Federal officials have proposed the largest timber sale in more than a decade in the Daniel Boone National Forest, prompting objections from some environmental groups but some support as well.
The proposed commercial logging on 3,515 acres in McCreary and Pulaski counties would be part of a project that would include a number of other activities, including controlled fires on more than 15,000 acres.
It would take several years to complete all the logging and other activities.
The project, part of a larger plan for managing the giant forest, is designed to improve wildlife habitat and forest health, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Cutting less desirable trees in spots, for instance, will mean more sunlight and water for white oak, hickory and other desirable trees, and opening up the forest canopy in spots through logging and controlled burning will benefit some plants and birds, including quail and ruffed grouse, the Forest Service said.
"The whole forest plan is based on improving wildlife habitat," said Marie Walker, a Forest Service spokeswoman.
However, Jim Scheff, director of Kentucky Heartwood, argued that large-scale commercial logging carries risks such as helping spread non-native invasive species — already at troublesome levels in the forest — and that there are more effective ways to improve the forest.
The Forest Service could accomplish what it wants to with measures such as careful burning and noncommercial tree thinning, Scheff said.
"They can meet more ecological and habitat goals without commercial timber sales than with," he said.
Logging has long been a controversial part of the Daniel Boone National Forest, which covers more than 708,000 acres in 21 counties.
Much of the land had been heavily cut over before the federal government bought it as part of the effort to protect headwater streams in the Southern Appalachians, establishing the national forest in 1937.
As a thick forest rebounded under better practices, Forest Service timber sales rose, hitting a peak of 46 million board feet of lumber sold in 1989.
Sales plummeted beginning in the early 1990s, however, as environmental groups challenged threats to endangered species, such as the Indiana bat, and protested sales that cost more to administer than they brought in.
In 2000, loggers cut only 1 million board feet of lumber from the Daniel Boone. The number of board feet sold annually has since increased, in part because of a 4,845-acre salvage sale of trees knocked down and damaged in a 2003 ice storm in the northern end of the forest.
The Forest Service sold 4.6 million board feet of lumber in 2012 and 6.3 million in 2013 from the Daniel Boone — far less than two decades ago, and less than the goal set forth in the current management plan.
Logging remains a sore spot with some environmentalists, who believe there is an institutional bias in the Forest Service toward commercial tree-cutting.
Scheff, the Kentucky Heartwood director, said there are some good goals in the proposal the Forest Service has put out for the project, called the Greenwood Vegetation Management Project.
For instance, there are plant species that can benefit from occasional fires, and thinning trees in some places will help correct poor conditions left from previous clear-cutting, he said.
But the scale of the Greenwood project is shocking, Scheff said, with commercial logging that would damage other trees and the terrain as workers drag logs out of the forest.
"There's just so many impacts with logging," Scheff said.
One particular concern is the 4,800-acre Beaver Creek Wilderness in McCreary County, a deep, thickly-wooded valley crossed by clear streams and ringed by sandstone cliffs. It is one of only two wilderness areas in the Daniel Boone National Forest.
The proposal calls for more than 1,100 acres of commercial timber-cutting within a quarter of a mile of Beaver Creek, meaning the peace and solitude of the area would be marred by the whine of chainsaws for years, Scheff said.
Scheff said it's still a problem that the Forest Service spends more money to administer timber sales than it makes on them, while other needs such as recreation remain underfunded. Kentucky Heartwood's objections call for no commercial logging as part of the project.
The plan doesn't do enough to promote development of old-growth forest, even though he stressed that need during a planning meeting, said Scheff, a forest ecologist.
"I think they sacrifice a lot of the potential old-growth habitat," he said.
Kentucky Heartwood and other environmental groups also object to other aspects of the proposal, including using equipment such as bulldozers to build 64 miles of fire-containment lines and spraying herbicide on 222 acres.
The intent of the spraying is to help control nonnative invasive species and prepare the sites for sowing grass and plants for wildlife and pollinators such as bees, according to the proposal.
Kentucky Heartwood called for a more detailed environmental study of the proposal.
The Kentucky Resources Council and the Center for Biological Diversity joined Kentucky Heartwood in its objections to the project.
Monday is the deadline to submit comments about the proposal, but there will be other opportunities to comment on the project as it goes forward.
The Forest Service will analyze public comments and use them to come up with a list of issues and do an environmental assessment, then take comments again before putting out a draft decision on work to be done in the project, said Tim Reed, the Forest Service district ranger for the area that includes the proposed Greenwood project.
People will be able to file objections to the draft decision, which will not be ready before next spring, Reed said.
The Forest Service assessed more than 32,000 acres in coming up with the Greenwood proposal.
Scheff said there is a concern the proposal indicates a trend toward more large project assessments, which could include larger proposed timber sales.
Forest Service officials said the agency does want to do more large assessments, with the goal of improving habitat diversity, air and water quality, forest health and ability to withstand wildfires and invasive bugs.
It's more efficient to look at a big area in planning improvement activities, Reed said.
"It gives us a better picture rather than piecemealing things," he said.
The proposals that come out of those assessments — including the amount of timber cutting — will differ based on the needs, Walker said.
Reed said cutting trees is not the primary goal of the proposed Greenwood project, but rather a way to achieve goals such as improving habitat, though it also brings in some money for the Forest Service and helps the local economy.
The Forest Service would need to remove trees from the Daniel Boone even if it didn't sell the timber, Reed said.
The question is whether the government pays a contractor to do that, or whether a contractor pays the government.
"A commercial sale is a tool," Reed said.
The project proposal calls for reseeding areas disturbed by logging.
Officials pointed out that managing the forest to produce timber is part of the agency's job, along with providing recreation and other benefits.
As for the cost of timber sales, the Forest Service spends more to administer timber sales than loggers pay for the trees, Walker said.
But there are benefits such as improved wildlife habitat that don't show up on the balance sheet, she said.
The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, which administers a wildlife-management area in the proposed project area, is not concerned about the proposal, said spokesman Mark Marraccini.
Cutting trees is sometimes part of sound wildlife management, he said.
McCreary County Judge-Executive Doug Stephens said many local residents oppose clear-cutting and would share some environmental concerns about the project, but many others would support it.
The sharp drop in timber sales from the forest after the early 1990s hurt jobs in the economically depressed county, he said.
"For the most part, most people will think it is good news," he said. "The timber industry is a big part of our economic situation."
Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1