The treemendous truth about experimental forests

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Good morning, Asheville. Ali here, with a question that I – and a few of our readers – have had for some time. As an Asheville native, I often visited Bent Creek, and I always wondered about the significance of its status as an experimental forest. While the word “experiment” conjures up all sorts of images of scientists with wild hair and beakers filled with green liquid, I’m not sure that’s what this means. So, what exactly is an experimental forest, and why is there one here? 

Here’s what I figured out. 

  • There are 84 Experimental Forests + Ranges, or EFRs, across the US – 76 experimental forests, 4 experimental ranges, and 4 experimental watersheds. They make up the oldest ecological research network in the county. There are also five additional “cooperating” experimental areas in the US.
  • The purpose? To host long-term science + management studies of most major vegetations sites found in this country. 
  • They’re on both public + private lands and range in size from 47 to 22,500 ha (hectares). DYK: One hectare is about 2.47 acres, or about two and a half times the size of an average football field.  
  • There are three experimental forests in NC – Bent Creek Experimental Forest (Buncombe County), Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory + Blue Valley Experimental Forest (both in Macon County). Fun fact: Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory is the only Forest Service outdoor site with the designator “laboratory.” 
  • EFRs can have multiple purposes and multiple lines of research. You’ll find info on rainfall and runoff, invasive wooly adelgids, and more via the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory in Macon County, NC, for example. Research at Blue Valley Experimental Forest, the smallest experimental forest in NC, has included experiments on single-tree selection cutting, white pine ecology, and bark beetle populations.
  • Our 19 Southern experimental forests were all created to focus on specific natural resource problems – like reforestation or supporting naval pitch pine stores, at one point a huge industry in this area.

You can visit many experimental forests, but be sure to stay on established trails and follow all rules so as not to disturb research sites.

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Map courtesy of the US Forest Service

What about Bent Creek?

  • Bent Creek is the oldest federal experimental forest east of the Mississippi. It dates to 1925. It covers 6,000 acres within Pisgah National Forest.
  • In the early 20th century, the area was owned by George Vanderbilt, and was eventually sold to the US government for $5 per acre to create much of Pisgah National Forest. In 1925, the Bent Creek Basin encompassed 1,100 acres set aside for research by the newly-created Appalachian Forest Experiment Station – an additional 5,200 acres was added 10 years later. 
  • The purpose? To “conduct research on silvicultural practices that would aid in the rehabilitation of cutover, abused lands and promote sustainable forestry,” as well as to provide an area for field demonstration of practices in forest management. Silviculture refers to the management of forests to serve needs of landowners and society, including harvesting + regeneration. Most early work in the forest focused around rehabilitating land that had been overfarmed, overgrazed, or logged exploitatively
  • Demonstrations in Bent Creek are used to inform forest management practices and share new research with everyone from landowners to students, researchers, and the general public.

Much of Bent Creek is open to the public, and is crisscrossed with accessible trails for walking, biking + horseback riding.

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