Wild places sustain and define us; we, in turn, must protect them.
The Cumberland District of the Daniel Boone National Forest lies below Morehead, Kentucky and to the east of Cave Run Lake. The 12,000-acre Blackwater Landscape Analysis is proposed here. The project is named after Blackwater Creek, a landmark waterway characterized by relatively remote stream sections with great aesthetic value and provides habitat for several fish species. The project area is also home to federally-listed bats, federally-endangered running buffalo clover, and remnants of old growth.
The Forest Service initiated the Blackwater Landscape Analysis in 2016 and released their draft Environmental Assessment (EA) in 2019. The draft EA included timber harvest, road construction and decommissioning, stream restoration, and early seral condition creation (logging). But instead of linking any of these activities to specific sites, all they tell us is this will happen/somewhere/in the project area.
The maps and descriptions provided in the project record are only proposals. The maps merely show an inventory of the area, and some descriptions of very clinical silvicultural words such as “treatments". The agency did not commit to any site-specific actions in the draft or final EA.
Individual citizen comments throughout scoping and the Environmental Assessment expressed confusion, and rightfully so. Many asked for specific locations of timber sale units and expressed disappoint with a vague proposal clearly not ready for public review.
The Forest Service initially used “condition-based management" language during public meetings and field trips, but the agency ultimately chose “adaptive management” to make decisions on a rolling basis, after a signed EA. Unfortunately, adaptive management is codified. However, it does not give the Forest Service permission to push off site-specific analysis for Blackwater before the public comments on specific plans. Adaptive management also requires a well-established monitoring plan. With no site-specific plans, how can there be an adequate monitoring plan?
The Forest Service pushed all decisions for Blackwater to some post-decisional collaborative. In general, collaborative groups are stacked with well-funded industry representatives and conservation groups. Sustained citizen participation is very low. By participating in collaboratives, conservation groups historically walk away protecting less forests, waters, and wildlife than what they planned on. These groups sound appealing. In reality, everyone comes to the table and leaves with half of what should really have been saved. Should we not promote and protect the most forest we can given the impacts of climate change?
A previous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for another project revealed the Forest Service may also leverage stewardship agreements to facilitate logging using partnerships with nonprofits in Blackwater. The nonprofit acts as the timber sale contractor and sells the trees for profit to fund future work. We will continue to witness a conversion of mature and old growth forests into sub par early seral conditions. There are clearly two paths to participate in the public involvement process. One is legally binding through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the route we follow as an environmental advocacy organization. The other is a side door open to special interest groups that circumvents the overwhelming support from the public to protect mature and old-growth forests.
In February 2021, the Forest Service released the final EA with a Decision Notice and Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the Blackwater Landscape Analysis. That kicked off a 45-day objection period. Kentucky Heartwood submitted comments because nothing changed in the record. During the objection resolution meeting, the Forest Service finally admitted that this is a decades-long project.
The Forest Service also admitted that they did not get concurrence letters from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) or the United States Army Corp of Engineers. Therefore, we are unsure that any consultation took place. With a piecemeal process seemingly in place, it’s a financial waste and a drain on other agency’s time to keep going back to each entity on a case-by-case basis for consultation. It also makes it easier for the Forest Service to skip consultation in the future without public scrutiny.
As an example, Kentucky Heartwood already documented the Forest Service's failure to consult with the USFWS concerning landslides sliding off of roads down into critical habitat after logging in another district on the Daniel Boone National Forest. The Forest Service should complete consultation with professionals before Blackwater is signed. This may decrease the take of federally-listed species in the future. This is part of the NEPA process and should not be deferred because adaptive management allows the agency to correct mistakes as they go along.
So, what should the Forest Service have done to avoid this fiasco for Blackwater?
The Forest Service should have followed the law and facilitated a public involvement process outlined in the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA affords citizens and other federal agencies the right to project details to make informed decisions. The law states, "NEPA procedures must ensure that environmental information is available to public officials and citizens before decisions are made and before actions are taken."
The Forest Service didn’t give the public enough. Instead, the public received highly curated content. The Forest Service also failed to provide the soil and water and wildlife reports, and they uploaded several detailed documents to the project page after the objection comment period and before the objection meeting. Kentucky Heartwood documented these discrepancies and alerted the agency that project documents were not forward-facing to the public.
What can citizens do now?
Kentucky Heartwood sent the letter below to the Regional Forester of the Southern Region (R8) requesting a review of the Blackwater project record for NEPA violations and lack of consultation with other federal agencies. As a citizen, please send a personal email to Regional Forester Ken Arney and include Forest Supervisor Scott Ray and Cumberland District Ranger Jon Kazmierski.
Please consider including the following requests in your email:
In reality, Environmental Impact Statements are the appropriate type of analysis for land assessments across the Daniel Boone National Forest. We saw the failure of Environmental Assessments with the South Redbird Wildlife Enhancement Project. We see the pending failures of an EA in Blackwater. We can expect that the same formula will fail in the Jellicos. We must speak up now or get muddled in meaningless processes protected by faulty Environmental Assessments.
The Forest Service is on the cusp of signing a decision! They need to hear from us. There is no deadline, but please get a comment in as soon as possible.
Please send your emails to:
Ken Arney, Regional Forester at firstname.lastname@example.org
Scott Ray, Forest Supervisor, Daniel Boone National Forest at email@example.com
Jon Kazmierski, Cumberland District Ranger at firstname.lastname@example.org