Fifteen state forests teeming with life dot the state of Indiana. From the Salamonie River State Forest in Lagro to the Martin State Forest in Shoals, the state forest system harbors thousands of acres of natural beauty and wonder.
But close to home, there is unrest in the forest.
While the Indiana Department of Natural Resources maintains that state forests are managed under a policy of multiple use in order to obtain benefits from recreation, timber production and watershed protection, at least one advocacy group is calling for the reduction of logging to preserve some of the forests’ oldest habitats.
To better understand and highlight both of these perspectives, The Herald organized a hike through Ferdinand State Forest — an area that, like all state forests, has experienced its fair share of cutting in recent years — with two experts representing both ideologies. The nearby state forest’s west edge is approximately 5 miles east of the town of Ferdinand, and the area it spans covers nearly 8,000 acres.
Indiana Forest Alliance Executive Director Jeff Stant spoke on behalf of curtailing the amount of logging going in state forests, especially in areas that he termed “old growth,” what he defines as habitats that have been left undisturbed by humans for 130 or more years. The IFA identifies itself as a non-profit, statewide organization of individuals dedicated to the long-term health and well-being of Indiana’s native forests.
Former Ferdinand State Forest Property Manager Doug Brown defended the cutting and expressed his belief that the removal of growth is important to maintaining the balance of the forest. He was employed locally at the Ferdinand State Forest for more than 25 years and is now a private consulting forester with Multi-Resource Management, a company that provides forest management services to private woodland owners. He stressed that though he was once associated with the Ferdinand State Forest, his comments do not speak for the current forest management, DNR or the Indiana Division of Forestry.
While information on the amount of tree harvesting and selling in the Ferdinand forest was not readily available, Indiana Division of Forestry numbers from a 2016 annual report show that more than 130 million board feet of timber has been logged and sold from all state forests since 2004, generating nearly $30 million dollars in revenue. (Board feet equivalent includes sawtimber volume and cordwood volume that has been converted to board feet volume for tracking purposes). The report also showed the 10-year average of state forest timber sales at 10.6 million board feet, with the timber-harvest prescription for the state forest system for the 2016-17 fiscal year falling just below this number.
What follows is a recapturing of a conversation the two had during a hike through a small part of the Ferdinand State Forest, as well as follow-up information received through phone calls and emails. The entire exchange and conversations have been shortened for clarity and conciseness.
ON HEALTHY FORESTS
JEFF: I think a healthy forest has a lot of different age classes, even if there’s silviculture (a branch of forestry dealing with the development and care of forests) being practiced, which there is in all the state forests. There’s some lands that are allowed to just turnover on their own. And also, there is old forest habitat just for the public to see how the forest operates without silviculture and for the (forest) managers to know what’s going on with the natural forest system.
That’s one of our primary concerns about the current management (of all state forests in Indiana). It’s not that we’re opposing silviculture — it’s a part of the enabling law for state forests. It’s that there are other uses of the state forests. They’re public forests. Most forests in Indiana are private. Nobody’s supposed to be on them except the owner or whoever they’ve invited. So the only forests the public really has a say in are (on) the 6 percent (of Indiana land) that is either county, state or federally owned. Four-fifths, of forests, though, are privately owned and we can’t really control what the landowners of those forests do.
So, I feel that state forests serve a range of uses, including some uses like wilderness recreation that really aren’t provided for by the state parks or nature preserves. The only public land in Indiana that really allows you to get out and forage on, like, this slope (points to slope) in the spring, say for mushrooms, or camp out with your kids on that ridge over there (points to ridge) just because you decided you found a good spot.
I remember back when ... almost half the forest acres weren’t being logged on. And we had old forests that were being established in the various state forests. Now, the active timber base is as much as 97 percent. It’s hard to actually nail it down because different documents give you different information. But it’s more than 95 percent of all state forest acres are accessible to be logged on at some point. And I just think that’s too much.
DOUG: My idea of a healthy forest is a forest that’s resilient. There is going to be a lot of diversity, age, size classes and species mix. It’s able to withstand those natural things that happen — like a drought. It doesn’t mean you don’t have some winners and losers but the forest itself is going to continue in a healthy way.
It’s just that balance. It’s a forest that is working and it has as many of the components as possible. Obviously we don’t have some of the megafauna on the landscape anymore, and that’s a whole other issue. But we want to keep as many of the components as we can. From the herbaceous species to the wildlife and all that. And if that’s all clicking, if they’re all working, then it’s a healthy forest.
ON THE PURPOSE OF STATE FORESTS
DOUG: Each of the Department of Natural Resource’s divisions had a separate mission. The state parks were primarily preservation and recreation, nature preserves were to protect those rare, threatened, special places that do take some special treatment to maintain, (Division of) Fish and Wildlife is mainly focused on fuzzy and scaly and the Division of Forestry is set up primarily for forestry. But the thing is, they (the DOF) take all those other things into consideration, too. The recreation, the fish and wildlife and all that.
The state forests were created in the early 1900s and you can look up the enabling legislation and it says for wildlife, water, timber — it doesn’t say anything about providing recreation. But the Division of Forestry has always done that. They’ve always had the campgrounds, they’ve always had the recreational facilities. They’ve always considered that part of their mission even if it wasn’t in their enabling legislation. But to provide a deep forest experience is nowhere in the enabling legislation.
I think what the Division of Forestry is doing is trying to create the biggest bang for the buck. And while Jeff may not get everything he wants, this person over here doesn’t get everything they want, either. But everybody gets a little bit of it. There are going to be old growth areas, there are going to be big trees. There is going to be young, successional forest for wildlife. By creating that variety of stages and ages, we create that healthy forest that is able to withstand anything that comes along theoretically and provides the greatest good for the greatest number.
JEFF: The biggest bang for the buck is an arbitrary perception. What we should be doing is thinking about what the needs of the state are and what’s out there on all the private land base and the public lands, and what is needed.
We have oil in Indiana, but we leave it to the oil industry to go lease private land and get that oil. We don’t have state oil reserves. We have corn in Indiana, but we don’t have state cornfields. We let farmers farm that corn, we provide plenty of state and federal assistance — particularly federal — so they can grow it right. But we don’t have state cornfields. We don’t have state soybean fields. So why are we managing our state forests so that the primary purpose of them is to produce wood for the timber industry?
That’s what it all boils down to. We log in a place regardless of how many other people are using that area.
ON THE GOAL OF FOREST MANAGEMENT
JEFF: I don’t think that the state forests should be on a mission to create just as much early successional habitat as old forest. (Early successional habitats include weedy areas, grasslands, old fields or pastures, shrub thickets and young forest.) It’s the only system in the state where there’s significant blocks of forest left where you can have any landscape level diversity. Diversity isn’t just about the number of species on an acre. You can cut down half this forest and bird species diversity is going to go up. That doesn’t mean that’s good for bird populations in Indiana, particularly ones that need deep forest. They’re just that much closer to being wiped out of the state.
I think that you’ve got to have a forest management system of the state forests that takes into account what the rest of the public lands are doing, how much of the state is publicly owned, and what’s happening on the private lands.
DOUG: There’s winners and losers every place, and I think that’s what the goal is. It’s for that diversity. To have all those age classes on the system. To have all those habitats. And again, it’s the light. When you open up the canopy and you allow the light to get down here, you get flusher (newer) growth. Well what comes in with all the vegetation and flusher growth? You’ve got the insects. Well what comes in after the insects? You get mice and you get all the small rodents. Then you get those predators — the snakes and the hawks and the owls.
It just builds. You do have more diversity. There are some species that you don’t find there. If the state forests said they were going to clear-cut the whole state forests, I’d be right there beside you, (Jeff). I’d be opposed to that because that’s not good management. That’s not good ecosystem or ecological management.
But they’re not doing that. They’re trying to create that diversity out there and create as many opportunities for as much of the wildlife out there as possible.
Jeff responded via telephone after the hike: It’s not that species diversity necessarily should be the goal. It’s making sure that the species that lived in our deep forests, that are our natural heritage, that they aren’t slowly disappearing. And that’s what the forest timbering program is utterly clueless about. And really, unfortunately, I don’t think they could care about it. They want to show that species are benefiting from their cutting, so when they find out that they’re not, they don’t say anything about it and won’t even look at the research. It’s got to be about helping species that need to be helped that were here in the first place.
We want people to just find out about the diversity, whatever it is. It doesn’t have to be the maximum diversity everywhere as defined by the Division of Forestry. The idea of random diversity. We don’t want to eliminate that from the universe or we’re going to impoverish ourselves.
ON THE HISTORY OF DISTURBANCE IN STATE FORESTS
DOUG: The problem I have — and I know we’re going to disagree on this, but — these forests, at one time, much of Indiana was either covered by ice or was tundra. As the ice melted, the forests started moving in. With that came probably the people about the same time. There’s probably been human settlement in this part of the country for just about 10,000 to 12,000 years, at least.
When those people came here, they were following the game. They were following the forest. And they were probably managing from that point on. We know the Indians burned a lot. We know that they told the settlers you burn in the spring, that’s when you kill the ticks and the snakes. They burned to keep these forests open.
(The Ferdinand State Forest) is not a natural forest. This would not be considered — I’m going to say natural, I hate that term — this would not be considered a normal forest in pre-settlement days. What I’m saying is chances are, this area would have been burned intentionally by Native Americans. What that did was clear the understory so they could see farther, they could find game, it created that flush that they ate.
JEFF: What the forests were was a constantly evolving continuum that changed with climate. A lot of this is speculative stuff based on different, spotty accounts. I don’t disagree that disturbance is what drives systems. The question is: How substantive or strong is the data to back up assertions, for example, that the Shawnee or the Piankeshaw Indians burned the whole 12,000 square miles of southern Indiana? And how often were most sites burned?
I don’t think they were physically here enough to do that. I think there was burning, but I don’t think they were burning such that the whole system was fire-driven. I think the biome is way too wet in the current climate for that to have happened or to have been happening 200 or 300 years ago. I do confer that there’s records that the Indians were burning areas, I just don’t think it’s nearly as widespread as some people say.
And also, there are plenty of agents of change that occur out in this forest right here and every other forest out here. There are constant changes going on in our forests that are not fire-driven.
ON THE NEED TO DESIGNATE MORE FOREST AREAS AS CONTROL SPACES
Jeff: There’s constant impact, and that, to me, is more of an argument for why you do need large enough control areas so you’re just watching what it’s doing. Change is constant out in the forest. And what I disagree with are foresters in the Division of Forestry who maintain that, “If we don’t go out there and change it, it won’t change.” No, it’s changing. It continues to change. It was changing before we got here, it’s changing now, and it’s going to continue to change.
All I’m saying is, we have control areas in every other state forest system in the East that the IFA has looked into. We used to have those areas in Indiana state forests. There’s reasons you have control areas — so you can see how the natural system is responding to droughts, climate change, pests and blights.
DOUG: There are controls. There are nature preserves on state forests where there’s no harvesting. There are control areas associated with the Hardwood Ecosystem Experiment, where basically they’re doing exactly what Jeff is saying. They’re leaving them that way as checks to see how they compare to the managed areas.
JEFF: But the problem with that is that they’re 2.7 percent of total forest acres spread out in tiny, little pieces. There’s no landscape level-sized controls. That’s nothing like what there was before. There were much larger control areas and other state forests that log much more have much larger control areas.
All we’re saying is, let’s put a line around (specific, contiguous forest areas larger than 500 acres) on a map and let’s reach an agreement that they’re not going to be logged. And we can’t get the Division of Forestry ever to do that. It’s an article of faith for them to say, “No, we will never do that. You will never tell us what we won’t log.” It’s like they’re saying, “We are the foresters. Leave management of these public lands to us.”
Wait a minute. I’m a Hoosier. This isn’t the Ferdinand forester’s forest. This is the Ferdinand State Forest. We all have a say, and there are other public purposes for these forests besides silviculture. I’m willing to allow silviculture to be a predominant management strategy here, but there ought to be some substantive amount of control areas.
After the hike, Doug responded via email: While control areas are standard science principle and no one wants to lose any of the parts, the fact is that hundreds of thousands of acres of public forestland in Indiana is intended to never be harvested. Some of those areas are in the State Forests including dedicated Nature Preserves, designated high conservation value forests and control areas on the Hardwood Ecosystem Experiment project. In addition, access and site limitations put thousands of additional acres into a category of being unlikely to be harvested. I agree with Jeff that those areas could be mapped and put into some designation but I also understand the reluctance of the Division of Forestry from saying they will never be harvested. The fear within the forestry community is that the IFA ultimately wants to stop logging on state forests altogether. If that happens then the forests begin to age and become less diverse.
Jeff argued via telephone after the hike that while a large majority of DNR land may not be actively logged, it is subject to vegetative manipulation.
ON THE DIVISION OF FORESTRY RESPONDING TO PUBLIC OPINION
JEFF: The price of democracy is eternal vigilance. Public lands management is an eternal vigilance process. You constantly have to take into account public views. That’s a sacrosanct part of it. You might as well not even have the state forests if you’re not going to take into account the public attitudes toward it and try to incorporate public input.
DOUG: And they have. They have. With the public comment period, with the open houses, the Division of Forestry has tried to be very open as to what they are doing.
ON THE FUTURE OF MANAGEMENT IN STATE FORESTS
DOUG: I think we’re at a point in time where that’s to be determined. That’s why I’m feeling pretty strongly about making sure both sides of the issue are being looked at and considered. Sometimes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. We as natural resource people don’t tend to be very outgoing and public relations inclined. We just kind of like to hunker down and do our job and say people will appreciate it if they realize what we’re doing. But if we don’t tell them, they’re not going to realize what we’re doing.
And that’s why I’m kind of speaking up and taking an active role in this. I think it is a critical point where I don’t want to see sound, professional, scientific management be taken away by special interest groups and politicians.
The Division of Forestry is going to evolve. It has evolved in the past. They’re going to change their ways from time to time. But overall, I think they do the best job in the state at maintaining all these values, and I just want to make sure that they continue to have the opportunity to do that. To me, it just all boils down to professional, scientific management. And that’s what I’m defending.
JEFF: Without a lot more people objecting to this extreme level of management, I don’t think it’s going to change. And I’m saying that because I’m watching them go into one of the only older tracts of forest of any size in the state up in Yellowwood State Forest and insist that they need to go in and cut down 1,700 trees in a 299 acre area. At a loss to taxpayers, makes no economic sense, but they’re going to go forward and do it anyway despite hundreds and hundreds of people commenting and saying please don’t do this, including many of the top scientists in their fields.
When they’re behaving in that extreme fashion, I would have to say right now that I don’t think we’re making a lot of progress with their leadership in terms of changing their thinking. But I’m not saying it’s hopeless. I’m just saying that more people have to be willing to speak up for any change to happen here.