Wild places sustain and define us; we, in turn, must protect them.
The U.S. Forest Service has proposed logging up to 250 acres in areas with extreme landslide risks in the Redbird Ranger District of the Daniel Boone National Forest. Despite these known risks, the Forest Service has proposed the Hector Mountain Salvage project under a Categorical Exclusion (or “CE”), which means that the project will be fast-tracked and exempted from analysis in an Environmental Assessment. The Forest Service proposed the project on February 1, 2022 in response to ice storms that damaged trees in January 2021. The agency failed to include the project in the quarterly Schedule of Proposed Actions (SOPA). The entire announcement was limited to 6 pages and a 30 day comment period.
Logging units in the Hector Mountain Salvage project are just a few miles from the ongoing landslides in the Group One logging project that Kentucky Heartwood has been documenting and reporting on for more than two years. Our examination of LIDAR-derived topographic data and on-the-ground surveys in the Hector Mountain area have found more than a dozen landslides, mostly in stands that were harvested in the 1990s. The Forest Service has mostly downplayed the risks of landslides posed by logging in the Redbird District, and the scoping document fails to make any mention of landslide risks. However, information obtained by Kentucky Heartwood through Freedom of Information Act requests has revealed that the Forest Service has been well-aware of the specific landslide hazards in the Redbird District for a long time.
An email from a former Daniel Boone National Forest Soil Scientist to the current Forest Soil Scientist, dated November 2020, states:
“I recall inventorying over 20 slides in clear cuts on the Red Bird and all but 3 or so were associated with a coal seam. Most of these occurred around 5 years after harvest. The Fire Clay seams I recall were involved with most. I did write something up on that but I don’t have a clue if it’s still around.”
One of the specific hazards relates to the hydrology of coal seams, like the Fire Clay. The Fire Clay runs through all of the proposed logging units in the Hector Mountain Salvage project. In Redbird, these highly permeable coal layers are often underlain by relatively impermeable clays. This causes moisture to accumulate disproportionately at these specific strata. Where soils are highly erodible and slopes very steep, like across most of the Redbird District, this buildup of soil moisture can trigger landslides or other mass wasting events. Intact forest root systems help hold forest soils and slopes together, limiting the extent of any landslides and ability for sediment to reach stream channels. However, in the years following timber harvest, tree root systems die back, reducing their ability to hold soils together. And the construction of full-bench skid roads – which is common on the Redbird District – further exacerbates the issue by affecting hydrology and slope stability, especially where skid roads cross coal seams. All of this is known to the Forest Service, but has been repeatedly ignored in the Group One, South Red Bird, and now Hector Mountain projects.
Notably, the Forest Service has proposed road reconstruction on Forest Service road 1730 “to stabilize the road… and to facilitate passage of large trucks and heavy equipment.” Currently the road is safely passable by passenger vehicles. However, road reconstruction will be needed to support logging trucks and heavy equipment. What the Forest Service fails to disclose is that the instability of the road and slope is the result of a landslide that occurred when that area was logged in 1994. The landslide runs several hundred feet downslope, and the upper portion (where the road is located) is continuing to slump.
Several other landslides were found by Kentucky Heartwood in this same area of, including a major landslide that recently collapsed and resulted in large amounts of sediment and debris in the stream channel. This continuing instability is occurring nearly three decades after the stand was logged.
In addition to landslide concerns, the Forest Service has failed to provide any information on how trees will be assessed for damage and chosen for harvest, or otherwise how heavily they plan to cut the area. Most of the trees that we’ve been able to examine in the field exhibit moderate damage that is well within the trees’ ability to recover. Studies of growth rings in old-growth trees in Kentucky and elsewhere demonstrate that it is normal for very old trees to go through periods for more rapid growth followed by periods – sometimes lasting decades – of very slow growth as they recover from episodes of canopy damage. It’s unusual to examine tree ring patterns in old-growth trees and not see this pattern.
But the Forest Service’s description of the forests’ condition suggests that any damage to trees is catastrophic. In the scoping document, the Forest Service states that damage from the ice storms “has predisposed the stands to forest pathogens, insect-related diseases, reduced annual growth, reduced quality of the wood itself, and ultimately early mortality.” What is clear is that the Forest Service is primarily concerned with “reduced quality of the wood” and any reduction in annual growth.
Our forests evolved with natural disturbance events, like ice storms, and even depend on them. Most logging in the Daniel Boone National Forest is predicated on the Forest Service’s assertion that there is insufficient natural disturbance to support disturbance-dependent species, like ruffed grouse and white oak. But the impacts of the 2021 ice storm to the trees and forests in the Hector Mountain project area are precisely those that support disturbance-dependent species. And the best available science backs that up.
You can read Kentucky Heartwood’s comments to the Forest Service below. In that letter we provide more information about old-growth and natural disturbance, landslide issues, and errors in how the Forest Service is using their Categorical Exclusion authorities. The Kentucky Resources Council joined Kentucky Heartwood in submitting these comments.
Please consider supporting Kentucky Heartwood's work to respond and challenge projects like this by joining or making an extra donation. Our ability to review these projects and do the necessary on-the-ground work to see what's really happening in the forest is only possible through donations from our members and other supporters. You can donate to Kentucky Heartwood here.