Old-growth chestnut oak forest approved for logging with trees over 250 years old
Kentucky Heartwood uncovered major errors and inconsistencies in the Forest Service’s stand exams following our review of nearly 20,000 pages of documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Following that review we examined several sites in remote parts of the Redbird District and confirmed the presence of significant old-growth that the Forest Service said didn’t exist, some of which is now approved for logging. These newly identified old-growth areas are in addition to the old-growth forest on Little Flat Creek that Kentucky Heartwood documented in 2018. The Forest Service dropped the Little Flat Creek site from their logging plans, but still maintains that the forest there is only 65 years old despite our submission of tree core data demonstrating that the forest is full of trees 150 to over 300 years old.
A big old-growth chestnut oak on the ridge between Mosely Fork and the Right Fork of Elisha Creek.
During our most recent surveys we identified two significant old-growth areas that are directly threatened by the Mosely Fork sale in the South Red Bird project. One of the sites includes a 20-acre section of high quality old-growth forest with trees over 250 years old, as confirmed through tree core data collected from 20 trees. One of the black gums (Nyssa sylvatica) sampled is over 329 years old. The forest is a dry (xeric or sub-xeric) site dominated by gnarly chestnut oaks (Quercus montana) and black gum, with a mix of white and scarlet oak, hickories, American chestnut, and other species.
Video from old-growth surveys and tree core sampling in South Redbird
We targeted this site for field examination after finding concerning inconsistencies in the Forest Service’s stand exam reports. In those reports, the Forest Service collects a lot of data on trees, mostly species and size information oriented towards planning a timber harvest. However, as part of that assessment, they’re supposed to collect tree core data to determine stand age. But we’ve found that those age determinations are based on extremely limited, biased, and incorrect data collection. At this particular site, the agency reported coring three trees across 40 acres during their 2015 stand exams. They reported a 52 year-old tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), a 91 year-old black oak (Quercus velutina), and a 165 year-old chestnut oak.
But rather than base the age of the forest on the oldest age class, the Forest Service appears to have averaged the tree ages to record a stand age of 103 years. By doing so, the Forest Service avoided disclosing that the stand was potential old-growth, or “POG.” The POG designation in the Daniel Boone NF Forest Plan is based largely on minimum age thresholds, typically of 130 to 140 years depending on the forest type. While the POG designation doesn’t prohibit logging, it does require a more extensive analysis and disclosure before logging can be approved. The Forest Service can also designate forests (both old-growth and younger forests) as “designated old-growth” or “DOG,” which does confer some protections from logging.
Old-growth black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), centuries old, approved for logging.
Compounding the Forest Service’s errors, we found that the chestnut oak that they reported was 165 years old (171 years old in 2021) is actually over 301 years old. Growth rings on very old, small trees on dry sites tend to be very dense. This individual, for example, is only 16” diameter at breast height (dbh), which is pretty typical at this site. Accurately counting rings on old trees like this requires careful sample preparation, including sanding to 1200 grit and examination under a microscope. The Forest Service, however, typically does visual counts in the field and disposes of the sample.
While tree coring can result in a small amount of damage to a tree, evidence from the field of dendrochronology indicates that most trees are able to compartmentalize or heal around the wound with no discernable effects to tree longevity. And an 8 mm hole from an increment borer certainly causes less damage to trees than logging.
Tree core sample from the >301 year-old chestnut oak misdated by the Forest Service. The scale is in centimeters.
At another nearby site we identified a 101-acre old-growth site, of which 26 acres are approved for logging. While our core sampling at this larger site was more limited, we found that the older trees were typically over 250 years old. This second site includes a lot of old chestnut oak, white oak, and tulip poplar, along with a variety of other species like black walnut and sugar maple which we have yet to collect age data on. During our surveys, both flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum) and Cumberland azalea (Rhododendron cumberlandense) provided gorgeous flushes of orange, yellow, and red through the understory, while natural tree-fall gaps offered gorgeous views of the Right Fork of Elisha Creek.
The section of old-growth threated by logging overlaps with an approved 83-acre harvest area made up of two stands in Mosely Fork, where nearly all of the trees are planned for harvest, with skid roads bulldozed to haul out the logs. The Forest Service cored only one tree in each of the two stands approved for harvest to determine stand age. They reported that one tree was 63 years old and the other 80 years (adjusted to 2021), while reporting stand ages of variously 111 or 121 years for the first unit, and 98 or 121 years for the second unit.
Botanists from the Kentucky Office of Nature Preserves looking for rare lichens on old-growth chestnut oak in forest approved for logging.
The 276-acre Mosely Fork watershed is part of the larger Elisha Creek watershed, and provides habitat for what may be the most important population of the Pine Mountain tigersnail (Anguispira rugoderma) in Kentucky and globally. The tigersnail is considered “Imperiled” at the global and state levels (G2, S2), with its range restricted to Clay, Harlan, Leslie, and Bell Counties. According to NatureServe “This Kentucky endemic is mostly associated with old growth, but it also occurs in pure stands of second growth tulip poplar.”
The approved 83 acres of logging in Mosely Fork are contiguous with 30 acres logged in 1989. The overall effect will be to degrade the entire northwest facing side of the valley, and 41% of the watershed, with respect to habitat for the tigersnail. Several rare lichen species were also recently documented in the threatened old-growth section of Mosely Fork by the Kentucky Office of Nature Preserves. One of those lichens, Fuscopannaria leucosticte, is considered critically imperiled in Kentucky and lives primarily on the bark of old-growth chestnut oaks.
Pointing to Fuscopannaria leucosticte, a critically imperiled lichen growing on old-growth chestnut oak.
This larger old-growth site borders the Right Fork of Elisha Creek proposed Research Natural (pRNA). The Right Fork of Elisha Creek was proposed for designation as a Research Natural Area decades ago, but the process was never completed by the Forest Service. In the South Red Bird analysis, the Forest Service stated that the 160 acres of the pRNA won’t be logged and therefore will help the project area meet Forest Plan old-growth objectives. They used this as part of their rationale for refusing to designate any more old-growth (DOG), despite Kentucky Heartwood’s urging such designations throughout the development and analysis of the South Red Bird project.
But there’s no indication that those 160 acres actually include any old-growth. Based on the Forest Service’s data, 44% of the 160 acres is under 100 years old, and 13% was logged in 1989. The rest remains unexamined. And in another twist, we recently learned that the Southern Research Station of U.S. Forest Service, which will assume responsibility for the Research Natural Area once it’s designated, considers the Right Fork of Elisha Creek pRNA to be 315 acres. The 315-acre area described by the Southern Research Station does include most of the 101-acre old-growth area that Kentucky Heartwood identified.
Cumberland azalea (Rhododendron cumberlandense). (Photo credit Tina Marie Camp Scheff)
In internal documents, the Forest Service acknowledged the existence of potential old-growth adjacent to the Right Fork of Elisha Creek pRNA (in addition to several other POG sites). Despite the recognition of these POG areas in internal documents, the Environmental Assessment simply states that “There are no stands in the project area not within the proposed RNA that satisfy the conditions for classification as POG.” Nowhere in nearly 20,000 pages of FOIA and NEPA documents have we found any explanation for why these forests were dismissed as potential old-growth.
Old-growth white oak in an area approved for logging.
In an email chain found through FOIA, Forest Service staff discussed whether any potential old-growth areas should be added to the pRNA or be managed as Designated Old Growth. In that correspondence, Forest Service staff stated, “So, that’s the stands considered for POG. There are three that are contiguous to the RNA… Nothing says you can’t POG it and forget it.” The internal record is full of dismissive statements and bias against old-growth. In another email, Forest Service staff stated, “Many of our stands that are senescent and in need of regeneration will soon be approaching our ‘old growth standards’, at least from an age perspective.” Elsewhere they stated that “Sadly, most of the forest stands in the South Red Bird (SRB) are older than 50 years.”
Color coordinating with the flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum).
This exemplifies an outdated and incorrect assumption that old-growth and older second-growth forests are fundamentally unhealthy. Throughout the South Red Bird project record, as well as other logging projects on the Daniel Boone National Forest, are assertions that forests that are much over 100 years old are, by nature of their age, in decline and will necessarily become infested with disease and pests and without heavy logging will result in catastrophic collapse of the forest ecosystem.
This nonsense is deeply ingrained among foresters and forest managers who wrongfully conflate maximizing the growth and production of timber products with ecosystem health. They use terms like “resilience” and “forest health” to obfuscate and pretend that agriculture is ecology, and malign the conservation of old-growth as essentially about aesthetics and an ignorance of forestry.
Sampling a tree core from an old-growth chestnut oak.
Several years ago, Kentucky Heartwood’s Staff Ecologist, Jim Scheff, did request a permit to core trees in the Daniel Boone National Forest to identify old-growth forests and to provide that information to the Forest Service. But the Forest Service denied that permit. Fortunately, with Redbird, we were able to do our recent surveys under permit, assisting Dr. Justin Maxwell of Indiana University with his research into the relationship between climate and tree growth. But the future is grim, with the Forest Service working to lock down access and information and block our ability to scrutinize their work. They’re now even demanding that we pay thousands of dollars to get information through the Freedom of Information Act, despite Kentucky Heartwood clearly being eligible for a fee waiver.
Recent Facebook post from the Daniel Boone National Forest.
But Kentucky Heartwood is not giving up on old-growth in Redbird, or elsewhere in the Daniel Boone National Forest. Please consider supporting our work so that we can save these exceptional places from ill-informed and ill-conceived efforts to strip the timber and bulldoze the mountain slopes into a ruinous mess of invasive species and landslides.
Natural canopy opening in old-growth forest above the Right Fork of Elisha Creek.