A prescribed burn in the Hoosier National Forest. (Photo from USDA Forest Service)
When agencies burn Indiana forests, they hope to see oak rise from the ashes. But environmentalists believe the solution for the oak problem is costing the climate, clean water and wildlife.
For decades, Hoosier activists have been fighting what they view as improper forest management plans by government agencies like the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR), even as both agencies and activists claim to be doing what is best for the state’s forests.
The latest controversy involves massive clearing projects in the Hoosier National Forest, fueled by a belief that oak and hickory trees — which dominate Indiana forests and sustain specific species of wildlife — require disturbances like burning or logging in order to regenerate. The Hoosier National Forest spans more than 200,000 acres in southern Indiana.
Local environmental groups like the Indiana Forest Alliance and Heartwood disagree with this idea, arguing the oaks will naturally regenerate if they’re left alone, and maintaining that the proposed projects will do more harm than good.
Complicating the issue is money: federal incentives, budgets and contracts with industries that seek to benefit from specific forest management practices.
“It’s a self perpetuating machine,” said Andy Mahler, founder of Heartwood.
A decades-long fight for the forests
In 1985, a USFS proposal to clear forests and build more than 100 miles of off-road vehicle trails generated a massive grassroots environmental movement, culminating in the opportunity to direct the future of forest management in the Hoosier National Forest.
According to Mahler, the agency was tasked with developing a plan amendment in 1991 after a successful campaign to oppose the original plan. Environmentalists created two main plans and the Conservationists’ Alternative, thought to be a middle ground, was ultimately chosen. This amendment effectively prohibited timber harvesting on two-thirds of the forest, but Mahler said language was altered to allow certain exceptions.
When the USFS revised their management plan in 2006, the agency added further exceptions that would allow for logging, he said, using words such as “salvage,” “stewardship,” “sanitation,” and “restoration.”
“If you see the word restoration, it means logging,” he said.
All about oak
Forest management in Indiana is all about oak.
The tree is critical to wildlife who depend on its acorns, and is already dominant across Indiana, making up 61% of forests across the state and 49% of state forests.
But the future of oak is uncertain, according to the USFS and the state.
They claim the dominant oak-hickory forest types are dying due to age or disease, allowing shade-tolerant beech-maple types like tulip poplars or sugar maples to out-compete oak-hickory saplings who struggle under the dense forest canopy. Oak’s difficulty in the shade is illustrated by the state’s 2005 forest inventory, which showed a much lower amount of oak seedlings and saplings than desired. DNR believes the data suggests a near-certain decline in oak trees if nothing is done to interfere.
Although environmentalists urge a more hands-off approach to the issue, the Hoosier National Forest’s district ranger Chris Thornton said it won’t work for this particular forest.
“We don’t have a pristine forest here that hasn’t had human hands interacting with it,” he said.
Thornton said that due to continual human involvement over the centuries, the forest has become less age-diverse, recalling the desolate look of the hills after erosion from agriculture and early European settlement.
“The Hoosier was basically born out of the lands that no one wanted,” he said.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the USFS worked to reduce erosion by planting pines. It worked, but the now-mature pines have made it difficult for plants to grow in its shade.
The forest service’s major projects — the Buffalo Springs Restoration Project and Houston South Vegetation Management and Restoration Project — both aim to help oak-hickory seedlings by removing mature pines with dense canopy, either through clearcutting or burning, and thinning hardwoods to reduce competition for growth.
But the project has potential drawbacks. Houston South was halted this year after a judge determined the USFS had not presented sufficient evidence to prove the project would pose no risk to Lake Monroe, a major source of drinking water for 130,000 people. Other concerns include harm to wildlife or risks to archaeological sites, although Thornton reaffirmed the importance of protecting the sites.
Drawing from the letters he gets from concerned residents, Thornton said there is a lot of common ground between the two in that both groups love the Hoosier National Forest. But while the USFS is focusing on the big picture, Thornton said, it can be jarring for people to see changes to the forest around them.
“If you live next to a harvest area, it changes immediately,” he said. “And I’ll be the first to admit, you know, pine clear cut is not an aesthetically pleasing site for quite a few years.”
Fire as a tool
In April, the Indiana DNR carried out controlled burns of the Ferdinand State Forest, which is two and a half hours south of Indianapolis. Critics noted harmed animals — turtles, snakes and salamanders — and bad air quality as the fires burned.
“They actually were burned alive,” Evan Robbins, communications director for the Forest Alliance, said.
While smoke from Canadian wildfires occupies the minds of Hoosiers when it occasionally blows west, Robbins said poor air quality resulting from purposeful fires is a continuous reality for rural residents living near forests.
When the Ferdinand State Forest burned, air quality measured 169, which is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups and some members of the general public.
“When Buffalo Springs and Houston South go through, all rural areas will deal with it again,” Robbins said.
Although counterintuitive on its face, controlled burns in forests have become an effective way to prevent forest fires, especially as temperatures increase. These burns are usually applied in specific areas to reduce thin or dying trees and plants that would otherwise easily catch fire or accelerate fires.
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But the Forest Alliance says this method is really only useful in the western and southern United States.
“Our forests are so full of moisture here that we don’t have wildfires, and we’ve never had wildfires,” he said.
When asked about its prescribed burn practices, the DNR referenced its website, which lists benefits of controlled burns such as increasing plant diversity, reducing the spread of plant diseases and releasing nutrients into the soil. Burns at Ferdinand are part of the agency’s wider goal to sustain oak dominance for its ecological benefits.
The timber factor
Critics of the forest management approach by government agencies believe the logging industry is influencing decision-making.
Although logging practices have become less popular through the decades, timber harvesting in the Hoosier National Forest has increased since 2006.
That year, the forest sold 57,110 board feet of timber, which is a similar output to the previous few decades. Beginning in 2007 to today, the USFS has sold a range of 2 million to 7 million board feet of timber from the forest per year.
For context, the timber sale peak of 7 million in 2018 would have required about 27,000 trees sized at 20 inches in diameter and standing at 42 feet.
Specific parts of USFS’ budget is dedicated to timber harvesting, like the Timber Sales Pipeline Restoration Fund. Authorized by Congress in the 1990s, the fund directs the agency to prepare timber sales and redeposit profits in the same fund. At the beginning of the fiscal year, this fund was $18 million, with $7 million of it being new appropriations. This fund is only one part of the agency’s budget for timber sales and does not include “forest products” funding, salvage sales or stewardship contracts.
Mahler said in the 1970s, agencies did not sell timber on public land because the timber industry didn’t want the competition. But when the industry cleared too many trees on private lands, they lobbied the government to increase logging on public lands by creating incentives to cut.
He believes the disconnect between the USFS and environmental groups is due to this system. While he thinks the USFS wants what is best for the forest, agency heads are focused on sustaining or even maximizing their budget, which Mahler thinks they believe is what is ultimately best for the forest system.
Thornton, however, emphasized timber is not the reason why they’re doing projects. The increase in harvesting is an expected result of a change in their 2006 forest management plan, Thornton said, and while revenue does sometimes come from projects, it is about ecological restoration, not money.
On a state level, Indiana has also been ramping up timber production. From the early 2000s to the early 2010s, the Indiana Division of Forestry went from selling under 4 million in board feet per year to nearly 14 million. In 2013, roughly a third of the Indiana Division of Forestry’s operating budget came from timber sales, according to the same document.
And timber has a strong economic grip on the state overall: wood products have a $10 billion yearly economic impact and provide 70,000 jobs.
In 2019, Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch announced an economic development strategy to promote the hardwood industry. Much of the strategy includes increasing education of forest management and connecting private landowners, which own 84% of Indiana forestry, to logging companies.
The report also reiterates the use of forest management practices to increase the “productivity, quality and value of forests by favoring the growth and regeneration of trees … including production of high quality timber.”
An uncertain future for trees in changing climate
A Purdue study found mixed and uncertain results on the resilience of Indiana forests as the globe warms.
Tulip poplars and sugar maples, which are on the rise in Indiana forests, are less tolerant to drought than oaks. When combined with projected warming in the region, the shift in tree type could reduce forest carbon uptake by up to 17%.
At the same time, changes in climate are expected to benefit some trees while harming others, make it difficult to determine how forests may adapt.
Another study warned against the nationwide campaign to promote early successional habitats, which is the growth that occurs after a disturbance like prescribed fire.
Although old growth forests were once dominant across the country, they are now rare.
At the same time, the campaign to clear old growth in exchange for early successional habitats is supported by interest groups who seek to gain from increased game species populations – which thrive in young forest — and profits from timber. The Young Forest Project, a major proponent of this campaign, also lists state and federal agencies as partners, including the Indiana Division of Forestry.
The study argues old-growth forests are better equipped to deal with climate change, saying lands reserved from logging capture carbon at a faster rate, while clearing practices can release carbon stored in soil.
Old growth forests may even absorb more carbon as the climate warms and are more resilient to climate stress than young forests in general, according to the study. And while timber is often hailed as sustainable since it’s renewable, 76% of carbon stored in durable wood products ends up being released into the atmosphere.
The study, which lists seven researchers spanning multiple universities and conservation groups, concludes the push for young forests has complicated the path toward resolving climate change by confusing the public and making it difficult for scientists to have an open dialogue.
“All the clearing, all the cutting — all these things are endangering this forest’s ability to sustain itself and provide the moderation of climate change and temperature,” Mahler said.
Mahler, who owns a lodge surrounded by the Hoosier National, spoke fondly of the woods — its natural cooling effect, the mineral-rich freshwater springs he drinks from and the last remnants of the paths the buffalo traveled. While it’s been several decades since Mahler started his environmental work, he expressed hope in future generations when it comes to protecting forests.
“Right here in south central Indiana, we have a gem,” he said.
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