Water and Soil

Scientists in the Watershed Management Program seek to: 

  • Improve knowledge of terrestrial, aquatic, and riparian ecology and their linkages;
  • Develop integrated management alternatives to provide desired goods and services; and
  • Create and refine models, databases and tools to evaluate management alternatives.

The stewardship of water and soil resources is an integral part of managing watersheds on national forest lands. These resources are essential for wildlife, fish and plants. A healthy watershed also provides clean water, helps control flooding and soil erosion, and offers a place for forest visitors to enjoy.

Wetland, Cumberland RD


Claudia Cotton, Forest Soil Scientist

Soils in general across the Daniel Boone National Forest (DBNF).

Across the dissected landscape of the DBNF, soils can be tremendously different in a very short distance. Therefore, it is prudent to consider the great variance of soil conditions that surround the “average” conditions described herein. It should be noted that these soil descriptions and interpretations may be used as a general guide for watershed planning, but not for field planning. The smaller the site, the more specific the soil information should be when planning an activity.

In general, most of the soils across the DBNF may be described as deep and moderately deep, well-drained, formed in place above the parent material (residuum) or transported down a slope (collivium), originally weathered from sandstone, siltstone, and shale on mountain tops and mountain sides.
Broadly speaking, most of the soils on the DBNF are strongly leached, highly weathered, old, acid, have definite horizon development, and low native fertility (ultisols). A smaller portion of the soils, particularly those on steep, exposed upper and side slopes, are recently formed with no horizon development (entisols) or are very mildly weathered with some horizon development (inceptisols). The entisols and inceptisols found on the DBNF often have high sand content.
Currently 127 different soils have been mapped and classified on the DBNF and are included in 267 mapping unit delineations, representing one or more soils. Forested soils have not been mapped to the same precision as agricultural soils, an action which has resulted in soil complexes that include multiple soils.

Soil texture and effects across the DBNF.

The most common soil found across 35% of the DBNF is Shelocta silt loam. Silt loams contain mostly silt (50% or more) and some clay (12-27%). On average, Shelocta soil is five feet deep, well-drained, and is formed by a combination of shale, siltstone, and sandstone residuum or colluvium.

Although silt loams are the most common soils on the DBNF, soils with higher clay and sand content may occur on ridgetops and valley bottoms. The texture of a soil (the amount of sand, silt, and/or clay) influences its water holding capacity and drainage speed. Soils that are well-drained are preferred for vegetative growth and commonly found across the DBNF.
On the other hand, clay enriched soils hold water very tightly, so tight in fact, that plant roots often cannot access it. Clay soils may become waterlogged and anaerobic, and plant roots in this situation will not have adequate soil gas exchange and will effectively drown. Soils that contain more than 30% clay in the surface are not common on the forest, only covering at most 10% of the total acreage. Clay soils on the DBNF are often found in borrow or spoil areas, where the topsoil has been removed.

Sandy soils on the DBNF are found on the landscape extremes: on exposed sandstone ridges where the soil is thin and highly weathered, and in valley bottoms along streams. Ironically, the same landscape positions may also have soils that are high in clay content. Sandstone ridgetops may have pockets of soils with comparatively higher clay content, which will drain water much slower than sandy or silty soils. As a result, small patches of typical mesic species, such as eastern hemlock, may be found on otherwise sandy ridgetops, due to clay enriched soils. More often, clay influenced soils are found in stream bottoms and terraces, where they may be waterlogged for all or part of the year.

Erosion Potential of DBNF Soils.

Erosion is defined as a process where soil and rock-particles detach from the land and transport over an area by wind, water, gravity, ice, and chemical action (Keller et al., 2011). Forested soil erosion is affected by rainfall erosivity (amount and intensity), soil erosivity (infiltration capacity and structural stability), topography (slope percent and length), and vegetative cover (Brady and Weil, 2002).
Erosion potential of a soil increases with:

  • increasing rainfall amount and intensity
  • decreasing soil infiltration capacity and structural stability
  • increasing slope percent and length
  • decreasing vegetation cover on the slope

Soil infiltration capacity and structural stability can be negatively affected by compaction. Areas that have been disturbed by human activities, such as mining, often have very compacted soils. As a slope gets steeper and longer, the potential of soil detachment increases as does the opportunity for concentration of the runoff water. Vegetation reduces erosion in several ways: it reduces the amount of water flowing over the surface by intercepting it on the foliage, stems, and surface organic matter; it inhibits channel formation, which reduces the rate and slope of soil movement; and soils with small particles can be held together by roots and fungal strands (Oliver & Larson, 1996).

The large majority of the soils of the DBNF do not high natural erosion potential as long as their vegetative and litter layer cover remain intact. Approximately 0.45% of the soils on the DBNF have severe or very severe erosion potential. These soils are found on all four districts on slopes that exceed 30%. Often the soils are included in a complex with rock outcrops.

Soil microbial community, chemistry, and plant-soil feedback on the DBNF.

To this point, the soils of the DBNF have been described by their physical attributes. Another important aspect of the soils across the project area is their relationship with the plant community that grows on them. The chemical composition and soil microbial community of the soil directly affect the type, density, and diversity of the plants that can grow on it. Nutrient availability is highly influenced by soil chemistry, particularly pH, and microbial activity. The plants that grow on a soil will reflect the soil quality by the amount and rate of growth it can obtain from the nutrient and water availability in the soil. Similarly, when a plant loses it leaves and/or dies, it will decompose and affect the soil by adding organic matter, which can change the soil nutrient availability, change the soil water availability, affect the soil pH, and change the soil structure, among other things. This interaction between plants and soil is known as a plant-soil feedback (van der Puttin et al., 2013). 

As young forests mature across the DBNF, the native condition of the plant-soil feedback is negative. A positive plant-soil feedback would favor only one species, whereas a negative plant-soil feedback encourages diversity of species. A diverse plant community tends to encourage a soil environment that includes beneficial and harmful soil organisms, and those plant species that can adapt to the environment will survive and reproduce. On native forest communities in the DBNF, as a forest stand ages and resources become more limited for plant growth, both the plant species and soil conditions change in concert with each other to favor different plant species and forms over time. This is also known as secondary succession (Nyland, 2002) and can affect forest communities, plant species diversity, and soil conditions in a given space over time.
Soils in specific locations on the DBNF. Soils are a function of climate, parent material, topography, biology, and time (Jenny, 1980). It can be argued that the effects of climate, parent material, and biology are consistent with time across the DBNF. The largest factor on soil formation across the DBNF is topography. In general, as one travels from the western boundary to the eastern boundary of the DBNF, the landscape changes as

  • Ridges get more narrow and winding
  • Prominent cliffline disappears
  • Slopes become longer and steeper
  • Valleys stay consistently narrow
  • Elevation increases

As the overall topography changes from west to east, so do the soils. To a lesser extent the soils also change from the north to the south.

Main Block of the DBNF, including Cumberland, London, and Stearns Ranger Districts

The DNBF has two distinct blocks of land: 1.) the main contiguous block, which includes three ranger districts and 2.) the Redbird Ranger District, which is separate and further east of the main contiguous block. The following description is for the main block.

On the western side of the DBNF there exist silt loams that range in depth from 1.2 to 6.7 feet. This area has prominent cliffline; therefore shallow inceptisols are common where cliffline is found. Soils can be gravelly, which can lead to well-drained or excessively well-drained soils. Dominant soil series in the northwestern part of the DBNF are on average shallower in depth (3.6 feet) than those found further south (4.3 feet). Although the northwestern soils are comparatively shallow, they can take longer to absorb and hold water more tightly because of increased clay content in places. This may result in runoff in heavy precipitation events. Typical soil series in the northwestern part of the DBNF include Berks, Cranston, Coyler, and Rockcastle. Typical soil series in the southwestern part of the DBNF include Jefferson and Shelocta, which are deep (5.0 to 6.7 feet) and well-drained.

The central part of the DBNF is dominated by silt loams that are also deep, ranging from 5.0 to 6.7 feet in depth. On average the soils in this part of the DBNF have higher nutrient availability for tree growth, and are well-drained. Typical soil series include Shelocta and Brookside.

The eastern third of the DBNF may be characterized by two different silt loams. In the northeastern half there is found both shallow (2.8 feet) and deep (6.7) silt loams that are very rocky and well-drained. Typical soil series in this part include Berks and Cranston. The southeastern half of the DBNF is covered with silt loams that are in general more shallow (3.3 to 5.0 feet in depth), more acid, and weathered more often from shale versus sandstone. Typical soils series include Latham and Shelocta.

There are two exceptions to the soil descriptions for the main block of the DBNF: the basins of the Cumberland and Licking Rivers. Soils are different in these basins than those found on the uplands of the DBNF.

The Licking River Basin is contained within the northern third of the main block of the DBNF, and Cave Run Lake is an impoundment from the damming of the Licking River found on the Cumberland Ranger District. The Cumberland River Basin is found in the southern third of the main block of the DBNF. Although the two river basins are located in different areas of the DBNF, they have similar soils.

Comparatively, these river basin soils are formed elsewhere on the landscape, typically uplands, and are transported by water into the floodplains and valley bottoms (alluvial soils). These landscapes have shallow slopes (0-5%), and the soils are very deep (5.0 – 7.4 feet) and may be waterlogged for part of the year. These are some of the deepest soils on the DBNF. Those that are not waterlogged often have a history of cultivation because of the lack of slope. These soils can have very poor drainage, such as the Bonnie soil series, but on average are well-drained. Typical soil series include Pope, Bonnie, Allegheny, Morehead, and Whitley.

Redbird Purchase Unit that includes the Redbird Ranger District

The Redbird Ranger District is located in the heart of the Eastern Coal Fields physiographic region, which makes the landscape somewhat different from the main block of the DBNF in the following regard:

  • Slopes are steeper and longer
  • Elevations are higher
  • Cliffline is rare

Because the slopes are steeper, the soils are often formed on ridges or shoulder slopes and then transported down slope (colluvium). This condition increases the average depth of soil (5.0 feet), which positively influences forest growth. Most of the soils are moderately well to well-drained. Soils on the Redbird Ranger District also have higher nutrient availability. The Redbird Ranger District has some of the best timber growth on the entire DBNF as a result. Typical soil series found here include Jefferson, Shelocta, and Latham silt loams.


Brady, N.C. and R.R. Weil. 2002. The nature and properties of soil, 13th ed. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ. 960 pp.

Jenny, H.L. 1980. The soil resource. Origen and behavior. Ecology Studies 37. Springer-Verlag, New York.

Nyland, R.D. 2002. Silviculture, concepts and applications, 2nd ed. McGraw-Hill, Boston, MA. 682 pp.

Oliver, C.D. and B.C. Larson. 1996. Forest stand dynamics. John Wiley & Sons, New York. 520 pp.

van der Putten W. H., R.D. Bardgett, J.D. Bever, T.M. Bezemer, B.B. Casper, T. Fukami, P. Kardol, J.N. Klironomos, A. Kulmatiski, J.A. Schweitzer, K.N. Suding, T.J.v.n. Voorde, and D.A. Wardle. 2013. Plant-soil feedbacks: the past, the present and future challenges. Journal of Ecology (Oxford) 101:265-276.

Physiographic Regions of Kentucky map


STREAM INVENTORY SYSTEM. In an effort to better understand stream habitats, the forest has developed a state-of-the-art stream inventory system. This inventory system measures fish habitat, fish population, macroinvertebrates, channel stability, valley segment types, and riparian vegetation in several regional reference streams.

WATERSHED IMPROVEMENT. Watersheds that are in need of rehabilitation are restored through the application of efficient and timely reclamation measures. The Daniel Boone National Forest manages approximately 1,200 miles of streams. In a typical year, water quality is monitored at 40 locations in 10 to 15  different watersheds.

WATER QUALITY ANALYSIS. Careful administration of land disturbing activities and application of protective conservation practices ensure high quality surface water and ground water.

ARTIFICIAL WETLANDS. The Forest Service sometimes acquires land needing reclamation as a result of past mining or other land use practices. Some past mining operations on these lands discharge acidic water that damages or destroys aquatic ecosystems. The Forest Service, in cooperation with federal and state agencies and other interested groups, created artificial wetlands at Jones Branch and Mt. Victory. A shallow, flat bed of water, called a wetland, was built and filled with swampland plants such as cattails. When the mine water enters the wetlands, cattails and other wetland plants, bacteria, fungi, and algae improve water quality and remove heavy metals. Using nature's healing processes, these wetlands may soon offer a way to restore streams rendered biologically dead by acid mine drainage.

Wetland Construction

Through partnerships with the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Reinforcement, the Kentucky Division of Abandoned Mine Lands, University of Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky University, Sierra Club, Kentucky Waterways Alliance, and other organizations, the Forest Service will continue to build more wetlands and monitor the results.


The forest continues to move forward in its commitment to maintaining and/or enhancing soil productivity, water quality and air quality. Much of this work is accomplished in cooperation with other federal and state agencies, universities and conservation groups. Examples of these projects are:

Horse Lick

In 1992, the Daniel Boone National Forest and The Nature Conservancy entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to protect and restore the Horse Lick watershed on the London Ranger District. The private land area is now designated by the Nature Conservancy as a Nature Conservancy Bio-reserve.

Horse Lick Creek with Fall leaves

Jones Branch Wetland

In 1988-1989, the Daniel Boone National Forest, in cooperation with Forest Service Research, The Kentucky Division of Abandoned Mine Lands, and the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, built an 11,000 square foot artificial wetland to treat acid mine drainage from an abandoned underground coal mine.

Abandoned Mine Reclamation

In 1995, the Daniel Boone National Forest formed a partnership with the Cumberland Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Kentucky Waterways Alliance to implement coal mine reclamation on an abandoned mine site. Several miles of a biologically dead stream is draining into Lake Cumberland. The groups pledged $14,500 for restoration, with other contributors being sought.