After World War I, when the Forest Service sought to establish an experimental station on a site that represented the diversity of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, the Bent Creek area of western North Carolina seemed the logical choice.
Named for a bend in the creek near the French Broad River, Bent Creek typified the upland hardwood forests that spread across much of the region. In 1925, the Forest Service established the area that officially became the Bent Creek Experimental Forest (Bent Creek) on 150 acres set aside from the Pisgah National Forest to conduct research on forest regeneration and erosion control, and to demonstrate forest management practices.
In 1927, the Forest Service expanded the experimental forest from 150 to 1,100 acres, and in 1935, shifted another 5,200 acres of national forest land to Bent Creek, bringing the acreage to about 6,300. In the 1940s and 1960s, parts of the experimental forest were removed for recreational use and a major road project, bringing today’s total to almost 6,000 acres.
In the early 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal work relief program, built the four-mile Hard Times Road that still winds through the experimental forest. At the same time, other New Deal workers constructed 13 buildings including four laboratories, a bunkhouse, two garages, a ranger’s house, and an insectory. These now rustic buildings were built with hand-hewn chestnut beams and white oak shingles. Nearly all of Bent Creek’s original buildings still stand today.
Earl H. Frothingham, the first director of the Appalachian Forest Experiment Station that predated the Southern Research Station, played an important role in establishing Bent Creek and guided its early research on rehabilitating and regenerating degraded hardwood stands. He divided Bent Creek into dozens of “research compartments” with boundary markers and plans for managing and studying each. Researchers also established 40 plots to conduct research ranging from reforestation planting to the effects of prescribed burning. Besides forest management and timber production, research began on erosion control, insects (southern pine beetle), and diseases such as chestnut blight.
Like scientists at other Forest Service stations across the country, Bent Creek researchers sought methods for preventing and eliminating forest fires. Bent Creek scientists developed a fire danger measurement rating system that, by the late 1940s, was used at 420 stations in 24 eastern and southern states.
Around 1960, research at Bent Creek expanded to build on a more ecological approach to forest systems. Rising concerns about the environment in general meant that social acceptance of timber management methods, whether even-aged, two-aged, or uneven-aged (group selection), would become more important. Research on growth and yield included effects of thinning on understory plants and wildlife food sources.
While Bent Creek scientists studied some artificial regeneration, research on natural regeneration methods dominated the program. Much of the regeneration research turned to even-aged methods, but some uneven-aged hardwood regeneration research continued. Research on smaller plots replaced tests on large-scale sites because larger areas did not provide the detail required to understand site-specific ecology. Regenerating red oak on high-quality sites, growth and yield of yellow-poplar stands, and other long-term studies began. By the 1960s, it was clear to researchers that yellow-poplar would almost always outgrow oak on good-quality sites. The challenges of regenerating oaks on good or excellent sites became the focal point of most of the regeneration research at Bent Creek.