Stunning rock formations, the Red River Gorge, a colorful history and many rare species highlight this Eastern Kentucky forest
By Hannah Gillespie
With its signature red cliffs, deep hemlock groves, sky-spanning stone arches and towering hardwood trees, the Daniel Boone National Forest receives its fair share of visitors annually. The more than 708,000-acre forest is composed of four districts in Eastern Kentucky and is a popular destination for outdoor adventure and experiencing nature.
But the protection of these treasured areas did not happen overnight. The forest today is the result of decades of decisions and actions — some controversial — by Daniel Boone National Forest staff, government officials, environmental groups and volunteers.
The early 1900s brought the passage of legislation that allowed the relatively new U.S. Forest Service to purchase land. On February 23, 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated the Cumberland Purchase Unit in Kentucky as the Cumberland National Forest, which acquired 336,692 acres by June of that year. At the time, the forest proclamation boundary — the land the Forest Service can purchase without congressional permission — spanned 1.3 million acres and was home to 8,000 families.
According to Robert Collins, former forest supervisor of the Cumberland National Forest and author of “A History of the Daniel Boone National Forest,” some of these families were offered cash payments for their land, while others “were given permission to occupy and cultivate a small portion of the land in return for protecting the property.”
“Originally [the forest] was mostly purchases from large corporate landholders, timber companies that had cut all the timber off and coal companies that had mined all the easy coal to get,” says London District Ranger Jason Nedlo. “Those companies were essentially moving on to other areas so the government bought those lands from them.”
Through multiple acquisitions, the forest expanded throughout the decades and was renamed the Daniel Boone National Forest in 1966.
Coal mining and oil and gas drilling on what is now Daniel Boone National Forest began in the 1800s. In one particularly contentious chapter, in 1953 the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company requested to strip mine for coal a 47,000-acre tract of the Cumberland National Forest. The Forest Service had purchased surface rights to the tract from the Stearns Company in 1937, but the company still owned the mineral rights, according to Collins’ history of the forest.
But the following January, the Regional Forester declined the company’s request — and declined it again when the company proposed the project for the second time in 1954. This controversy attracted national attention, as individuals across the country protested strip mining in the Cumberland National Forest. In a 1955 victory for mine opponents, the Department of Agriculture upheld the Forest Service’s decision.
“There’s still a legacy from [mining],” says Nedlo. “We have a lot of acres with super-compacted soil where grass and nothing else will grow there. We also have acid mine drainage in a lot of areas [that results in] extremely low pH water in creeks and streams.”
According to the 2004 Forest Plan, the demand for minerals from the Daniel Boone negatively impacts air and water quality with particulate matter and acid mine drainage. As of 2015, there were also 49 abandoned oil and gas wells.
Excluding those abandoned wells, there were 1,626 oil or gas wells in the forest as of March 2015, 1,166 of which were private and 460 of which were federal.
Of the Daniel Boone National Forest’s 708,800 surface acres, the federal government owns the subsurface mineral rights to 177,000 acres — and 35 percent of that is leased. The remaining roughly 531,000 acres of underground mineral rights are privately owned.
Mineral extraction is far from the only contentious chapter in the forest’s history.
In 1962, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed to dam the Red River to prevent flooding downstream and damage to property, crops and livestock at the request of local residents. Initial studies estimated that 2,000 acres of national forest land would be flooded at pool level and about 8,000 acres affected by management and use of the reservoir.
In August of 1967, the Cumberland Chapter of the Sierra Club voiced their formal opposition to the project “on the grounds that development within the Red River Gorge would destroy the scenic and natural values of that area,” according to Collins. Yet the study conducted by Daniel Boone National Forest staff showed no major impact on the ecology, scenic value, sport fishery, water quality or future development. This created a major controversy between local citizens, who had thought the dam would be constructed soon, and the Sierra Club.
Although the Daniel Boone National Forest supported the proposed dam, in 1969, the governor of Kentucky announced he would not approve construction at the original site, and it was never constructed.
Also in the late ‘60s, the Forest Service acquired the 60,000-acre Redbird Purchase Unit from Red Bird Timber Corporation. Much of this land was previously owned by Fordson Coal Company. The Forest Service sought the land to protect the headwaters of the Kentucky River, as much of the state’s Bluegrass region depends on the river for water.
Since this area became part of the national forest, significant improvements to soil, water and land have occured, according to a July 2018 statement issued by Daniel Boone National Forest staff.
Towards the end of the 20th century, several government actions increased protections for some of the forest’s significant land and water features.
In 1993, Congress granted National Wild and Scenic River status to 19.4 miles of the Red River within the national forest. Congress also designated nearly 18,000 acres of the Daniel Boone National Forest as wilderness areas — undeveloped zones with the highest level of conservation protection. Clifty Wilderness in the Red River Gorge and Beaver Creek Wilderness in the Stearns Ranger District are known for rugged terrain with breathtaking views, sandstone cliffs, natural arches, stream valleys and hemlock groves.
“[The Daniel Boone National Forest has] a tremendous amount of biodiversity essentially because it’s a canyon-type landscape,” says Jim Scheff, director of the nonprofit forest advocacy organization Kentucky Heartwood.
“In terms of describing something that makes the Daniel Boone unique and really special, I think it really derives from that geology and geography that then creates this space for a richness of diversity that you wouldn’t otherwise expect,” says Scheff.
The Clifty Wilderness alone contains 750 types of flowering plants and 170 species of moss, as well as endangered, threatened or rare plants and animals. The Daniel Boone National Forest also shelters at-risk plants such as the rare Lucy Braun’s snakeroot, the endangered Cumberland sandwort and running buffalo clover and the threatened Virginia spiraea and white fringeless orchid. The forest’s caves and rivers are home to 18 species of endangered animals and four species of threatened animals, which include bats, fish and mussels.
These forests also host invasive species that pose a major threat to native trees; the hemlock wooly adelgid, the bark beetle and more recently the emerald ash borer. While infected trees can be treated with pesticide if caught early enough, this is a costly procedure.
Addressing invasive species is just one topic included in the forest’s long-term plan. Roughly every 15 years, national forests undergo a planning process to set desired future conditions and provide broad guidance for upcoming projects.
The most recent forest plan for the Daniel Boone National Forest came out in 2004. Among other changes, the plan proposed two Research Natural Areas, prohibited camping in rock shelters to protect archeological resources, and included plans to restore watersheds and improve soil productivity and air quality.
The plan set seasonal restrictions on logging projects in an effort to protect bat populations that were being adversely affected by the contagious and fatal disease white-nose syndrome, which, in 2004, was new to Eastern Kentucky. According to Nedlo, new research proves the forest plan was too restrictive. In February 2018, the agency proposed an amendment to the plan that would loosen some of those limitations.
The proposal was met with criticism by many in the environmental community. Scheff states that removing these restrictions would weaken protections for the Indiana bat and increase the scale of logging in the forest. In a March 2018 public comment to the Daniel Boone National Forest, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Kentucky Field Office states, “If the action is carried out as proposed, an increase in adverse effects on federally-listed species is anticipated.” A decision on the amendment was not made at press time.
According to Nedlo, increasing commercial timber harvest on the Daniel Boone creates different habitat types.
“We feel that commercial timber harvest is an important tool that allows us to get a lot of other beneficial work done,” says Nedlo, noting that proceeds from timber sales can help fund stream restoration, invasive species removal, rare plant management and cleaning up abandoned mine lands. “And the benefit to timber harvest is it’s essentially a man-made disturbance so it gets a lot more light on the ground.”
In October of 2017, the Greenwood project was approved. It was proposed at 2,500 acres, which was the forest’s largest logging project in the past decade at the time, according to Scheff.
“One of the problems we have with [the Greenwood] project was that that particular landscape area actually has a number of small areas that have fairly high diversity of regionally and state rare floral that we would consider prairie type plants; things that need a fairly persistent open forest structure and not the type of structure that’s created by logging,” says Scheff.
“As part of [Kentucky Heartwood’s] advocacy and work through the objection process some of the logging was reduced and there was some beneficial changes to their herbicide plans,” says Scheff. Now the group is working with the Forest Service and the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission to thoroughly survey specific areas.
In 2012, Kentucky Heartwood successfully urged the Forest Service to withdraw the Crooked Creek Project, a timber harvest that would have impacted the regionally important Climax Spring and the Little Egypt area.
“We documented a fair amount of old growth in some county record plant species including the second-oldest dated shortleaf pine in the country all in this timber area,” says Scheff.
Another high priority of the Daniel Boone National Forest is sustaining recreation. The forest is a popular destination for a variety of outdoor enthusiasts.
But the forest is perhaps best known for the Red River Gorge, which is designated as a national geological area, national natural landmark and national archaeological district.
According to Lexington, Ky., resident and Daniel Boone regular Dave Cooper, the gorge “is now an international destination for rock climbers and we’re getting hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world coming into Kentucky. We love to have them visit Kentucky and experience what those of us in Kentucky have known for a long time; we have a very beautiful state.”
A 2015 study conducted by Eastern Kentucky University researchers found that in the Red River Gorge, “rock climbers are spending $3.6 million dollars annually in an an area that includes some of the poorest counties in the United States.”
“Anecdotally, it seems that tourism and visitation is increasing,” says Nedlo, noting that the agency tracks visitor use at a national scale and doesn’t have statistics specific to Daniel Boone. He explains that due to budget cuts, the Daniel Boone National Forest operates with less employees than needed.
“The people aren’t going away and we still don’t want them too,” Nedlo says. “But we also don’t want them to have a bad experience because of sites in disrepair, a trail is washed out, a campground is filthy or something like that, and so that’s the balance we’re trying to strike with recreation.”
According to Nedlo, volunteers can help with the maintenance of recreation sites. Ultimately, the Daniel Boone National Forest exists as it does today due to the influence of current and past volunteers, administrators, activists, industrialists and more. But most importantly, the Daniel Boone is open to the public for everyone to have their own experience.
“If I have something that’s troubling me or a problem that I can’t seem to work out in my mind, I take my dog, put her on the leash and we go hiking in the Red River Gorge,” says Cooper. “I go for a couple of hours and my problems are all solved. I’m able to work out anything that’s bothering me. I just go to the woods and that’s important.”