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U.S. Forest Service Accused Of Illegal Logging In Kentucky

Daniel Boone National Forest
Ryan Van Velzer

The U.S. Forest Service has marked and illegally sold thousands of trees in excess of its own plans for the Daniel Boone National Forest, according to a survey from the Kentucky Heartwood forest advocacy organization.

You know that old saying about a tree falling in the forest? Kentucky Heartwood Director Jim Scheff may not hear it fall, but he can tell you which one is marked for felling.

It’s not because Scheff did his graduate research on forest and old growth ecology in the Daniel Boone National Forest in southeastern Kentucky (He did). It’s because you don’t need a master’s degree to see the blue spray paint.

It started about six or seven weeks ago, when Scheff was hiking with his wife in a remote section of the Beaver Creek Wilderness in McCreary County. Scheff knew the area was marked for harvest, but it looked off. So he pored over some old maps on his phone.

Then he came back with the proper tools and surveyed the land. Scheff claims the U.S. Forest Service has, or will have, marked and sold somewhere between 6,000 and 20,000 more trees than what was approved as part of a 2017 agreement, according to the report.

“When they go in and cut timber that was not approved to be cut, or, they make a major deviation from what was approved, like for example, selling many thousands of trees beyond what analyzed and approved, they are violating the law,” Scheff said.

A spokesperson for the Daniel Boone National Forest says the forest service has carried out the project as it was designed, but will be “looking into” the allegations of illegal logging.

"We support any citizen that wants to comment about their national forest," said Tim Eling, with the Daniel Boone National Forest.

However, there’s no clear timetable for reviewing the operation because of the coronavirus pandemic, he said.

Scheff’s findings follow a 2018 order from President Donald Trump increasing the amount of timber harvested from U.S. Forests, and new rules extending timber contracts amid the pandemic. And if the Forest Service isn’t following its own rules now, Scheff is worried the worst is yet to come.

“And if they can’t even follow their own prescriptions for the amount of timber they have approved for harvest before they have fully ramped up their timber program, I’m really scared what the forest is going to look like five or 10 years from now,” Scheff said.

Logging In Daniel Boone National Forest

The U.S. Forest Service manages more than 193 million acres with the goal of sustaining the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands for current and future generations.

Logging has always been a part of what the U.S. Forest Service does. At its peak, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the forest service harvested and sold tens of billions of board feet of timber every year.

For about the last two decades, the Forest Service has harvested between two and three billion board feet of timber. In 2018, President Trump increased that amount, signing an executive order to offer for sale at least 3.8 billion board feet from Forest Service lands.

Timber harvesting and forest thinning can help improve wildlife habitat, eliminate non-native species, reduce the risk of forest fires and produce timber products.

All of that was part of the Greenwood Vegetation Management Project in the Daniel Boone National Forest approved in 2017. The project came to fruition following years of public comment that concluded in an environmental assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act.

“We don’t do anything like a vegetation management project or even building a trail or campground or road, whatever it might be, without public involvement,” Eling said.

Scheff was among those who have followed the project since its inception. He participated in public comment and watched as the Forest Service modified its proposals to include fewer acres of timber harvest and fewer prescribed fires, but still he said the project remained the largest timber sale proposed in the forest in more than a decade.

Although it was based on legitimate goals like restoring fire-adapted forest communities, Scheff said the Greenwood Management Project skewed toward commercial timber —more than 2,000 acres was approved for harvest. And that was before Scheff discovered the Forest Service had marked and sold thousands more trees than what it had prescribed.

“When you dig down into the details and you look at things on the ground, ultimately getting a certain volume of timber out really seems to be at the forefront of these projects,” he said.

Counting Trees For Harvest

The Forest Service marks trees for harvest with a slash of blue spray paint. Then contractors come in and cut those trees down. That’s what Scheff expected to see on his hike through the Beaver Creek Wilderness, but what he found was that many more trees appeared marked for harvest than outlined in the plan.

So he came back to survey the number and density of trees in areas destined for timber harvest. That’s known as the basal area. The Forest Service proposed to harvest trees until there were about 30 to 50 square feet of basal area, Scheff said.

“So, you can imagine walking through your typical nice looking mature upland forest, say that’s about 110, 120 square feet of basal area,” he said. “So, removing a little over half to two-thirds of that forest.”

But what Scheff found in his survey was that the Forest Service was marking just over 20 square feet of basal area. That may not seem like much, he said, but it adds up to an average of 13,163 more trees than what was analyzed and approved for in the project.

Not content with his own survey, Scheff asked a volunteer with a master’s degree in forestry to resample several sites and they too, found figures in line with Scheff’s own findings.

“I trusted them to implement these projects as described, as approved and as is consistent with the law,” Scheff said.

Calling For A Suspension of Harvesting

Any over-harvesting would violate not just the forest service’s own regulations, but the National Environmental Policy Act, according to environmental attorney Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council.

FitzGerald, who represents Kentucky Heartwood, sent a letter to the Daniel Boone National Forest supervisor in late April calling for a suspension of further harvesting pending a review and validation of Scheff’s report.

The Forest Service has said that it will use the report to monitor the project. Ordinarily, that happens after a project has already been completed, Eling said. In this case, he said the forest service is drawing plans to visit the area, but can’t say for certain when that will happen.

“When we go out there, yea, we’re going to have that report with us and say, ‘Let’s look at what they’re saying in this particular area’ and take a look at it,” he said.

In the meantime, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is allowing loggers to extend their contracts in national forests to support the industry amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to federal register documents. The order allows contracts issued before April 1, — including those in the Greenwood Management Project — to be extended up to two years.

With the Trump Administration extending contracts and ramping up timber production in national forests, Scheff said he’s losing trust in the Forest Service to follow its own rules and regulations.

Since Greenwood’s approval in 2017, the Forest Service has considered and approved even larger management projects in the Daniel Boone National Forest, Scheff said.

“And so, there’s some really significant problems because as the Forest Service is getting ready to increase the amount of timber being cut on the national forest by a significant amount, we are starting to find these tremendous problems with the implementation of these projects,” Scheff said.

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.