“I’m going to admit it. I hug my trees. Because they’re still there.”
Julie James manages a small organic farm in rural Monroe County, with an orchard, rows of berry bushes and a greenhouse.
Standing on her porch, she can almost see Yellowwood State forest. Being so close to Yellowwood is one of the primary reasons she moved here 8 years ago.
Every day, rain or shine, she hikes the trails with her dogs.
“I just thought ‘I’ve definitely arrived, this is absolute paradise!'” she says. “I’m in a state forest and state forests are protected, right? So it will always be this way! I really did naively think that.”
But three years ago, big equipment started rolling in on her small road; the Indiana Division of Forestry started logging tracts of land.
Logging In State Forests Increased Significantly Ten Years Ago
That year, in 2014, Indiana logged more than 17 million board feet from the state forests. That’s a 391 percent increase since 2003.
The rate of logging started to increase the year Jack Seifert took over as head of the forestry division. As Seifert walks through Morgan-Monroe State Forest, he sees healthy stands of trees.
“We have millions and millions of trees across the landscape. And we’re only cutting less than 1 percent of them a year,” Seifert says. “We harvest less than 1 percent of all the trees larger than 11 inches in diameter every year.”
He says logging is a management tool to keep the forest healthy, by removing dying trees to let young saplings grow in their place.
“Our goal has always been to make sure the forest is healthy, and that’s obviously derived by who’s definition of a healthy forest is.”
“Our goal has always been to make sure the forest is healthy and that’s obviously derived by who’s definition of healthy forest is,” he says. “Our definition of a healthy forest is to maintain a pretty diverse species group as well as a diverse age group.”
Groups like the Indiana Forest Alliance agree with that definition, but only to a certain point
“A healthy forest involves trees of all ages including dead trees,” says IFA Conservation Director Rae Schnapp. “A healthy forest ecosystem would include quite a few dead trees.”
Scnhapp’s background is in soil science, and every year she leads a team of scientists inventorying the species diversity in Morgan-Monroe State Forest.
Schnapp says continuing timber harvest at the current rate will be devastating.
“The way that the DNR, Division of Forestry, is managing our forests is primarily for timber production, so their idea of a healthy forest is one that is producing a healthy economic income for the agency,” she says. “They’re not managing for ecosystem health, they’re not managing for the species that are most endangered that require deep interior forests for their survival.”
A bill introduced in the state legislature this year asked for ten percent of forests to be set aside as “old growth.” That means no logging can take place there, no matter what. That bill didn’t make it out of committee.
In its most recent strategic plan, the Division of Forestry does say it will work toward a long-term goal of preserving ten percent of forest acreage in older forest conditions, but it hasn’t said which areas are protected.
“And so we’re just trying to kind of hold their feet to the fire to make sure that we DO get ten percent of our forests set aside,” Schnapp says.
Yearly Audits Evaluate Management Of State Forests
Seifert says he recognizes that a lot of Hoosiers aren’t happy with the way the forests are being managed, and he’s taken steps to try to restore some trust.
“The [Division of Forestry] is not managing for ecosystem health, they’re not managing for the species that are most endangered that require deep interior forests for their survival”
“In 2006 we hired in an audit firm because of the environmental community saying, ‘We don’t trust you guys,'” he says.
So every year representatives from two independent agencies do inspections on Indiana state forest properties and publish their findings, and every year since 2006 the state has received high marks.
University of Kentucky Professor and Forest Operations Specialist Jeff Stringer helped establish the standards for one of those auditing agencies: the national Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC.
“The fact that the Indiana State Forests have reached out under their own volition to get certified under the FSC, I think that’s positive. Certainly a lot of states don’t have that,” Stringer says. “Because at least it indicates to the public and those that are concerned about it what kind of practices are being used there.”
But Stringer grants that auditing firms like the FSC assume that at least some logging will take place, and some environmental critics want a complete ban on timber production on public lands.
The Indiana Forest Alliance doesn’t go that far; they aren’t opposed to logging entirely, but they do want to see less of it.
But Seifert says the criticism is still unfounded.
“It would be sort of like cutting your throat if you didn’t think you were doing the right thing for the long-term of the forest,” he says. “It always amazes me that people would think we would do something that would be detrimental to the long-term health of the forest.”
For Julie James, the issue is very close to home. The area of Yellowwood near her small farm has changed so much, she’s even considering moving away from the “paradise” she thought she had found.
“Can I stay and deal with this or if they’re going to keep logging like this, is that something I want to be around year after year, and take these hikes and fewer and fewer trees are there?” she says. “And to know that I’ll never hike the same hike that I did when I first moved here. In my lifetime I won’t see it, my kids won’t even see it the way it was before.”
James says she’ll continue contacting her lawmakers to advocate for changes to timber production in Indiana’s state forests.