LYON COUNTY, Ky. – Down an old dirt road that skirts around the backwaters of a bay in dense woods near Lake Barkley, Demumbers Creek trickles louder than the chirp of birds and the rustle of squirrels leaping from branches.

This time of year, the water runs fast here – and clear. It rushes downhill toward the bay near a small campground across the lake from Kuttawa.

It’s calm, quiet ... peaceful.

This small stream at the northern tip of Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area is far from the whoosh of cars on the Woodlands Trace National Scenic Byway and removed from the chatter of campers or visitors in the park’s more frequented areas. It is, however, at the center of a public debate over the future of the land here and the role that the U.S. Forest Service, which operates the area, should play in managing it.

It’s been almost a month now since Land Between the Lakes officials announced a temporary freeze on future commercial timber sales contracts in the area. A clamor of logging and prescribed burning opponents had ventured as far as Washington, D.C. to make their voices heard before legislators and federal forestry managers.

Land Between the Lakes Area Supervisor Tina Tilley told the media in late March that park officials would halt future sales for now and would establish a 100-to-150-foot buffer zone where logging contracts in the north border the Trace byway. Pressure from those same legislators and the public has led now to a series of public hearings in May on the logging and prescribed burning practices in the areas around Demumbers and Pisgah bays.

The effort behind the halt has been led by the Coalition for the Preservation of Land Between the Lakes. Lyon County Judge-Executive Wade White and environmental non-profits like the Kentucky and Tennessee Heartwood organizations are strongly backing the coalition.

They’ve called the timber projects here a controversy, but forest officials contend that, behind the downed trees and burned foliage, is the future.

Future Forests

A heavy white truck adorned in USFS logos sits parked near the side of the road near Eggners Ferry Bridge on a sunny afternoon at Land Between the Lakes. Sprawled before it, contractors are hard at work building a new, four-lane bridge to carry traffic over the Kentucky Lake.

Timber Program Manager Dennis Wilson eyes the vast construction project in front of him.

“They’re working on the new bridge here,” he said. “They want to drive across this new bridge as soon as possible because it’s safer and it provides better access not only now, but for the future. What we have is very similar up on the north end of Land Between the Lakes. We have management activities being proposed and implemented that include wildlife habitat improvement projects and forest health projects. They’re designed not only now but for our future. What you see up there … it’s construction.”

After a short drive north to Old Ferry and Paradise roads, and Wilson stands, eyes pointed skyward to a canopy of trees interspersed with pockets of blue sky. Contractors in Demumbers Bay are finishing up a little more than 800 acres of thinning projects to log off weaker trees and invasive loblolly pines for the health of the forest.

“This is my bridge,” Wilson says. “This is the construction zone.”

It’s part of what Wilson calls an oak woodland. Where many of the trees in Land Between the Lakes’ 100,000 acres of forested land are dangerously mismanaged – densely packed and overgrown with brush – the Forest Service is using pre-approved management tools to heal them, thinning the forest with cuts and burns and wildlife stand improvement measures. In many ways, the work amid the ridges and lowlands in the heart of the mass of trees at Land Between the Lakes will one day return the forest to a landscape pre-dating European settlers.

Forest managers approach growth thinning projects differently, but Wilson said at Land Between the Lakes, commercial logging helps remove invasive trees, those damaged in storms or in jeopardy of killing off others, for the future of the healthier trees. Gaps in the canopy and a grassy forest floor are all desired and natural for these parts of the country. Oak and hickory species are preferred, and Wilson said usually between 40-60 trees per acre make a good oak woodland, but the numbers may vary. For example, Wilson said when he and his employees trek into the woods to mark trees for cutting, he’ll open the canopy more at a ridge top and leave a drainage basin untouched. The process of healing the landscape and returning it to a healthy ecosystem takes years – decades often – so he said he understands the way water will flow through an area and how future cuts or prescribed burns will add to the effort.

“There’s a ton of science that goes into this that is not easily understood, but I’m OK with that because it gives me a reason to get up every morning and try to help people understand,” he said.

Wilson said there is no true old-growth forested land in the peninsula between Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. Centuries of cutting before the U.S. Forest Service even took control of the area left it decimated and now only second, third or even fourth-generation forests are left.

“We’re promoting old-growth characteristics,” he said. “We’re managing the forest and speeding up the ecology process.”

After all, he said, a damaged forest may take 100 years to heal itself. The Forest Service can do it in 10.

History in the Trees

The USFS is a relatively new manager amid the miles of dense woods here, said Land Between the Lakes spokeswoman Jan Bush. The service took over in 2000 when the Tennessee Valley Authority surrendered control, amid a national effort to back away from taxpayer-funded areas to focus, instead, on energy production only.

Congressman Ed Whitfield, who partly oversaw the transition of power, said the TVA had been logging the land for years and had been met with a hostile outcry when it circulated the idea of building a resort, a golf course and even an amusement park in Land Between the Lakes.  

Many gateway communities like Grand Rivers, Kuttawa, Eddyville, Aurora and Dover, Tennessee are inhabited by people whose families used to call the land between the rivers their home. When TVA dammed off the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers that produced today’s lakes, the federal government began buying land between the rivers above the flood basins.

West Kentucky Community and Technical College associate professor David Nickell described TVA’s eminent domain projects as a way to take property for demonstration projects to finance its own projects. It made the authority a semi-governmental agency.

Under TVA’s control, Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area was managed as an outdoor enthusiast’s haven, preserved like a wilderness area. TVA would make money from timber projects and plant fast-growing, short-rooted loblolly pines in vacant landscape.

In 2004, Bush said, four years after the USFS had presumed control, officials passed a Land and Resource Management Plan that partly targeted areas overrun with the loblolly pines for cutting and burning efforts to make way for the oak woodlands. The plan identified other areas across the entire peninsula where the Forest Service would gradually transition the landscape back to a healthy, old-growth atmosphere. Some areas farther south near Sugar Bay were identified as future sites of oak grasslands, where the trees would be scattered amid tall savannah grasses also native to the region.

When the 2009 ice storm struck, Wilson said portions of Land Between the Lakes to the north were virtually destroyed. The weak loblollies were fallen and the Forest Service took the damage as an opportunity to get underway on implementing some parts of the forest management parameters outlined in the 2004 plan. Seven areas total were identified as key treatment zones for prescribed management efforts. Wilson’s office worked hard, he said, to compile detailed, scientific environmental assessments that measured the impact the logging and burning would have on the area.

The public, he said, was even invited to participate in tours and hearings for the work at Demumbers and Pisgah bays. Since the work has begun, however, Bush said a lapse in communication has become evident.

The controversy was intensified when, last year, a Draft Scenery Management System Plan was released, outlining ways to promote outdoor recreation tourism and education by creating more open lands through commercial logging as well as farm and pasture leases. That document, Bush said, was confusing. It came at a bad time for the USFS as officials began work at the northern end of the forest. It never actually became a supplement of the 2004 management plan, and late last year, Tilley announced that, on account of an outpouring of public concern, it would be set aside.

This Land is your Land

Bush said much of the outcry against the Forest Service for its management practices in the north comes from bad communication between officials and local residents. That’s why she said she’s eager to get these public hearings underway. She and her colleagues want to connect with a community that has a real stake in the region’s future.

Wilson said the public outcry has created a unique challenge for him. He said he wants people to understand that he and his team are working hard for the betterment of the land. But he said he understands why people – many whose families were displaced from the area decades ago – would be uncomfortable when logging trucks enter and leave the park and dense black smoke rises from the tree tops.

“I believe in what people have to say about this forest,” he said, gazing out at the trees lining Demumbers Creek. “We work for the people. They’re kind of like our boss. I serve the public. I value that and I take my job seriously.”

Tree stumps cast much shorter shadows as the sky began to darken. Wilson drove his large white truck down the forest service roads toward the highway and he looked out at acres of thinned land midway through the logging process.

“It’s just under construction,” he said with a smile. “Just like the bridge.”

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