Kentuckians angered by Forest Service plan to log mature trees in Daniel Boone National Forest
Biden pledged to protect old-growth trees, but proposed clear-cutting in national forests collides with climate policy
BY: MARIANNE LAVELLE, INSIDE CLIMATE NEWS, KENTUCKY LANTERN
This article originally appeared on Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. It is republished with permission. Sign up for their newsletter here. The story is part of Deforestation Inc., a global investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
WILLIAMSBURG — Brandon Bowlin learned of the U.S. government’s plan for clear-cutting in the southernmost mountains of Daniel Boone National Forest only a few weeks after the hard summer rains of 2022, when the earth slid off a mountain beneath a slope he had once logged.
Since age 14 — when Bowlin first held a chainsaw — he has harvested timber in these woods. But they’ve also been his hunting grounds and refuge. It’s a place where he has come across oaks so wide that three men couldn’t join hands around the trunk, trees that witnessed history before the United States existed and could live well into the future.
Bowlin, 37, and his wife, Charity, bought a home nestled beside this forest last year, hoping the land and lush mountains would be a legacy for their teenage children. Now, they could inherit a front row seat to one of the largest and longest-term logging projects ever proposed in the Daniel Boone.
The U.S. Forest Service’s plan, unveiled in October, is for logging, much of it clear-cutting, and the use of herbicides in nearly 10,000 acres over the next 40 years — a project that would spread over roughly half of Jellico Mountain and surrounding peaks on the Tennessee border.
Bowlin is now one of hundreds of residents of Kentucky’s Whitley and McCreary counties begging the Forest Service to abandon the idea. Their pleas bring up the tragedy that looms over the Jellico logging conflict — last summer’s floods and mudslides that killed 44 people in neighboring counties of the Appalachian Mountain range — a disaster residents view as inextricably linked to wanton extraction of both coal and timber.
“The slides all have one thing in common and that’s at some point in the past 10 years and even less in some cases, the mountains above them [have] been clear-cut!” Bowlin wrote to the Forest Service of last year’s deadly landslides and other earthen collapses he has witnessed in woods near the proposed Jellico logging site.
The Forest Service says it will study landslide risk along with other impacts in the environmental assessment of its so-called “Jellico Vegetation Management” proposal that’s due in June. But if officials follow past practice, that analysis will not make more than a passing reference to the most profound environmental issue raised by the Jellico project — the loss of forest protection from the ravages of climate change.
A growing body of scientific evidence makes clear that forests have been a critical buffer against global warming, with mature and old-growth forests storing an outsized amount of carbon dioxide. President Joe Biden acknowledged the “irreplaceable role” of forests in reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in an April 2022 executive order. He directed the Forest Service to conduct its first ever inventory of mature and old-growth stands in National Forests, with an eye to creating new policy protecting them.
“If you compare the map of North America in 1620…with America today, you’ll see how much we’ve devastated our forests,” Biden said at the time. “From the Atlantic Coast almost to the Mississippi River was heavy forests, and we took it all down over those years.”
And yet, even while the Forest Service proceeds with its mature and old-growth census — due in April — the agency has more than 20 logging projects planned or underway on 370,000 acres of older forest around the country, according to a tally by the Climate Forests Project, a large coalition of environmental groups. In a slew of those projects—particularly in the eastern United States—the Forest Service is seeking explicitly to reduce the amount of mature forest on its lands—including in Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky.
“The overall purpose of this project is to balance the age class distribution across this area,” said Tim Reed, district ranger overseeing the Jellico plan, in a November meeting with residents. Acreage with trees more than 80 years old, now 73 percent of this section of the national forest, would be cut back to 54 percent. Currently, 65 percent of the stands in the Jellicos would be older than 130 in 40 years; that proportion would be cut back to 35 percent under the logging plan.
The Jellico plan is part of a campaign for “young forest creation” on public and private forest land throughout the eastern United States. The push to carve young forests out of old ones is colliding with the efforts of climate advocates, backed by recent science, to persuade forest owners to protect mature and old-growth trees—especially those managed by the federal government, which holds the richest remaining stands of these carbon-storage powerhouses.
At the forefront of the young forest drive are wildlife and hunting groups that are also armed with science: studies that show that certain species—in particular, game birds like wild turkey and ruffed grouse—need more open landscape habitat than mature forests provide.
The ultimate beneficiaries of the drive are timber companies, who face global challenges in sourcing raw material due both to the depletion of resources and environmental restrictions. The industry is increasingly consolidated and global. Domtar, for example, the largest U.S. manufacturer of print and copy paper, was purchased in 2021 by Paper Excellence of Canada, a company owned by Jackson Wijaya, a member of one of Indonesia’s wealthiest families.
Domtar is just one of the wood products companies that formed partnerships with the hunting and wildlife groups, which help the timber industry gain access from owners like the Forest Service to large stands of older trees—the most valuable timber available—as well as put a positive “habitat creation” spin on the unpopular practice of clear-cutting. In fact, the messaging around the young forest drive was honed by public relations professionals, as detailed in a recent paper by researchers at Harvard University and forest advocacy organizations that challenges the science behind the logging effort.
“If we want to draw down the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, it is super-important for us to allow to grow back what has been cut over before,” said Michael Kellett, co-founder and executive director of the New England-based conservation group, RESTORE, and lead author of the paper. “We’ve got forces right now—the forest industry, in cahoots with these wildlife biologists and hunters who want to clear-cut forests—that are undermining that effort.”
Forests of the eastern United States are often overlooked in the international climate debate. Tropical forests of the global South and northern boreal forests hold greater stores of carbon. Western U.S. forests, although logged and disrupted by increasingly severe wildfires and insect infestations, still have more old trees. But scientists say the mid-latitude temperate forests east of the Rocky Mountains, because of their expansiveness and relative stability, are an under-appreciated resource in the fight to slow climate change.
“[Temperate forests] kind of hit the sweet spot between being just warm enough to grow a lot, and just cold enough to not decompose a lot,” said Tara Hudiburg, a forest scientist at the University of Idaho who has published extensively on the carbon cycle of trees.
For storing carbon, Hudiburg said, “it’s kind of a unique and strategic idea to focus on systems that are at the mid-latitudes and aren’t as stressed in different ways.”
And it so happens that a key fight between proponents of young and old forest is taking place in the Daniel Boone National Forest, a landscape marred by the kind of heavy coal mining and logging that contributed to the climate crisis that is now especially vulnerable to its worst impacts.
Older trees store more carbon
The young vs. old forest conflict reflects a long-standing divide in the environmental movement between conservation and preservation. President Theodore Roosevelt provided for both in setting the federal public lands policy that essentially holds today. In the nation’s 63 National Parks and other sites managed by the Department of Interior, preservation—protecting 85 million acres of natural and cultural resources—is paramount. But in the 154 National Forests, spanning 189 million acres, the land is conserved for public use; they are open to regulated logging, mining and hunting, as well as recreation.
In 1905, Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, pushed the agency into the U.S. Department of Agriculture—reflecting his idea of timber as a crop. Conservation, Pinchot said, was “the wise use of the earth and its resources for the lasting good of men.”
Today, with the world in climate and biodiversity crises, preservationists argue that the greatest use of the National Forests is to allow them to grow old.
A wealth of research in the past 15 years has upended science’s understanding of the carbon-sequestering power of older trees. Previously, it was widely accepted that, although large trees can store huge amounts of carbon, they lost their capacity to absorb carbon dioxide as they aged.
This concept coincided nicely with the logging industry’s interest in harvesting the older, larger trees that are the most valuable because the carbon cost of felling them could be quickly recouped by planting seedlings and saplings.
That notion has such staying power that the Forest Service asserted it last fall in defense of the Jellico logging proposal, linking to an illustration from a forest products industry group based on a 1998 study sponsored by the Canadian Pulp and Paper Association and the Canadian government.
In 2014, a massive international study in Nature led by researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey showed not only that older trees store more carbon than younger ones, but that their ability to absorb carbon grows continually as they age. The research, based on direct measurements of more than 160,000 trees from 400 species covering every forested continent, shattered the notion that young trees can replace the capacity of old trees to remove carbon from the atmosphere in anything close to the amount of time that humanity has to address climate change. In fact, because of soil disturbance after a timber harvest, studies have shown that new young forests release more carbon than they absorb for 10 to 20 years after planting.
Based on such research, climate advocates and scientists are calling for a revolution in U.S. public lands policy in which national forests would be managed as a strategic carbon reserve, akin to the petroleum stores that the U.S. and other nations agreed to build during the 1970s energy crises.
“The land can do this, if we just let it,” said Beverly Law, professor emeritus in forest ecosystems at Oregon State University. “The lands are as important as the oceans for accumulating and storing carbon.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2021 stressed the importance of halting the degradation of forests as integral to addressing climate change. With emissions from fossil fuels continuing to rise, experts believe the only hope of achieving net zero carbon emissions by mid-century is by removing carbon from the atmosphere, which forests already do at scale. The Forest Service estimates U.S. forests currently offset about 10 percent of the nation’s annual carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. But recent studies indicate they could absorb three times more——if they are allowed to grow rather than being cut down.
“We need to get off of fossilized carbon fuel right away, there’s no question about that,” said Dominick DellaSala, a longtime preservation advocate who is chief scientist of the nonprofit group, Wild Heritage. “But these forests buy us time to do that transition step.” And research by DellaSala and others shows that National Forests hold a disproportionately large share of the carbon, biodiversity, threatened species and water resources of U.S. forests.
World leaders have pledged to protect more land and water to confront the climate and biodiversity crises. At the U.N.’s annual climate talks two years ago in Glasgow, the United States was one of 140 nations that pledged to end forest loss and degradation by 2030. Days after taking office, Biden signed an executive order setting a target of protecting 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030, the first-ever national conservation goal established by a President.
Last Earth Day, Biden issued the executive order on mature and old-growth forests, which was hailed by preservationists, despite a key omission. Although the president pledged to help efforts to halt illegal logging overseas, he made no mention of U.S. timber harvests and offered no additional protections—yet—on federal land. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, followed with a memo stating his intent to continue the Forest Service’s current approaches for protecting mature and old-growth stands. Vilsack detailed the threats to forests—drought, extreme weather, flooding, pests and catastrophic wildfire—but like Biden, did not mention logging.
In January, the Biden administration did curb old-forest logging on some federal land—reinstating the ban on timber harvests in 9 million acres of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, protection that had been eliminated by President Donald J. Trump on North America’s largest temperate rainforest, a landscape so rich that it accounts for 20 percent of the carbon stored in U.S. National Forests.
The Forest Service said in an email that the information it is now gathering on old-growth is “a critical first step to informing further science questions and future management actions” on mature forest. “The agency’s top priority is to maintain and improve the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of current and future generations,” the Forest Service said. But without explicit policy protecting them, most logging projects targeting mature and old-growth trees in national forests will move forward. DellaSala’s research shows 76 percent of the 54 million acres of mature and old-growth forests that the Forest Service manages in the lower 48 states is vulnerable to logging.
In much of the nation, the Forest Service has limited power to stop the loss of its carbon stores, which are being driven primarily by forest fires and insect infestations in the West, according to the agency’s research.But in the East, where greater precipitation offers some protection from drought and wildfire, the agency found that logging is causing more loss of national forest carbon stocks than all other disturbances combined. Preservationists argue that especially at a time when bigger wildfires threaten forests of the West, new policy to protect mature and old-growth in the East could make a big difference in rebuilding the nation’s forest carbon stores.
Eastern U.S. forests don’t have stands of 800-year-old trees, like the Tongass. By one definition, “old growth” is forest that existed before European settlement; less than 1 percent of the public or private woods in the East are that old. But eastern national forests do have a lot of trees that are around 80 years old. Virtually all federal forests east of the Rockies are on land that was bought by the federal government after being heavily used by private owners. A prime example is in Kentucky, where in 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration bought a large parcel of land from the Stearns Coal & Lumber Company that would become part of Daniel Boone National Forest.
Finding meaning in a forest
Bowlin admits that his longing to protect the Jellicos may seem, in his words, “bipolar,” since he has worked in the private land surrounding the forest all his life to cut trees down. “I love logging,” he said. “It’s in my blood, but I have a lot of conservationist in me.”
When Bowlin was growing up, he always thought he’d be a coal miner like his father and grandfather. But his grandfather introduced him to a neighbor who was cutting trees near the mines.
Trees could cause problems, especially at the mouth of the mines. Bowlin’s first job was to preemptively cut the trees around a mine so that endangered bats that migrated to the area in spring would not nest where they’d put themselves in jeopardy and get the mining operations in trouble with regulators.
Working in the woods suited Bowlin. “When you’re a kid, as a deer hunter, the first time your dad or your pap turns you loose and says, ‘Okay, you can go on your own today,’ it’s like a rite of passage…,” he said.
These days, his wife teases him because he comes home from hunts with photos and video more often than with deer. For example, there’s “Patches,” a doe he has named because of the scars on her right shoulder and hip, where she must have been once grazed by a crossbow. He has seen her come back year after year with new fawns. He talks to her, feeds her corn and swears that she recognizes the sound of his truck.
“A real true hunter has also got to be a conservationist because if you go out and kill everything, you have nothing for the next year and the year after that,” Bowlin said.
Although the Forest Service never built trails in the Jellico mountains, Bowlin often hikes, hunts and fishes in the woods beside the national forest. The landowner, Timm Martin, has built 17 miles of trails over the past 25 years and Bowlin helps Martin steward his acreage. Timm’s wife, Theresa, calls him “part of our family on the land.”
The Martins came to love the Jellico mountains from a completely different perspective than Bowlin. Timm was a tech entrepreneur and Theresa was an investment banker living in northern Kentucky near the Ohio border when they decided to seek out a more peaceful life. They crossed the country in an RV, looking at sites out West that were expensive, hot and dry, but Theresa saw a plot for sale back East in a landscape they knew and loved—the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky.
It’s plenty moist. Timm marvels at the moss that seems to grow on every stone of their farm on Little Wolf Creek—part of more than 2,700 acres of riparian corridor the Forest Service estimated to cross the Jellico mountains. Two rare freshwater ray-finned fish, the Cumberland Darterand the Blackside Dace, found nowhere outside these streams in the Cumberland River system, are on the federal endangered species list. More than 55 inches of precipitation has fallen in six of the past 12 yearsat the closest station in the Mesonet, Kentucky’s extensive local weather monitoring system. By one criterion, that would be enough water to make the Martin’s woods a temperate rainforest if the summers weren’t so hot.
Meeting with the Forest Service
The November consultation with the Forest Service started with a prayer, which isn’t common for public meetings run by federal agencies. But this session was organized by community members.
The Martins had met with the local Daniel Boone National Forest officials as soon as they learned about the plan to log the Jellico area, and asked them to explain the project at a public session.
One of the Martins’ neighbors on Little Wolf Creek offered the blessing: “…Have everyone listen and gather all the knowledge that is needed, Lord,” she said. And Theresa, who ran the meeting, offered her own plea: “I want you to join with me in the faith that this democratic process that we are all a part of is going to matter.”
Tim Reed, the district ranger, explained that the “treatment” plan came from an evaluation of the forest’s current condition compared to the desired condition set out in the Forest Plan for the Daniel Boone, which was last updated in 2004. That plan does set goals for developing a network of old-growth areas in the forest, but stresses achieving a balance of age classes.
“We don’t want it all mature. We don’t want it all young,” Reed said. “We want to balance so you have some diversity out there.”
Jim Scheff, staff ecologist for Kentucky Heartwood, argues that the plan will fail to achieve the Forest Service’s stated goal of diversity, in part because it treats all trees it considers mature—trees that are more than 80 years old—as the same.
Scherr’s own graduate research, carried out in Kentucky national forests, showed profound differences between stands of 80-year-old trees and those that are 140-years-old or older, which truly begin to show old-growth characteristics—the structural diversity that is key to old growth forests’ biological diversity.
The Jellico plan calls for logging in stands where Kentucky Heartwood’s expert has identified trees more than 250 years old.
On a recent walk through the area proposed for logging, Scheff pointed out forest management work that should be done there. Some stands are overrun with a rapidly growing invasive species, Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), which secretes chemicals toxic to surrounding plants and can quickly dominate native species.
Kentucky Heartwood said the invasive species apparently became established in Daniel Boone National Forest after past logging, and managers of the Jellico plan clearly are concerned the problem could worsen. The Forest Service’s own research indicates that logging is a major driver of Tree of Heaven spread, with one study suggesting managers should wait six years before logging after efforts to eradicate the persistent weed tree.
At the November meeting, some residents said they would not oppose selective logging at some Jellico sites. “There’s a right way and a wrong way to do it,” said Johnnie Baird, whose late father was a forester. “He select-cut 300 acres over a 20-year period and you couldn’t tell the difference at the end from when he started.” He pointed to the wall map with the Forest Service’s “proposed treatments” for the Jellicos. Yellow splotches meant clear-cutting; pink indicated harvesting that would leave as little as 10 percent of the forest behind to be cut later; and orange marked areas where 20 percent would be left for later logging.
“You will never see a mature tree back in here again,” Baird said. “I guarantee it.”
Despite the different colors, Bowlin said 70 percent of the project was technically clear-cutting, with small temporary reserves of trees left behind.
Pat White, who has been judge executive of Whitley County, its highest elected office, since 2008, comes from a logging family, and said he knows residents are concerned. He learned forest management from his father, who learned it from his own father’s management of the woodlands surrounding his farm. “He cut timber from it three times in his lifetime, because he select-cut every 20 or 25 years, taking prime trees and making room for others to grow,” White said. “If you clear-cut, then it’s 80 or 100 years or longer before you can get anything else from the property. I don’t think there’s any wisdom in that. My dad would describe that as robbing the next generation.”
But the decision appears to be an economic one for the Forest Service. “They get the biggest bang for the buck,” said Furnish, the retired Forest Service deputy chief. “It requires the least amount of investment for them to prepare the sales, and it’s the easiest thing for the logger.”
Forest Service research conducted in the 1980s in the Appalachian Mountains showed that because of the higher costs to extract timber, “treatments” that left 75 percent of trees standing did not provide sufficient revenue to be commercially viable. The volatile timber market has had many ups and downs since then, but the Forest Service still calculates that clear-cutting generates more timber with less labor.
At the public meeting, John Hull, a forest management specialist at Daniel Boone, explained that the agency also planned “intermediate treatments,” such as non-commercial thinning, removal of dead trees and other clean-up in the Jellico mountains. But he said, “The harvest is the main thing. It helps pay for all these other treatments.”
Loss of trees leaves slopes vulnerable to extreme weather
People who live in the valleys below the steep Jellico mountains are worried about different climate impacts than the ones that are the focus of many scientists. Their concerns are not about how many metric tons of carbon storage could be removed, but the loss of shelter from storms.
“It looked like a war zone,” said Jonah Neal, 21, who with his church, Christ the King, in McCreary County, organized a haul of donations to last summer’s flood victims. Even though theirs is one of the state’s poorest counties, they ended up with four truckloads of contributions to fellow Kentuckians who had borne the brunt of the flooding, landslides and mudslides last July and August. The National Weather Service said 14 to 16 inches of rain had fallen in a four-day period, an amount “historically unheard of.”
Everything looked normal during the hour and a half drive to the flood zone, until they exited the Interstate, said Neal, a student of ministry and political science at nearby University of the Cumberlands.
“As you went into the valley, you could literally smell it,” he said. “You couldn’t see it, but you could smell it. And as you came on into town, then you saw the massive piles of people’s stuff, dead fish, ruined everything.”
The area around the Jellico mountains was spared the worst of the storms, but a microburst pummeled a corner of Whitley County near the Martins’ farm. Theresa was stranded away from home for three days. Six inches of rain fell in two hours before their rain gauges overflowed. The creeks raged and soil slid down the mountainside. “The rain washed so much sediment into Jackson Creek that places that used to be waist deep are now ankle deep,” Bowlin said. Water rushed with enough force to push over a nearby mobile home and dislodge a culvert from beneath a main county roadway, which collapsed.
White, the county judge executive, said the total storm damages amounted to about $1 million, and Whitley County has been working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to make the roads more resilient.
But Bowlin and other opponents of the logging project believe such efforts will be for naught if the trees are clear-cut from the surrounding mountains. The landslide that caused the most damage was directly across a valley from the Jellico project site. Although he cannot prove it, Bowlin said he believes the landslide resulted from the clear-cutting he and other loggers did in private forests higher up the slope eight years earlier.
They had followed the same Best Management Practices that the Forest Service now says it will use, and they received state officials’ approval for the silt fences they erected and trenches they dug to divert water and prevent erosion.
“But any time you disturb ground, you’re taking a chance for water to create a slide,” he said. “There’s adverse effects to logging, no matter how good you do it.”
Residents, steeped in the region’s history of logging and mining, raised technical questions for the Forest Service.
At the public meeting in November, the Forest Service soil scientist and hydrologist said they had not set a “threshold,” a limit on how much erosion would be deemed acceptable, since they had not yet determined how much erosion the project could cause.
“The top of my head just about came off,” said Debbie Moses, 64, a neighbor of the Martins who owns forest surrounded on three sides by the Daniel Boone, who had asked the scientists how they would determine an acceptable load of sediment from the logging. “That’s not the right answer. You can’t run the models and then decide what the threshold is going to be. That’s like the tail wagging the dog.”
Moses knows something about such calculations. She was among the first women to graduate from the University of Kentucky with a degree in mining engineering and received the school’s distinguished alumni award in 2017.
She often did environmental analyses both before and after mining operations in and around her native Whitley County, and she had a beef with the logging operations often operating nearby. A Congressionalexemption granted in 1977 let them discharge dredged or fill material into waterways without obtaining the permit under federal Clean Water Act that coal mining operations were required to have.
Moses said there already is a landslide on her woods—possibly from the rains last summer—and she fears the impact of the extensive logging the Forest Service has planned. “All that sediment, the tree branches, whatever—they’re going to end up in the creek, which is going to stop up with extra sediment load,” she said. ”My property will be a floodplain.”
Moses and her husband, Archie, used to walk in their forest, which had originally been his family’s land, almost every day. “He used to say that it was his Prozac,” Moses recalled.
They had apple, walnut and cherry trees, and one year they picked 22 gallons of blackberries. “You could actually live off of that land if you had to,” Moses said. The couple considered raising freshwater shrimp or rice in the old mining ponds on the land but never got around to it. “We had big plans for up there,” she said. “The only thing we didn’t really plan on was him dying.”
Archie died 20 years ago at the age of 56, from a skin cancer that had been diagnosed too late.
Since then, she has refused numerous offers from timber companies that would like to log her land, she said, and her son feels the same way. “That property will be preserved,” she said.
The biggest threat to that vision is Daniel Boone National Forest’s plan for logging Jellico Mountain, right up to the boundary of her land.
Claudia Cotton, soil scientist for the Daniel Boone, told residents at last fall’s meeting that officials took the erosion concerns seriously. “We go to every single one of these units, looking for sensitive areas, areas that have slid, as well as all kinds of areas to protect,” she said. “We’re not taking this lightly at all because we understand how important these resources are to all of us.”
Yet Forest Service officials are moving forward with another large logging project where concerns had been raised about the landslide risk on steep slopes in the Daniel Boone about 50 miles northeast of the Jellicos. Documents obtained by Kentucky Heartwood through a Freedom of Information Act request showed that the Daniel Boone’s retired soil scientist, George Chalfant, detailed the risks of landslides in the area for Cotton and other current Forest Service officials.
In a November 12, 2020 email with the subject line “Coal Seams and Tree Roots,” he said he had inventoried more than 20 landslides in areas that had occurred in clear-cut stands of the Red Bird district of the Daniel Boone, where new logging was planned. All but three of them were associated with a coal seam. Such seams, which also run through the Jellico project area, create inherent weaknesses, which worsen when trees are removed.
“A live root network of a healthy timber stand increases soil strength substantially,” Chalfant wrote. “Slope stability problems often develop after timber harvest on steeper slopes where much of the soil strength is provided by tree roots. As roots decay after harvest, in particular clear-cutting, their value diminishes rapidly.” He said half the tensile strength of roots is lost two years after harvest, with 90 percent lost within five to 9 years.
But Cotton and her colleagues, after inspecting one of the landslides themselves, concluded it was an anomaly, caused in part by an unusual amount of rain. “Precipitation was higher in 2018 and 2019 in this area compared to the preceding eight years,” they wrote in the project’s soil analysis.
Annual precipitation at the weather station that report cited has been above average in each of the three years since then. Since 2011, total annual precipitation in Kentucky has averaged 7.4 inches above the average from 1895 to 2020, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s environmental information center.
But the Forest Service never asked whether the abnormal weather pattern could be part of a trend. Climate change was “not carried forward for detailed analysis,” the Forest Service said in its environmental assessment paving the way for more than 3,800 acres of logging, including removal of up to 90 percent of trees in some plots, in the south Red Bird district of the Daniel Boone. That project was approved on January 19, 2021, President Trump’s last day in office.
The Forest Service told Inside Climate News that in the upcoming Jellico project environmental assessment, climate change and carbon storage impacts will be analyzed in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act. In January, the Biden administration reinstated guidance for agencies to incorporate greenhouse gas emissions into such reviews—a directive that had been suspended under Trump.
But the Red Bird project is moving forward, at least for now. Kentucky Heartwood and other environmental groups have filed suit to block the logging, and proceedings are pending in federal court.
Wildlife groups join with industry to push for “young forests”
An audience member who remained silent at the community meeting over the Jellico logging plan later filed one of the only letters in supportof the Forest Service’s proposal out of more than 300 public comments submitted to the agency at the end of last year. His organization is also managing the timber sale in the Red Bird district for the Forest Service, and he applauded the plan for a similar project in the Jellicos.
Nick Biemiller, forest conservation director in the Southern Appalachians for the Ruffed Grouse Society, wrote that his organization “commends the Forest Service on their efforts to restore young forest habitat at biologically significant scales.” Biemiller even suggested additions to the project, including clear-cutting stands of eastern white pine and tulip poplar.
The Ruffed Grouse Society is more than a hunters’ organization dedicated to the small crested North American game bird with intricate, brown and white plumage. It has been a leader in an interconnected network of nonprofit groups and public agencies that have been advancing logging projects on public and private lands in the eastern United States in the name of creating “young forest.” The timber industry is seldom at the forefront of these efforts, but is helping to fund the drive, and reaping the benefits.
Advocates of the Ruffed Grouse—not endangered, but less common than it once was—are pushing to cut some mature forests down. The effort is buttressed by a large body of science showing that the grouse, the American woodcock and a number of other birds require forest less than 20 years old.
“Overall, what we’re lacking is forest diversity,” said Benjamin Jones, Ruffed Grouse Society president, in an interview. “Just like if you have a community of people that’s all one age, all one generation, that’s not a healthy population. And that’s the case with a lot of our forests, especially east of the Mississippi River.”
In the Jellico mountains of the Daniel Boone National Forest, only 3 percent of the forest is less than 20 years old, which is typical of many eastern forests, Jones said. He argues that not only does this make the forest more vulnerable to disease and pests that attack older trees, but it is the main reason for a recent rapid decline in ruffed grouse numbers.
The bird is listed as a “species of concern” by wildlife agencies in 19 states and is considered an endangered species in Indiana. A 2020 report by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies said the bird’s population has declined 71 percent since 1989 in the southern Appalachians. (It is notable that state wildlife agencies are funded by hunting and fishing license fees, and from a federal excise tax on guns and ammunition, with extra federal funding available for their efforts on behalf of “species of concern.”)
The big picture regarding the ruffed grouse is complex. It has an enormous range—from the Appalachian Mountains through most northern U.S. states and all of Canada. The International Union for Conservation of Nature reports that there were 18 million ruffed grouse in 2021, making it a species of “least concern.” The National Audubon Society, however, says the ruffed grouse is at risk of becoming threatened “without substantial intervention,” wrote Marshall Johnson, chief conservation officer at the nonprofit, in an email to Inside Climate News.
“Homogeneity of forest age and structure across the landscape threatens certain species that need a mosaic of habitats to thrive,” Johnson wrote.
But climate change is also a major threat to the ruffed grouse, Jones, at the Ruffed Grouse Society, agreed, and there is a need for more old-growth forest to draw down the greenhouse gases driving it. But he argues that at the same time, global warming makes creating young forest habitat just as important, to help species that rely on open woodland be more resilient to disease and adapt to change.
“The humbling thing of being in forest wildlife management is you need to think hundreds of years ahead for things that clearly you’ll never see,” Jones said. “Yes, today’s 80-year-old forests, 300 years from now, will be 380 years old. We need to make sure that’s provided for on the landscape. At the same time, we need to make sure that same landscape has some young forest and some middle-age forest. This really is the art and science of forest management.”
The Ruffed Grouse Society is part of a larger coalition called the Young Forest Project, launched by the nonprofit Wildlife Management Institute (WMI) in 2012. WMI is funded in part by the nonprofit National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which counts among its many corporate partnersInternational Paper and Sierra Pacific Industries, another forest products company.
The academic researchers led by Kellett, of RESTORE, traced the history of the Young Forest Project and found a key development was when WMI got help with young forest messaging from the Indiana-based public relations and marketing firm, DJ Case & Associates, which focuses on natural resource issues.
The firm’s survey analysis showed that significant segments of landowners and the general public wanted to ban clear-cutting and valued beauty, benefits to water, air and biodiversity. So the PR professionals suggested two messages seemingly in concert with those values: A diversity of wildlife requires a diversity of habitats. And decreasing young forests have brought about declines in dozens of wildlife species that depend on it.
Those are now the key messages of the “Young Forest Project,” which includes the Forest Service and state agencies as well as timber companies like Weyerhaeuser, MeadWestvaco Corporation, Lyme Timber and J.D. Irving, along with wildlife groups like the Ruffed Grouse Society and Wild Turkey Federation. The Ruffed Grouse Society also has a young forest-focused partnership with Domtar, in which it reaches out to private forest owners on the benefits of habitat creation on their land. The Ruffed Grouse Society then helps connect those who are interested with forestry consultants and ultimately, with Domtar.
Domtar said it began entering into such partnerships because so many private forests were left in poor condition by previous harvests, and had become ineffective at either growing timber or storing carbon. “Our goal with RGS, Audubon [Mid-Atlantic] and other conservation groups is to provide landowners, whose stands that have been compromised, a market and incentive to be able to go back into those properties and conduct remediation work,” wrote Lucas Dillinger, Domtar’s certification manager, in an email to Inside Climate News. “For Domtar, it opens an opportunity to gain access to fiber on lands closer to our mills that might otherwise not be harvested again.”
The Ruffed Grouse Society also has benefited financially from its young forest partnerships.
According to its tax returns, the organization’s revenue nearly doubled in five years, reaching $6.6 million in 2021. It ended that year with a $2.6 million surplus, a turnaround from the $500,000 deficit it posted in 2016. Jones said that the growth in the organization’s budget allows it to pursue even more of the habitat creation that is its mission.
“Anything we ‘make’—quote, unquote—we’re just turning back into more conservation work,” Jones said.
Some of that work has advanced logging projects in national forests throughout the East.
In Vermont, the Ruffed Grouse Society raised $80,000 for a consultant to conduct the environmental assessment that paved the way for a 15,000-acre logging project in Green Mountain National Forest in March 2022. In Indiana, the Ruffed Grouse Society joined in a friend of the court brief in support of the Forest Service, which was being sued by local county officials who fear the area’s drinking water supply will be threatened by a 4,400-acre logging project in Hoosier National Forest; the brief was signed by a lawyer for the American Forest Resources Council, a timber industry group. And in Kentucky, the Forest Service signed a stewardship contract with the Ruffed Grouse Society to manage the 3,825-acre Red Bird timber sale in Daniel Boone National Forest.
There’s an incentive for Forest Service district rangers to enter into such stewardship arrangements with outside groups. Under the 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration law—an initiative of President George W. Bush—all money raised from such timber sales stays local to be used for other stewardship projects, instead of going off to Washington. Timber sales are not a big money-maker for the Forest Service overall—in the 2022 fiscal year they brought in $186 million—less than 2 percent of the agency’s $10.9 billion budget. But they can provide important local support at a time when the Forest Service has had to divert more of its budget to fighting wildfire in the West— 53 percent in 2021, compared to just 16 percent in 1995.
The Forest Service said it has made no decision on whether the Jellico project in Kentucky will be managed through a stewardship partnership, but the Ruffed Grouse Society is pursuing more collaboration with the Forest Service in the region. In his 2021 report on the society’s work in southern Appalachia, Biemiller said his team “has robustly engaged all eight national forests” in the South and “is currently drafting several agreements with the [Forest Service] to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration and wildlife habitat improvement.”
Environmental advocates and scientists who oppose the logging projects in eastern national forests do not dispute the benefits of young forests for ruffed grouse and some other species. But some, including Kellett in his group’s research paper, argue that the population of the birds was unnaturally inflated 50 years ago, ballooning with deforestation of the eastern United States. Forest preservationists also argue that the young forest advocates, including the Forest Service, are missing the larger picture—the eastern United States already is a highly developed mosaic of landscapes: urban, suburban, rural, roadway and farmland.
Although trees and wildlife habitat have been lost in much of that landscape, 81 percent of the remaining forest in the East—341 million acres—is on private land and has no logging restrictions. The Jellico mountains abruptly become private land in Tennessee, with large areas owned by timber and mining interests.
“If you want to see young forest, just go down the interstate,” said Bowlin, who has been logging the area recently.
Currently, only 4 percent of U.S. timber is harvested from national forests, despite the pressure to cut more. Climate advocates argue that logging could be restricted in mature and old-growth areas of national forests without damage to the timber industry, since there is so much wood available on private land.
“What is largely lacking and truly rare is the more mature and particularly old-growth component of the forest,” Furnish said. “And this, I would argue, is the great crying need of the eastern national forest—to just restore the mature old-growth character of much of that Appalachian and New England hardwood landscape that disappeared with the onslaught of logging and other land use.”
But the large expanses of mature trees that make eastern national forests potential reserves of old-growth carbon also make it a prime target of the timber industry. Jeffrey Stringer, chairman of the University of Kentucky’s Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, says that in some locales national forests contain significant forest resources that local markets need. For example, national forests hold only 10 to 15 percent of the supply of white oak, a species in demand for bourbon whiskey barrels, but it is better quality and provides more volume per acre than what can be found on private land.
Stringer said the national forests also have a role in setting a high standard for environmental practices, which tend to transfer to private forest timber operations nearby, his department’s studies have shown.
“On federal lands,” Stringer said, “you have the opportunity of certainly protecting and preserving areas that need to be untouched, and you can define those. But you also have the opportunity to have areas where you can truly be managing for multiple uses, and you have the ability to showcase what good management is.”
An alternative to turning a forest into a crop
Timm Martin said he asked a former Forest Service official how the agency could undertake such a large logging project on the Jellico mountains and still live up to its “multiple use” mandate of balancing recreation and preservation with the use of the forest for timber.
The forester replied that the Red River Gorge, a popular rock climbing area in the national forest about 90 miles north, was the area for recreation. The Jellico area was managed for timber.
And suddenly, it became clear why there were no hiking trails, camp areas or any other amenities on the map of the Jellico mountains.
“They think of it as a crop,” Theresa Martin said. “A long-lived crop.”
Her husband began to work on an alternative. “Jellico mountains deserve something better,” he said. He mapped out the area, including the private forest land like his and Theresa’s adjacent to the Daniel Boone. He talked to neighbors, gathered photos and wrote up a set of principles. He created a website around the idea showing Jellico’s greenery with the words “What if…?”
The “Jellico Mountains National Recreation Area,” he envisioned would preserve the forest but provide opportunities for hiking, hunting, rock climbing, horse-riding and foraging of mushrooms, berries and herbs. The forest would still be open and free to enter. But it would be managed for jobs and tourism “to transform Whitley and McCreary counties into an outdoor recreation destination that will be the envy of rural America.”
Currently, there are 40 National Recreation Areas across the United States managed either by the Forest Service or Department of Interior agencies. Typically, the areas allow more activities than National Parks do, but there is less extraction of resources than on National Forests.
“This idea may be a bipartisan political unicorn,” Martin said, because of its appeal to hunters, fishers, economic development advocates as well as environmentalists.
The Martins, the Bowlins, Neal and others working to promote the National Recreation Area idea hope to establish a basis for the community and the Forest Service to work together toward a better future for the Jellicos.
“We believe they genuinely care about the forests they manage,” Martin said of the Forest Service. “We’d like to come to some sort of collaborative, middle ground.”
Bowlin understands the need for compromises.
Once on a job, he was given the order to cut down a red oak that was more than four feet wide. He didn’t want to do it, but he did.
“We cut a slab off the butt of it, and sanded it and polished it, so that we could count all the rings,” Bowlin said. It was 340 years old.
“That thing has seen the Civil War, the Trail of Tears,” he said. “It could probably have lived another 300 years.”
Bowlin knows that he has changed the landscape around him, while other changes—like increasing severe weather in Kentucky—are beyond anyone’s control. But preserving the forest around Jellico Mountain could be a buffer against the changes, like climate change, that are transforming their world.
“There needs to be an area…that is protected and undisturbed,” Bowlin said. “If they start this logging project, my grandkids will never see what I’ve seen, and their grandkids will never see what I’ve seen.”
This article is part of “Deforestation Inc.,” a global investigation organized and led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in collaboration with 39 media partners. At climate talks in 2021, world leaders pledged to halt forest loss and degradation by 2030. During a nine-month investigation, 140 journalists from 27 countries delved into why and how nations are falling short of meeting that goal.
Marianne Lavelle is a reporter for Inside Climate News. She has covered environment, science, law, and business in Washington, D.C. for more than two decades. She has won the Polk Award, the Investigative Editors and Reporters Award, and numerous other honors. Lavelle spent four years as online energy news editor and writer at National Geographic. She spearheaded a project on climate lobbying for the nonprofit journalism organization, the Center for Public Integrity. She also has worked at U.S. News and World Report magazine and The National Law Journal. While there, she led the award-winning 1992 investigation, “Unequal Protection,” on the disparity in environmental law enforcement against polluters in minority and white communities. Lavelle received her master’s degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and is a graduate of Villanova University.
Top photo: Timm Martin points out areas that are part of the Jellico Vegetation Management proposal to clear cut and log on 10.000 acres inside the Daniel Boone National Forest. (Photo by Jared Hamilton)
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