June 13, 2008

Logging Begins in Robinson Forest; Environmental Groups Outraged

By Andy Mead, The Lexington Herald-Leader, Ky.

Jun. 13--CLEMONS FORK -- You can tell something unusual is happening when the constant scream of cicadas is overwhelmed by the drone of heavy equipment: Logging has begun in Robinson Forest.

Word that the controversial project was under way brought immediate condemnation Friday from environmentalists, who were caught off guard.

Crews began widening an old logging road last week, taking out some trees along the way. An opening was created as a staging area, and the controversial research project -- designed to learn how to better protect streams from logging -- began in earnest Wednesday.

A large machine called a "feller-buncher" was moving through the woods Friday, cutting trees at the base and placing them in piles so they could be dragged to the staging area and trucked away.

The controversial project is expected to affect about 800 acres of the 10,000-acre main block of the University of Kentucky forest in Eastern Kentucky.

That's about 200 fewer acres than originally planned, but the change won't satisfy opponents.

A statement from a coalition of environmental groups released Friday said they had been unaware that UK was proceeding with the project. The statement, from graduate student Garrett Graddy, named Kentucky Heartwood, the Kentucky Resources Council, the Sierra Club and the Kentucky Waterways Alliance.

It said the groups "are disappointed and frankly outraged with the ... decision to proceed with an alarmingly short-sighted study whose negative ecological and educational effects far outweigh its alleged merits."

University officials say the logging is a research project that will help them learn how to protect streams when trees are cut on private land in the region. That will be done by varying the numbers of trees along streams and monitoring water quality to tell how much silt washes into the streams.

Their plans drew a flurry of protest letters last year from a broad group that included U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Ky.; Wendell Berry, the celebrated Henry County writer; and Tracy Farmer, a former UK trustee. One critic said that logging to learn how to do better logging was such a bad idea that the university's next research project should be "Burn the books in the library to learn how hot the temperature gets and how fast periodicals burn compared to hardcover books."

There were protests outside meetings of the board of trustees. At one point last December, a small group of students and others occupied UK President Lee T. Todd Jr.'s office (he wasn't there).

Todd and the board backed the project, but Todd delayed its start for a while after the protests began.

"It is a shame that the university is moving forward with the project," said Tom FitzGerald, an environmental attorney who is executive director of the Kentucky Resources Council. He predicted that the logging eventually will make it easier for coal companies to force mining of the forest, a charge that UK officials sharply deny.

The acreage dropped from the project was deleted because of "a culmination of a bunch of reasons," said Chris Barton, a UK forest hydrologist and the lead scientist on the project.

Those included past mining near one of the sites that made its water chemistry different from the other areas, the complaints of the protesters, and concerns of the state Division of Water because streams there would be left with fewer trees to protect them from the disturbance of logging.

UK spokesman Jay Blanton said Friday that the university expects to receive about $150,000 from the timber being cut. That is less than expected because timber prices are depressed, he said. It is far less than the $1 million officials have estimated the research will cost.

The logging is the latest chapter in UK's long association with Robinson Forest .

UK was given the property in 1923 by E.O. Robinson, a Cincinnati lumber baron. The land was to be used for "practical demonstration of reforestation" and "the betterment of the people of the mountain region of Kentucky."

Between 1900 and 1920, Robinson had cut virtually all the merchantable timber from the forest. A few trees were left because they were in inaccessible coves, or because they had too many knots or were otherwise unsuitable for lumber.

Daniel Bowker, a forestry graduate student who is working on the project, said a colleague likes to say that there are old-growth trees in Robinson Forest, but not an old-growth forest.

Parts of the area also were farmed. Today, a visitor walking through deep woods will come across piles of rocks that had been moved to the edge of what once was a field or pasture.

In the 1930s, young men in the Civilian Conservation Corps built a camp in the forest and planted some trees, including white pines that covered areas where railroad tracks had been removed.

As the forest that once stood there started regenerating itself, UK built firebreaks, trails and a fire tower. In some cases, the new forest got a helping hand, including when UK killed beech trees to encourage the growth of oaks.

As trees got larger, many were cut to supply lumber for the College of Agriculture's barns and fences in Lexington.

The trees that make up the forest today -- including those that are being cut -- are 80 to 100 years old. The forest is, in many ways, as rich and diverse as the one that once stood there.

Reach Andy Mead at (859) 231-3319 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3319.


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