's talk about the good stuff:
New old-growth designations
For the first time since adoption of the Forest Plan in 2004, the Forest Service expanded official old-growth designations in the Daniel Boone National Forest. This is something that we’ve been advocating for for many years. Initially, the Forest Service proposed adding 500 acres to the Designated Old-Growth Management Prescription in the Forest Plan, including 370 acres adjacent to Rock Creek Research Natural Area and another 130 acres in Angel Hollow. Throughout the analysis process, we pushed for larger old-growth designations, including more upland forest types. In response, the Forest Service expanded the Designated Old-Growth designation around Angel Hollow to 550 acres, for a total 920 new acres in this management prescription. Both areas include a combination of old-growth and older second-growth forests.
Dropping 2,000 acres of shelterwood harvests
The Pine Creek project originally included over 3,200 acres of even-aged shelterwood harvests. Approximately 1,300 acres were proposed to happen over the next 5 to 10 years, with another 2,000 acres to occur after about 10 years in stands initially managed with midstory removal (non-commercial thinning of mostly red maple). We asked the Forest Service to drop the latter 2,000 acres of shelterwood cuts, and they did. Logging in those stands could still be proposed in some future project, but for now they will only be managed with non-commercial midstory thinning and, in some areas, prescribed fire.
Pine Island Double Falls
Over the course of the project’s development, visitation of Pine Island Double Falls exploded. We convinced the Forest Service to drop the shelterwood logging prescription for a 50-acre stand adjacent the falls area, including some gorgeous large black and northern red oaks and some nice old-growth tulip poplars. The Forest Service has also committed to a public process to develop a trail to access the falls and try to limit the expanding and unmanaged user impacts.
Protecting the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail
The Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail goes through much of the Pine Creek project area, including several proposed harvest areas. One section of the trail in particular, along Poison Honey road, would have been significantly impacted. We originally asked the Forest Service to drop the shelterwood prescription along the road, and reroute the trail from the road into the forest. The Forest Service modified the proposal to reroute the trail through the forest, but still planned a shelterwood cut that would have significantly affected the experience of trail users and degraded the area’s scenic integrity. During the formal objection process we convinced the Forest Service to change the prescription of this unit to a woodland management prescription. This new prescription will retain much more the forest canopy, remove some of the midstory, and include prescribed fire (already proposed for that section). The Forest Service has committed to working with the Sheltowee Trace Association on trail layout. This new prescription, while still including some timber harvest, should result in an open forest structure with a good amount of remaining canopy and large trees.
Restoration of fire-adapted upland forest and grassland communities
One of the more fascinating aspects of the ecology of the southern Daniel Boone National Forest is the presence of historic grassland and oak and pine savannah remnants existing in an otherwise deeply forested landscape. Indicators of these relict communities, like wood lily, rattlesnake master, blazing stars, and other conservative grassland species, can be found hanging on along some roadsides and powerline corridors. While the earlier Greenwood project on the Stearns District (approved in 2017) was ostensibly aimed at restoring these important natural communities, the Forest Service in that project failed to integrate important botanical indicators into planning – instead relying on general assessments and emphasizing management in locations where there was good timber to cut. In contrast, the London District undertook a detailed assessment of these upland, fire-adapted communities for the Pine Creek project, including input and data from the Kentucky Office of Nature Preserves, Kentucky Heartwood, and botanist Julian Campbell. This collaborative effort helped to identify broad areas and specific sites where comprehensive restoration, including fire, commercial and non-commercial thinning, and other work, would have the most significant benefits for the broadest suite of species. Most of the woodland management in the Pine Creek project will happen in the Pulaski County side of the Rockcastle River.
The Forest Service has also incorporated a novel approach to restoring shortleaf and pitch pine in these areas. These species of pines were decimated during the 1999-2002 southern pine beetle outbreak. Contrasting with previous pine restoration efforts on the Daniel Boone, which have been akin to pine plantations, the Forest Service here plans to plant pine in small groups or clusters (aka “cluster planting”) in suitable microsites. This will help the area develop a more complex, heterogenous structure and species composition that more closely resembles the area’s historic condition.
The restoration of fire-adapted upland communities, with an intermix of semi-stable grassland, shrubland, and open-canopy forests, is a way to provide for the long-term habitat needs of species that rely on early-seral and related vegetation structures.
Close and rehabilitate user-made OHV and horse trails
The Forest Service used LIDAR to document 23 miles of illegal off-road vehicle and horse trails impacting the state Wild River section of the Rockcastle River. The Forest Service plans to close and rehabilitate these user trails by felling trees, placing boulders, and revegetating areas near the river.
The not-good stuff:
1,150 acres of shelterwood cuts
The Pine Creek project still includes 1,150 acres of shelterwood regeneration cuts, with some really nice sections of forest that will be heavily logged. We have concerns that some local populations of Stewartia ovata (mountain camellia), in particular, will be damaged. To their credit, the Forest Service finally admitted that without additional management, logging these areas will likely result in a transition from oak-dominated forests to forests dominated by red maple and tulip poplar. This species shift is a pattern we’ve documented extensively in previously logged areas across the Daniel Boone National Forest. To address this issue they’ve included additional management, including non-commercial felling and prescribed fire, in areas proposed for shelterwood cuts to help perpetuate oak species in these stands.
It’s true that the proposed shelterwood cuts will provide benefits to some struggling wildlife species, and some migratory bird species in particular. However, unlike the woodland restoration activities described above, the habitat benefits of shelterwood harvests tend to be brief, while the impacts of road building, non-native plant invasions, and loss of large trees persist. Hopefully the Forest Service will provide more care and attention to management in these areas than we’ve seen in recent harvests in the Redbird District.
Indiana and northern long-eared bats
One of the big sticking points for Kentucky Heartwood has been the Forest Service’s refusal to conduct surveys for endangered bats in proposed harvest areas. In particular, we are concerned about impacts to maternity colonies of federally-endangered Indiana bats and federally-threatened northern long-eared bats. The Forest Plan has a requirement that “Tree cutting may not be conducted within 2.5 miles of any Indiana bat maternity colony from May 1 through August 15.” This binding Forest Plan Standard also applies to Northern long-eared bats. However, the Forest Service is relying on limited survey data from more than a decade ago to determine that no maternity colonies are in the project area. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in comments they submitted last year on a proposed Forest Plan amendment which would limit protections for endangered bats, cited this paucity of survey data in stating that “It appears likely that there are other Indiana bat and northern long-eared bat maternity colonies present that have not been documented.”
We raised this issue in our comments and through the formal, predecisional objection process. The Forest Service refused to budge on this.
The Pine Creek project area covers some of the best parts of the Daniel Boone National Forest. It’s a rugged landscape where the Rockcastle River and its tributaries cut deep gorges through the sandstone of the Pottsville Escarpment of the Cumberland Plateau. It’s a labyrinthine, magical world of cliffline and waterfalls, natural arches and old-growth forests. It’s home to a myriad of rare and endemic species, like Lucy Braun’s white snakeroot and Indiana bats. And it includes some of the most utilized and loved recreational sites in the Daniel Boone. We thank every one of you that sent comments to the Forest Service advocating for this special landscape. Your contributions had a tangible effect on the outcome of this project. Thank you.
You can read more about the project, including Kentucky Heartwood's comments and formal objection here.
If you appreciate this work, and want to see it continue, please consider supporting Kentucky Heartwood with a financial contribution. We are a small, bare-bones organization and really do need your help to keep it up. You can support Kentucky Heartwood by making a donation here.
The Forest Service has proposed yet another major logging project on the Daniel Boone National Forest to wrap up 2019. But this time they won’t tell you where they're going to log.
Comments on the Environmental Assessment for the “Improving Conditions in the Blackwater Watershed” are due this Friday, December 27, by 11:59 pm. This comment period comes on the tail of the South Redbird comment period and approval of the Pine Creek project. Together these projects would approve about 8,000 acres of logging on the Daniel Boone National Forest.
The Blackwater project would approve logging on 1,200 acres per decade, forever, on national forest lands on the east side of Cave Run Lake. In a new twist, the Forest Service wants to approve this open-ended logging project without first identifying any specific locations where they will actually sell the timber, build roads, or perform other management. Instead, the Forest Service is attempting a new (and legally problematic) process called “condition-based management.” Under this new system, the Forest Service won’t provide any site-specific information or analyze site-specific effects before determining if there will be any major environmental impacts and, ultimately, approving the project. The Forest Service says that they will involve the public in identifying areas for logging after their formal decision is made to approve project – despite having worked for over the past three years to develop this proposal. Does this make sense to you?
The Blackwater proposal includes three Proposed Actions:
The first Proposed Action is logging “to support wildlife by providing a diversity of forest conditions.” Most of this logging will be large, even-aged shelterwood harvests where most of the trees in any given site will be cut. Log landings and skid roads will be constructed. The logging is proposed across large zones totaling about 12,000 acres. Logging could happen just about anywhere in these 12,000 acres with the exception of cliffline and riparian buffers. The Forest Service states that they may build an undisclosed mileage of new roads in undisclosed locations, but that this is not significant because it will be offset by closing a similar mileage of other undisclosed roads.
Kentucky Heartwood has been collecting data from sites previously logged on the Cumberland District, and across the Daniel Boone National Forest, demonstrating that the Forest Service’s logging program has resulted in degraded forests – converting them from largely oak and hickory dominated forests to red maple and tulip poplar. The Blackwater proposal includes no management to restore previously logged areas.
The second Proposed Action is to improve access to the national forest “by enhancing parking and upgrading road maintenance to allow for more public motor vehicle use.” The Forest Service only provides one map showing road segments where “enhancements” and “upgrades” might happen. Conveniently, these same road sections will need upgrading to haul timber. The Forest Service also states that some gated roads “may be considered for seasonal opening to motorized traffic.” But they do not say which segments, whether they will open them, when, or what the effects will be. Again, this is the level of detail being provided in the full Environmental Assessment, which is the basis for making a final decision on the project.
The third, and last, Proposed Action is “Improving water quality through stream restoration and stream crossing improvements.” This could be great. But it’s really not clear. The Forest Service provides one map showing what we estimate to be about 16.8 miles of streams in nine watersheds where restoration “may” and “could” occur. No specific stream lengths, prioritization of sites, or other benchmarks are provided. But, as with logging, the Forest Service treats this lack of detail and clarity as if it doesn’t matter. The Forest Service could restore 0.5 miles in just one stream, or 16.8 miles across 9 watersheds, and it’s all treated the same in the Environmental Assessment.
Prescribed fire is not included as a Proposed Action in the proposal. However, the Forest Service refers to prescribed fire in one table in the Silviculture Report, where they indicate what returning intervals will be used. And the Hydrology Report describes prescribed fire as part of the proposal, recognizing that firelines will be constructed. However, nowhere else in the Environmental Assessment is prescribed fire discussed. It’s not included among the Proposed Actions, and there are no maps showing where prescribed fire would occur. Prescribed fire could be beneficial. It might not be. Prescribed fire affects forest structure, regeneration, species composition, and wildlife in differential ways. The details matter. Either the Forest Service is proposing to approve prescribed fire, and in specific locations, or they’re not. This mushy, opaque analysis is simply not acceptable.
It is important for people to submit comments on this proposal. You don’t have to be intimately familiar with this part of the Daniel Boone National Forest to have valid, authentic input on this proposal. These are your public lands. It is especially important that the Forest Service receive comments opposing their use of the “condition based management” approach. The Forest Service needs to provide a specific proposal, with specific management objectives in specific places. If they can’t provide this level of detail then they’re not ready to make an informed decision to approve and implement the project.
The reality is that the Forest Service is trying to get out bigger logging projects, and more quickly, without having the fiscal and personnel resources to do a thorough and appropriate analysis. So they’re taking shortcuts to get their numbers up, and not just here in Kentucky. Right now the Forest Service is working to approve 60,000 acres of logging across 160,000 acres of the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia under this same “condition based management” system, failing to provide site specific information about what they plan to do and where. The Forest Service is also working to amend their regulations for implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to codify “condition-based management” as the way forward for analyzing timber projects on national forest lands across the country.
Comments on the Blackwater need to be submitted to the Forest Service by Friday, December 27th.
Comments can be submitted through the Forest Service’s website portal here.
Official project documents can be found here.
You can read comments that have been submitted by the public, here.
Comments can also be submitted by postal mail to:
District Ranger Jonathan P. Kazmierski
2375 KY 801 South
Morehead, KY 40351
Attn: Improving conditions in the Blackwater Watershed
Feel free to copy firstname.lastname@example.org on your comment email. You should receive a confirmation reply from the Forest Service letting you know your message was received. Sometimes it takes a few hours to receive the notice. If you do not receive one, that means they did not get your message.
Also, please note that commenting on this blog post does not send your comment to the Forest Service.
If you value this work, please consider donating to Kentucky Heartwood. The Forest Service's decision to release multiple large projects at the end of the year has really hindered our end-of-the-year fundraising efforts. We're a small group, and every bit helps. You can donate on our website here. Thanks!