A few weeks ago, my wife and I were backpacking on the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail along Rock Creek in McCreary County when we came across a fellow hiker who’d traveled from Indiana to hike Kentucky’s long trail.
After some talk of footwear choices and blisters, she remarked on the astounding beauty of the place. “We don’t have anything like this,” she said.
She was right. In Kentucky we are extraordinarily blessed to have an exceptional landscape of wild rivers, deep forests, countless waterfalls and towering clifflines held in the public trust as the 708,000 acre Daniel Boone National Forest.
But as the number of people visiting our national forest continues to increase, a roughly $4 million maintenance backlog for recreational infrastructure like trails and campgrounds is, according to the Forest Service, putting “a strain on resource sustainability.”
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Unfortunately, rather than focusing on resources that help people get outdoors, the Forest Service is instead moving to dramatically increase the scale and pace of logging.
In March, the agency proposed intensive logging on 7,200 acres in the Redbird and London Districts, after approving over 2,000 acres of logging in the Stearns District last October. Thousands of acres are now planned for cutting on steep mountain slopes above streams that provide some of the last remaining habitat for both the federally threatened Kentucky arrow darter and endangered snuffbox mussel.
The Forest Service also proposed amending the forest’s management plan to loosen restrictions on logging that were meant to protect endangered Indiana bats — changes that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said would likely “result in increased adverse effects” for Indiana bats and other protected species.
At the same time, both Congress and the Forest Service are in the process of radically changing existing laws and regulations so that logging projects like these will be exempt from meaningful environmental review and public input.
Logging on the Daniel Boone has been fairly conservative over the last 15 years, with about 1,000 acres cut annually. It’s a far cry from the 10,000 acre per year harvests that defined the 1980s and 1990s, and the acrimony, protest, litigation and environmental damage that ensued. The prospect of a return to those days should be of concern to anyone who cares about our public lands.
Across Kentucky, only about 10 percent of all forestland, or 4 percent of the state, is managed as public land. On the 90 percent of forests under private ownership, logging is frequent and often aggressive, with the only requirements being minimum standards to reduce impacts to streams. Forest inventory data from state and federal agencies show that, while the total volume of wood in our forests holds steady, logging is driving a marked decline in the quality of Kentucky forests.
From 2004 to 2011, the number of grade 1 trees — the biggest, most grand trees in the forest — decreased by 38 percent. That trend’s likely accelerated, with exports of logs to Europe and Asia doubling since 2012, and growing demand from the bourbon industry helping push the price of the highest quality white oak logs up by 27 percent last year alone.
Poor forestry practices are accelerating a shift toward fewer oaks and more red maple and poplar, as costly long-term management is sidelined by short-term gain. The stark reality is that economics and accepted practices in the forest products industry are driving our forests into a haggard state.
Forest management can be an important part of preserving Kentucky’s natural heritage. But forestry is, at its core, an agricultural endeavor. And the assumptions and prescriptions of traditional forestry often compromise or run contrary to other ecological or social values. Through that narrow lens, even old-growth forests like Lilley Cornett Woods or Blanton Forest are seen as an anomaly or aberration.
Returning to an emphasis on logging in the Daniel Boone National Forest poses a harmful distraction from other, more critical management needs, like the catastrophic loss of our eastern hemlock trees and the deterioration of recreational infrastructure.
Our public lands are special, and ought to be a place where the natural splendor of the landscape can be preserved and sheltered from the economic prerogatives of extractive industries.
Jim Scheff is the director of Kentucky Heartwood and lives in Berea.
This column originally appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader.