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Where will the wood go? LBL plans to fund tornado recovery through tree salvage

Nearly 7000 acres of Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area was damaged by the December 2021 tornado outbreak.
Derek Operle
Nearly 7000 acres of Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area was damaged by the December 2021 tornado outbreak.

Two paths covering nearly 7,000 acres of Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area were carved up by December’s tornado outbreak, leaving portions of LBL in both Kentucky and Tennessee heavily damaged after the storm.

LBL officials say about 4% of the recreation area was heavily impacted. They estimate around 3,200 acres were damaged in the north end near Lyon County, Kentucky, and about 3,500 were damaged in the south end in Stewart County, Tennessee. These calculations don’t include areas with lighter impact from the storms.

Now that LBL officials understand the scale and scope of the damage, Public Affairs Specialist Carlin Lewis says they can move forward, though recovery for the forested areas will take time.

“This was such a large-scale event and caused so much damage and impacted areas that it'll take years to recover,” Lewis said. “The forests, like our communities, are resilient and the work we're doing is helping the forest recover over time.”

Public safety, Lewis added, has been first priority since the storm hit. In the immediate aftermath, LBL sent out forrester crews to survey areas for damage and possibly prepare some areas for salvage. The groups removed debris from high-use recreation areas, rerouted trails and cleared roads.

None of the recreation area’s structures were damaged but some trails are still closed or temporarily rerouted and a day-use area still needs to be cleared before it can be reopened for public use. Visitors can check for closures on LBL’s alerts page.

Anyone who goes to LBL will be able to see first-hand the force of the disaster by looking at the trees twisted and torn down by the tornadoes, specifically in the oak and hickory forests in the damaged areas. To help these areas recover, officials aim to remove some of the damaged timber to limit the potential for insect infestations and wildfire outbreaks and also to improve the resiliency of the forest.

“Opening the forest canopy and letting the forest floor receive more sunlight will encourage natural regeneration of plants and promote the early successional growth like native grasses and forbs, and wildflowers,” Lewis said. “Then other benefits of the work include increased public safety … as well as providing marketable timber and forest products for the local economy.”

The process is focused on the moderate and catastrophic damage in the impacted areas, and the foresters won’t be clear-cutting, Lewis said. Not every downed or damaged tree will be removed during this process.

“When we're done with these cleanup efforts and the salvage sales, it will not look like a pristine golf course,” Lewis said. “There will still be remnants of damaged trees, as the salvage operation will be picking up bigger diameter trees that were fairly or catastrophically impacted and those bigger diameter trees that are on the ground.”

Some of these damaged trees will be sold for timber to a variety of groups. Not only will this provide the local economy with a boost, Lewis said, it should improve the environment.

“Harvesting some of these dead and damaged trees, we will maximize the value of the forest resource, which provides benefits to our local communities, as well as offsets the cost that these recovery efforts can incur to ultimately return these lands to healthy, thriving forests,” she said.

The timber sales will be taken on by a variety of timber contractors and groups like saw mills, pulp mills, lumber yards and wood processors. Some will be turned into cross ties or veneer.

Benton Wood Products is a logging company in Marshall County. They turn trees, like the ones damaged in December 10, 2021 tornadoes, into stave materials.
Lily Burris
Benton Wood Products is a logging company in Marshall County. They turn trees, like the ones damaged in December 10, 2021 tornadoes, into stave materials.

One group hoping to get some timber from LBL is Benton Wood Products, an Independent Stave Company business in Marshall County. They’re looking to get white oaks to turn into staves for wine and bourbon barrels, said Andy Holloway, a log procurement assistant manager for the company. White oaks are particularly suited for this application.

“The reason you want to use white oak is because white oak actually has tyloses in the fibers of the wood, it's like little air pockets that actually hold moisture in or make a barrel watertight,” Holloway said. “Tyloses is a genetic trait that's formed during the dormant stage, so it helps hold liquid and it helps fight off like droughts and things.”

Holloway said the company normally buys from a variety of people and groups such as loggers and sawmills. Since the storm, they’ve been buying more from homeowners who have been told that white oak trees were valuable. Local loggers have been helping the homeowners navigate the process to bring the wood to be bought.

This has also given people a chance to learn more about the logging industry and what might be good for trees.

“That’s been a struggle for us is people that think cutting down a tree is bad,” Holloway said. “It's not necessarily bad. Now the forest ages, and as the forest ages, it gets to a peak where it's not really growing much and it's actually starting to die. At that point, if you don't want to lose value in your timber and your forest, then just letting it sit there and not cutting it, it just disintegrates pretty much.”

If the tornado had come through during the traditional tornado season in the spring, Holloway said things would be very different.

“You would see a high rate of degrade in the wood, which would make it harder for landowners that are cutting the stuff themselves, taking a long time to get in there,” Holloway said. “There would be a lot more that's going to be wasted, for sure.”

During the winter, wood can sit out for four to six months and still be used for something like staves.

The current going price for some logs is about $5 per board foot. Though some parts of logs can’t be used, some trees can be worth up to $2,000.

Funds from the salvage sales made by LBL will be put back into the park’s recovery efforts. There are 12 upcoming sales for the contracts at LBL. Some of the areas for salvage sales will overlap with locations like core areas and recreation areas.

“Removing some of the damaged and down wood in those core areas will help prevent the source point for diseases and insect outbreaks, which could then affect timber not affected by the tornadoes,” Lewis said. “We want to keep those unaffected forests healthy.”

Within the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, there were roughly 7000 acres of land damaged, some near trails and family cemeteries.
Lily Burris
Within the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, there were roughly 7000 acres of land damaged, some near trails and family cemeteries.

Lewis says saplings and trees will grow in the next several years as the area continues to recover. She likened the process to a “living laboratory” of plant composition and diversity. The changes caused by the tornado will also impact the wildlife in the area, such as birds who nest in the area and other migratory wildlife.

While officials have said the tree removal efforts are a part of the effort to help LBL recover, not everyone is on board with their plan.

David Nickell is a sociology and philosophy professor at Western Kentucky Community and Technical College. He grew up in LBL before it was a national recreation area and his family had been there for six generations. Nickell is also the president of the Between the Rivers group, a collective of former LBL residents.

In the aftermath of the tornadoes, the group was unable to get to some of the cemeteries on LBL – which they manage – due to storm damage. Nickell said they’re still working on cleaning those up.

“Most of them, it’s amazing, the trees fell all around them, but did not fall into the cemeteries themselves,” Nickell said.

Getting access to family cemeteries and old family land isn’t the only thing people like Nickell are concerned about. They’re also concerned about what the real results will be of the work done by the United States Forest Service during this recovery. To Nickell, the core areas should be left alone and not included in the salvage sale process. He said he’s seen studies about the positive long-term effects of leaving storm-damaged areas alone to recover on their own.

“They’re the equivalent of control areas for a scientific experiment,” Nickell said. “If we're going to claim that their management is yielding a better, healthy forest, getting results they want, you need some areas that are just left alone to compare them to.”

He thinks the best way to approach the area’s recovery is from a more scientific standpoint, looking at available research and public needs to make the final decision. Nickell is worried the value of the timber will have a bigger impact on the officials’ decision.

“There's going to be a lot of money involved in this cleanup,” Nickell said. “A lot of the trees were just destroyed — they’re snapped and twisted and everything else — but there's also some really large, very valuable timber over there like white oaks, walnuts and different things that were just uprooted and laying down. They'll be able to get huge logs out of those and my concern is going to be that this is going to be more about dollar value than actual health [of the] forest.”

To stay up-to-date on the tornado recovery work at Land Between the Lakes, Lewis said people can visit or check out the Tornado Resource button on their homepage.

Lily Burris is a tornado recovery reporter for WKMS, Murray State's NPR Station. Her nine month reporting project is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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