Wild places sustain and define us; we, in turn, must protect them.
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.