The Legacy of Bent Creek

The earliest known inhabitants of the Bent Creek basin are from the early Archaic period 8,000 years ago. The Cherokee are thought to have occupied two large campsites near the creek starting about 500 B.C.. Around 1795, when European settlers began moving into the area, the creek was named for a horseshoe-shaped bend near the French Broad River. By 1900, the basin had been divided into 73 tracts. More than 100 homes and 20 businesses stood on locations ranging from 5 to 500 acres. By then, the entire area had been logged, and about a quarter of it was cultivated or had been turned into pasture.

Historic photo of people logging trees

Logging of Bent Creek in early 1900s.

Between 1900 and 1909, George Vanderbilt acquired the basin and adjacent lands, which would become the vast Biltmore Estate. Later, Bent Creek basin and much of Vanderbilt's other lands were sold to the U.S. Government for $5 per acre. Those lands would become much of what we know today as the Pisgah National Forest. In 1925 the Forest Service set aside 1,100 acres of the Bent Creek area for research by the Appalachian Forest Experiment Station, which Congress had established in 1921. In 1931, Congress authorized the Community Works Administration to construct small office buildings for research on forest management, entomology, pathology, and hydrology.

In 1935, about 5,200 acres were added and the Experimental Forest now includes most of the Bent Creek Watershed. Specific research plots are being developed to showcase proven forest management practices and demonstrate new research findings to land managers, landowners, researchers, students, and the general public. The Bent Creek headquarters office and the Resistance Screening Center for fusiform rust share thearea, and the North Carolina Arboretum has been established on 424 acres to the southwest.

Early Research at Bent Creek

Historic photo of Margaret Abell sitting on a felled tree

Margaret Abell, for many years the only woman employed as a professional forester by the USDA Forest Service, worked at Bent Creek during the 1930’s.

Beginning in 1927, work centered on rehabilitation of land that suffered from past abuses such as erosion from poor farming practices, overgrazing, exploitive logging (“high-grading”), and frequent burning. In 1930, one of the first clearcuts in the Southern Appalachians was designed to regenerate and study a site that had been high-graded. Known as the "Buell Plot," this is the oldest area at Bent Creek for which detailed data on hardwood regeneration and stand development are available. Other early research focused on white pines, which were used for erosion control and timber production on the Biltmore Estate and Bent Creek.

Historic photo of Margaret Abell sitting on a felled tree

Trays of spruce and fir cones in a natural reproduction study, 1926.

During World War II, most silvicultural research was suspended, and field studies were maintained on a custodial basis. Studies continued in wildfire detection, forest pathology, and forest products.

In 1946, research emphasis changed to large-scale tests of silvicultural systems for hardwoods. Compartments averaging 150 acres were established to compare uneven-aged and even-aged silvicultural systems, long and short rotations, and extensive and intensive stand improvements. Some work continued with white pine.

Historic photo of young white pine trees on an eroded plot

Early white pine plantation established on eroded land.

In the early 1960's, most large scale tests were abandoned in favor of intensive data collection on numerous small research plots. Large-scale plots did not provide the level of detail needed to understand site-specific ecological relationships. Long-term studies were started on growth and yield of yellow-poplar stands, regeneration of northern red oak on good quality sites, and the indirect estimation of site quality from soil-site relationships.