Environment

Buried in a report for a new forest restoration project, ecologist Jim Scheff stumbled onto a reference of an “unacceptable situation” caused by logging in the Daniel Boone National Forest.

Details were scarce. So, Scheff trekked into the forest to investigate and that’s how he discovered the first landslide. 

Since then, Scheff has documented three more major and several minor landslides on lands the U.S. Forest Service logged as part of a restoration project in the Daniel Boone National Forest. 

Drone footage and photos Scheff collected reveal bulldozed dirt roads carved into steep mountain slopes, shifted earth, overturned trees, torn-up roots, exposed clay, and sediment dumped into streams below.

Now the U.S. Forest Service is finalizing plans for an even larger project that would include nearly three times as much acreage for logging — 3,650 acres — and nearly 100 miles of temporary skid trails in an area just south of the last project.

Kentucky Heartwood

A landslide in the first phase of the Redbird District in March 2020.

The South Redbird Wildlife Enhancement Project would span 32,000 acres of national forest lands in Clay, Leslie and Bell counties. The project is intended to improve wildlife habitat, forage availability and watershed conditions. It would also fix roads and re-work part of the only trail in the district, a nearly 100-mile loop for ATVs.

“Some of these are going to be things like commercial and non-commercial vegetation habitat improvements. So, thinking about the title of this ‘wildlife enhancement,’ this might be to favor certain tree species that provide food for wildlife, think oaks and hickories,” said Tim Eling, spokesman for the Daniel Boone National Forest.  

Scheff, the ecologist, works with Kentucky Heartwood, a non-profit that advocates for the protection and restoration of Kentucky’s forests. He’s filed an objection to the plan arguing the U.S. Forest Service has not followed its own best management practices, violated the Endangered Species Act and devised a plan with an emphasis on creating young forest habitat to sell large volumes of timber.

“If four documented large landslides have occurred thus far as a result of logging in the Group One project, should we expect 12 large landslides in the South Redbird project? How will that affect the Kentucky arrow darter and critical habitat? How would it affect the snuffbox mussel?” Scheff wrote in the objection.

Logging in the Red Bird Ranger District

The Redbird Ranger District sits on about 150,000 acres of rugged, steep Appalachian foothills in the Cumberland Plateau spanning six counties in southeastern Kentucky, according to the Forest Service. The name “Redbird” originated with a Cherokee chief for whom the river that courses through the center of the district is also named. 

The forest is young, most of it is growth that is fewer than 100 years old because of logging. The first piece of land the Forest Service acquired in the area once belonged to the Ford Motor Company. Crews logged the area for hardwood to build automobile parts like wheel spokes, according to the Forest Service. The purchase officially became part of the national forest system in 1965.

Logging, done right, helps regenerate forest and replenish it with native flora. Done poorly, it destroys habitat and helps invasive species gain a foothold. 

Oak trees, for example, are abundant in Kentucky and provide acorns, an important food source for woodland critters. But for reasons that aren’t well understood, oaks, and white oaks in particular, aren’t thriving in the forest understory, Scheff said.

The Forest Service plans call for the harvesting of certain species, thinning of the forest and planting of native trees like oaks and hickories. Crews also plan to use prescribed burns and temporary ponds to improve habitat in the area, Eling said. 

“And that again is to try to create some of that habitat that certain species of wildlife like and want,” Eling said. “A grouse, for example, likes young forest where you create openings in the forest with timber harvesting.”

Conservation however, is just one of many competing uses for national forests. Unlike National Parks, the National Forests are also for livestock grazing, hunting and logging.

Earlier Logging Led to Landslides

To remove logs, crews bulldoze dirt roads through the forest. The Forest Service considers these skid trails temporary routes to be re-vegetated and covered when projects are finished, but it was on one of these trails where scientists identified “erosion”  they considered to be “unacceptable.”   

“Erosion occurred in this location but it was arrested once the area was seeded and mulched. Communication could have kept this from happening, and the leadership, staff, and district all understand that Granny’s Branch was an unacceptable situation. That is not expected to happen again,” according to the 2020 Soil and Water report. 

Kentucky Heartwood

Looking down on a landslide in the Redbird District in May 2020.

The original note led Scheff on several expeditions into the Redbird District. Each time he found new landslides, many of which occur on the steep slopes where the remnants of skid trails still scarred the mountainsides. In fact, Scheff found a 300-foot landslide in the same area where the soil and water report said erosion would not happen again. 

Eling with the forest service acknowledges that landslides did occur in the previous project, and that specialists are working to ensure that the same thing doesn’t happen again, but declined to comment on whether or not logging contributed to the slides. 

“I’d hate to speculate on the exact… I’d say it’s a number of causal factors based on the geology of the area, the soils of the area, the precipitation of the area and everything that was going on in that area,” Eling said. 

Alongside the former skid roads, Scheff identified a number of invasive species taking advantage of the new territory. Among them, kudzu, autumn olive, Japanese stiltgrass and honeysuckle.

“When these large areas of soil are just ripped away, all the native vegetation in those places are stripped away and we know these areas have a high density of invasive species,” Scheff said.

Kentucky Heartwood

This is a logged area on Lower Jack’s Branch in the Redbird District, according to Kentucky Heartwood

Some of the landslides also dumped sediment into local creeks turning clear waters the color of chocolate milk, wrecking aquatic habitat in a watershed full of impaired and at-risk waterways, Scheff said. 

Endangered Species At-Risk 

Given the landslides that have already occurred, Kentucky Heartwood believes logging in the South Redbird Project could damage critical habitat for two federally listed species. 

The Kentucky Arrow Darter, a small brightly-colored fish exists nowhere in the world outside of the state and is currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.  About 16% of the remaining critical habitat for the darter is located within the South Redbird Project area, according to the objection. 

The Red Bird District is also home to a small population of freshwater snuffbox mussels. Only about 79 known populations remain in the world. In 2012, U.S. Fish and Wildlife listed it as an endangered species.

Kentucky Heartwood

Sediment below a landslide in the Redbird District from March 2020.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife specifically lists logging as a threat to both species, largely because it increases the risks of erosion that can fill streams with sediment and suffocate the animals.

Plans for the South Redbird Project dismissed the impacts saying it’s unlikely the extra sediment caused by logging would end up in the streams. The explanation stands in contrast to the landslides and stream sedimentation Kentucky Heartwood discovered in areas logged during the previous project. 

“They just keep pretending it’s a non-issue,” Scheff said. “Now if one of these landslides happened in a stretch of stream that provided critical habitat for the Kentucky arrow darter it could be devastating to that species.”

What’s next 

While Kentucky Heartwood objects to the current plan, it does not oppose the entire project. The group has offered a series of protective measures it would like to see to reduce the amount of logging in the area, limit the bulldozing of mountainsides for skid roads on steep slopes and protect critical wildlife habitat. 

“There are a number of different things that the Forest Service could do. None of them would create the huge output of valuable saw logs however that this project will produce… and so therein lies the issue,” Scheff said.   

Kentucky Heartwood

The aftermath of a landslide in the first phase of the U.S. Forest Service restoration project in May 2020, according to Kentucky Heartwood.

In response to Kentucky Heartwood’s objection and a second objection from the Ruffed Grouse Society, the Forest Service has brought on a new team of specialists to review the objections and the plan for the South Redbird Wildlife Enhancement Project, Eling said. 

That analysis is ongoing. Once the review is complete the team will brief the Daniel Boone National Forest supervisor who will offer to meet with the objectors and talk through the issues any possible remedies, he said.

The project will likely be finalized and could begin as early as next year, Eling said. 

 

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.