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Talk of logging in Rockcastle County springs up concern

James Dees stopped at the King Bottling Co.'s free community tap on Saturday afternoon to collect water coming from Climax Spring.
James Dees stopped at the King Bottling Co.'s free community tap on Saturday afternoon to collect water coming from Climax Spring.

Hundreds of people use a spring called Climax in Rockcastle County as a source of drinking water, and it's been used for thousands of years.

It's one of the largest continuously flowing underground springs in the state and supplies a local bottling company with its product.

And it's nearly pristine, with little human activity documented in its watershed, residents and business owners who work nearby say.

Many of those people as well as the Berea group Kentucky Heartwood are sounding alarms about a federal proposal to commercially log and thin trees, possibly with chemical herbicides, on Daniel Boone National Forest land above the spring.

"Why risk degrading these really important waters to lose money logging land that doesn't really need to be logged?" said Jim Scheff, president of Kentucky Heartwood.

Most of the interested parties seem to agree that the public forest in Rockcastle County, which has been logged before, is not in excellent health. It's a young forest that needs to mature; caves and wetland habitats are in danger or have disappeared, and pests and invasive plants threaten native trees, bats and amphibians.

But the best way to restore health — and forestry philosophy in general — is a matter of controversy.

For the past two years, the U.S. Forest Service has received hundreds of letters and held several public meetings about its Crooked Creek Vegetation Management Project.

The public comment period ended Sept. 3, so a plan has not been finalized. But a preliminary Forest Service report outlines a plan to cut trees to boost growth of hardwoods and timber-quality trees, to use herbicides to put down invasive undesirable species once logging is done, and to build "upland watering holes" or wetlands at the tops of hills.

That last part is good, said Deb Bledsoe, a Rockcastle County resident who has studied environmental science. She is also on the board of Kentucky Waterways Alliance, but she was not speaking for the group.

"We need those ephemeral wetlands up there," Bledsoe said. "That is one thing that was natural and that they would be restoring."

Shallow wetlands, usually created by seasonal seeping of water through the complex limestone channels prevalent in Rockcastle, over the past 200 years have disappeared as a result of damming for farm ponds, agricultural fields or simply a changing forest, said Chris Barton, forest hydrology expert with the University of Kentucky.

Wetlands exist best in pine stands, Barton said, and across the Daniel Boone, pines have been taken over by hardwood trees, such as maple, that drink up a lot more water. The Forest Service proposal notes that renewed pine stands are part of its goal.

Bledsoe said she was concerned about the methods to create the wetlands and a lack of information about how public and private drinking springs and caves (home to protected Indiana bats and other delicate species) would be affected by herbicides, sediment and by heavy Forest Service equipment rumbling overhead.

Homes on the other side of the ridge from Climax Spring use private springs for their drinking water source, and no one is sure which groundwater basin feeds those springs, she said.

But Daniel Boone National Forest London District Supervisor Derek Ibarguen said springs and underground flows were marked on maps displayed at public meetings.

The public comment period is meant to hear residents' concerns so more study can be done to address specific issues, Ibarguen said. When the Forest Service develops options for more public comment, one of the options could be doing nothing.

Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, submitted a letter on behalf of a constituent seeking to delay the project until more study is done, Forest Service officials confirmed.

King Bottling Co. President David King, who built a bottling plant on Climax Spring in 2003, said his company left a tap for raw water in its supply line because people have been coming to gather drinking water at the spring since human beings have existed in Kentucky.

His company filters the water he sells because of state regulations, but he said tests have shown that the bacterial content in the raw water is practically non-existent.

If anything happened to damage the spring "You'd see people chaining themselves to trees," King said.

Nearby farmers have voiced worries about runoff caused by logging as well as herbicide applications and effects on bats and other predators of crop-killing insects.

Kentucky Heartwood said herbicides for invasive species won't be necessary if the Forest Service doesn't log the area.

And that's where the aims of the Forest Service diverge.

"Provide forest products for public use" is one of the goals outlined in the preliminary plan. Essentially, the Forest Service wants to cut some trees so that the trees left will be more valuable for future logging, Bledsoe said.

That's partly true, Forest Service officials said, but the health of the forest is primary.

"We wouldn't have proposed it if we didn't think it was needed," said Ibarguen.

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