Forest Service Proposes Fires, Thinning for Pisgah Bay, Others Say Let It Heal

Jun 10, 2014

U.S. Forestry Officials are planning to thin and prescribe burns for more than 5,000 acres of forest, relocate trails, and repair roads at Land Between the Lake’s Pisgah Bay area in the coming months. These changes have sparked some concern among visitors and those with personal roots in the now public land.  

The conversation of Forest Service officials and concerned citizens joins the normal chorus of birdsong at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. The group laughs and chatters as though there is no tension in their meeting. 

Dispersed throughout the group in their iconic olive uniforms, Forest Service members greet citizens who have come armed with sunscreen, water and bug spray, ready for a tour of the proposed Pisgah Bay project area.

Land Between the Lakes Area Supervisor Tina Tilley greets the group and introduces Dennis Wilson as the Pisgah Bay project leader, who goes through the itinerary for the tour.

Twelve people cram into the Forest Service van. The biggest recreational use of LBL is driving, and about 32 miles of roads in the Pisgah Bay area need repairs. In fact, the van nearly got stuck on one of the roads that officials are proposing for seasonal closure. Many roads are causing landscape and watershed degradation. Also, Recreation Program Specialist Gary Hawkins said popular campsites may be changed because they’re impacting some heritage sites.

“The public likes this area,” Hawkins said. “We want to continue to allow that to happen but we don’t want to do it at the expense of another resource.”

But the biggest point of contention for most is forest management.

The 2009 ice storm that toppled trees and sent limbs crashing damaged 40% of the canopy around Pisgah, leaving it vulnerable to wildfires, fungus, insects, and disease. The Forest Service proposes prescribed fires, herbicide treatments and thinning some 4,500 acres to restore forest health and improve the area for recreation. But some believe the forest is better left to heal itself.

“It looks to us like they’re making it a less desirable place to come see and to come be,” said David Nickell, a farmer and professor of sociology and philosophy at West Kentucky Community and Technical College. “The forest can manage itself. I understand there’s a need for spot management. But on the massive scale they’re proposing, it looks more like a work project than a forest maintenance project.”

The Forest Service will sell some 3,600 acres of timber, thinning maples, beeches, and some other species. Officials are also planning to clear 280 acres of the nonnative Loblolly Pine to establish a short leaf pine in its place.

Project leader Dennis Wilson says the cut will encourage the development of mature oak-hickory woodland, bringing the forest back to conditions of Pre-European Settlement.  

“LBL is not cutting timber to make profit…. Timber is a tool to use to meet our desired conditions” reiterates Wilson. “We have cut and leave, which we are cutting and leaving the timber. We have commercial sales that we will, timber will be leaving LBL, but I promise, the receipts are not our primary concern.”

Critics say it will be hard to convince them that the Forest Service is not driven by the bottom line. LBL stands to earn around $900,000 from the proposed commercial thinning. Officials expect the sales to generate around $3.5 million in local economies during the five to ten year project.

Then, there is the prescribed burning which has its opponents.

“I cannot believe that our officials over here haven’t realized the potential of the harm that they’re causing and factored that into their determination to continue it,” says Della Oliver, who was raised in Woodson Chapel community of Land Between the Rivers, before the federal takeover of the property.

She now lives in Lyon County and says she has experienced situations where the smoke is thick enough to choke. A respiratory therapist by profession, Oliver says she knows how polluted air can damage people’s lungs.

But, LBL’s fire management officer says he raised the minimum burn ceiling to get smoke up in the atmosphere and away from residents.  LBL Officials have also offered to warn residents with respiratory problems before prescribed fires, but Oliver is not satisfied.

“To be told that we need to find the names of the people who have breathing problems so they can inform them and they can leave their homes. To me, that’s not acceptable,” Oliver said.

Janice Wilson, who has worked with the Forest Service at LBL for eleven years, finds it difficult to respond to accusations of ulterior motives.

“We don’t talk about, you know, ‘Oh, let’s do it because we get this,’” she said. “We do it for the land. We do it for the Forest Service. We do it because we are land managers.”

She says every one of her colleagues works hard to keep the LBL healthy and safe for use by future generations.

“We care about the forest. We care about educating people. We care about the wildlife. We care about what goes on here,” Wilson said. “And, you know, if people don’t want to think that sentiment is genuine, that’s their choice. But I can tell you from experience, it is genuine.”

Forester and project leader Dennis Wilson held the public tour to promote dialog, which he hopes will improve the project. He is aware that many disagree with him, and he says that’s okay.

“I think that’s, that’s what drives me every day to come to the office,” Dennis Wilson said. “And when we’re implementing our land management activities, I mean, it really does. It, it keeps me driven. And it makes me want to do that much better. And it makes me want to show them that what we’re doing is beneficial.”

Several of those who attended the tour would prefer to see the Forest Service take no action at Pisgah, believing nature the better manager. Dennis Wilson says his team will analyze a no-management alternative, but will table it if it does not help the Forest Service reach its management goals. He says public comments will be factored into the Environmental Assessment before plans are finalized.