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Ky. logging threatens what may be the world’s largest red hickory

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Ecologist Jim Scheff has measured two of the tallest red hickory trees in the world in an area marked for logging in the Daniel Boone National Forest. 

The tallest of the pair soars 14 stories over the forest canopy in the upper reaches of Little Flat Creek. There’s a hollow at its base where animals could take shelter and an old fire scar. Scheff thinks it’s probably too big for most logging equipment. 

That’s why, Scheff says, it’s one of the few trees in this forested stand that is not marked for harvest. But that doesn’t mean it’s safe either. Most of the trees around the giant red hickory (Carya Ovalis) are marked with a single slash of blue spray paint – they’ll be cut down in the first round of logging. 

“There’s a pretty good chance one of the other trees is going to smack into it,” Scheff said. “The other thing is the forest service has flagged a logging road through its root zone, and so by bulldozing a road through there and bulldozing its roots, that’s going to impact the tree as well.”

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The U.S. Forest Service has earmarked nearly 4,000 acres of this part of the Daniel Boone for commercial logging, according to the environmental assessment. The timber’s estimated value is approximately $4 million.  

District rangers say the South Red Bird Wildlife Enhancement Project is necessary to create more young forest habitat for deer, elk, grouse and turkey, and it is part of a larger plan to improve the forest’s health. In these areas, loggers will leave behind seven to 20 trees per acre. 

“We got to this watershed, we looked at it and these were the prescriptions that were written for that particular area where you guys went and saw the blue paint,” said Tim Eling, Daniel Boone National Forest public affairs staff officer. “I believe that’s the first timber sale that’s coming out of that area in South Red Bird.”   

Scheff, who works with the forest protection non-profit Kentucky Heartwood, said the commercial logging efforts will damage centuries’ old trees, degrade habitat for threatened and endangered species and multiply the growth of invasive plants. 

The proof, he said, is apparent in the landslides that resulted from previous logging in a section of the Daniel Boone forest only miles away from the towering red hickories. 

“What they are doing, the way they are planning to do it, leaves the landscape at risk of substantial degradation,” Scheff said. 

On Thursday, the forest protection group filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Forest Service to protect endangered species in the South Red Bird Wildlife Enhancement Project. 

Balancing economic benefits and forest health

It’s easy to confuse a national forest like the Daniel Boone with a national park like Yellowstone. Both are replete with natural landscapes, resources and wildlife under control of the federal government.

National parks however are under the management of the U.S. Department of the Interior while national forests are managed under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As such, their missions are different. National forests are managed, in part, for their resources, and can allow for hunting and logging — neither of which are permitted in national parks. 

It is somewhat of a balancing act, you are doing management activities, resource management, you’re going in and you are cutting trees down, per our mission, but you are trying to do that the best you can to protect those other sensitive resources,” said Eling with the Forest Service. 

Kentucky Heartwood Ecologist Jim Scheff explains the long term decline of white oak amid trees designated for harvest.
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Kentucky Heartwood Ecologist Jim Scheff explains the long term decline of white oak amid trees designated for harvest.

The Red Bird Ranger District is situated among the rugged hills of the Cumberland Plateau. The slopes are often steep, and the soils can be loose with shale, fire clay and coal seams.

The plan for the South Red Bird Wildlife Enhancement Project encompasses more than 32,000 acres of National Forest System lands spanning parts of Clay, Leslie and Bell counties.

It’s a part of the state that’s struggled economically and environmentally, particularly following the steep decline in the coal industry. Abandoned mine lands still leak acid mine drainage into parts of the watershed, and more than 250 oil and gas wells still hide in the hills, according to an environmental assessment

The goal of the project as written is to improve the forest wildlife habitat, regenerate white oaks, fix trails, prevent disease and create diverse habitats for wildlife. 

The proposed actions affect more than a third of the forest, including prescribed fires, road construction, trails and timber harvests. Commercial logging efforts will take place on about 12% of the land, or 3,925 acres, according to the report. The approximate value of the timber is nearly $4 million.

The Forest Service signed what’s called a stewardship agreement with the Ruffed Grouse Society last September. The non-profit will use the funds generated from the sale to provide services to improve wildlife habitat for grouse, elk, and turkey, as well as reforestation projects on abandoned mine lands. The full contribution to Kentucky’s economy is estimated to be more than $85 million over the lifetime of the project.  

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The agreement with the Ruffed Grouse Society allows for logging to begin at any time, though it could take a few years to complete, Eling said.

Eling said harvesting timber from the forests has economic and environmental benefits. District rangers work with experts to identify how to best manage each part of the forest to balance the competing demands and avoid degrading the landscape. 

“We don’t want to see landslides, we don’t want to see proliferation of non-native invasive species, we don’t want to see any negative impacts to [threatened and endangered] species,” Eling said.  

Landslides in the Red Bird District 

Kentucky Heartwood has documented major landslides in areas that were previously logged, including one nearly 10 times the size considered possible in the region by the Forest Service, according to Kentucky Heartwood. 

A landslide in a formerly logged part of the Daniel Boone National Forest.
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A landslide in a formerly logged part of the Daniel Boone National Forest.

Scheff brought me to see landslides in the hills above Ulysses Creek in a previously logged section of the Daniel Boone. We scrambled hundreds of feet up the side of a mountain over the scars of a landslide, holding onto exposed roots and shrubs to pull ourselves over the loose soils and bramble.  Near the top of the landslide, we found the old skid roads that loggers had carved into the sides of the mountains to bring in equipment and pull out the felled trees.  

Much of the area had been overtaken with briars and invasive species like autumn olive, honeysuckle, kudzu and Japanese stilt grass.

“What we are seeing again and again out here, especially in the Red Bird District, is what the Forest Service is leaving behind is not acceptable, it’s not what they said would happen,” Scheff said. 

A landslide in a formerly logged part of the Daniel Boone National Forest.
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A landslide in a formerly logged part of the Daniel Boone National Forest.

The Forest Service says this kind of logging promotes young forest habitat that’s beneficial for species important to Kentucky. The land in front of us tells a different story: invasive species, torn up tree roots and exposed earth.

“I’ve walked through all those old logging units in the last five, 10 years, and I don’t ever see elk signs, they’re just too choked up with briars,” Scheff said.   

Scheff isn’t seeing white oak come back in previously logged areas either.  The tree is probably the most economically vital species in Kentucky, and it’s in long-term decline in the state and across the region. Coopers use charred white oak staves to make the barrels that impart the color and flavor necessary to make Kentucky bourbon. 

A landslide in a formerly logged part of the Daniel Boone National Forest.
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A landslide in a formerly logged part of the Daniel Boone National Forest.

The Forest Service says creating young forest habitat creates more light that makes it easier for white oaks to regenerate. But loggers often don’t want to leave many of the valuable white oak trees behind to seed future generations, Scheff said. 

Standing atop the landslide above Ulysses Creek, Scheff said the trees that loggers left behind have had their bark ripped off and their roots bulldozed.   

“This sort of thing is more efficient for getting a large volume of timber out as quickly and efficiently as possible from an economic perspective,” he said.  

The fate of the red hickories 

Scheff first found the towering red hickories in the area marked for logging last summer. He’s since measured them and submitted his findings to the state’s registry of champion trees with the Kentucky Division of Forestry. Both of them are larger than the current national champion, which makes them likely the tallest of their kind in the world. 

Even if the potential champion does survive the logging efforts, he expects it will fall in a storm without the other trees to block the winds.   

“With that tree not having the buffer of the other trees around it, it’s probably not going to stand very long,” he said. 

For Scheff, the hickories represent the delicate ecology of the area: a unique mix of young forest and old-growth trees, of which there are precious few stands left in the state. The current plan sets aside around 1,800 acres of old-growth forest, but Scheff says there’s a lot more old growth that will be impacted by logging efforts. 

The Redbird Crest Trail in The Daniel Boone National Forest.
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The Redbird Crest Trail in The Daniel Boone National Forest.

He’s also worried about habitat for threatened and endangered species. The Red Bird District is home to a small population of freshwater snuffbox mussels. Fewer than 100 known populations remain in the world. In 2012, U.S. Fish and Wildlife listed it as an endangered species.

There’s also the Kentucky arrow darter, a small brightly-colored fish that exists nowhere in the world outside of the state. It’s currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.  About 16% of the remaining critical habitat for the darter is located within the South Red Bird Project area, according to an objection filed by Kentucky Heartwood.

Though logging and landslides are explicitly listed as a threat to both species, the plans for South Red Bird Project dismiss impacts as unlikely. Similarly, the plans dismiss threats to endangered and threatened bat species including the Indiana bat, the gray bat and the northern long-eared bat.  

Scheff doesn’t believe it’s a binary choice between protecting the forest and reaping the economic benefits of timber harvests and hunting. Kentucky Heartwood has spent years offering detailed observations and alternatives to the forest plan, he said.  

“You don’t have to cut old growth forests and create landslide hazards and put so many other values at risk to create this young forest and early seral habitat. There’s other alternatives we’ve presented to the Forest Service,” he said. “But the Forest Service rejected every alternative to this.   

Scheff now believes Kentucky Heartwood has few choices left but to go to court to protect vulnerable species.

Ryan Van Velzer has told stories of people surviving floods in Thailand, record-breaking heat in Arizona and Hurricane Irma in South Florida. He has worked for The Arizona Republic, The Associated Press and The South Florida Sun Sentinel in addition to working as a travel reporter in Central America and Southeast Asia. Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, Ryan is happy to finally live in a city that has four seasons.
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