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Should The DNR Be Logging In State Forest Backcountry?

Logging in Indiana’s state forests generates more than $2.5 million each year. The practice isn’t new, but the increase is worth noting.

In the past decade logging in these state forests has increased 1,000 percent. Since 2002-2003 logging in state forests has increased from less than 1.5 million board feet to more than 14 million board feet in 2013.

Logging: A Management Technique Or Business Model?

Terry Usrey says his property is a lot like an island. He’s surrounded on all sides by the Morgan Monroe State Forest.

“We’re able to grow a lot of our own food here,” says Usrey. “We raise dairy goats, we have a large garden and an orchard, provide almost all of our heat from the firewood we cut.”

Usrey has lived here for 20 years.

“We’re outdoorsy people,” he says. “I’m out every single day in the forest hiking, walking, walking my dogs, nature observation.”

Usrey thinks the state has an obligation to preserve the forest. State officials agree, but they have different ideas about exactly how to do it.

“We look at all the attributes the forest provides: recreation, forest, wildlife, environmental services,” says John Seifert, Director of the Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry. “We manage with that concept in mind – that we are going to provide the most biological diversity that we can. To get that if you let all the forest age at the same time to get what people call old growth – you won’t get that diversity.”

In its strategic plan the DNR’s Division of Forestry lists as its number one goal the protection of all forest resources. Seifert says cutting timber helps species distribution and tree overcrowding.

At the Morgan Monroe State Forest, Seifert and his team are researching the effects of forest management on tree regeneration and forest sustainability.

He walks along a 10-acre area in the middle of the forest where all the trees there were cut down a few years ago. Now Seifert, along with groups of DNR and university researchers, are watching how it grows back.

“We’re actually going in and planting after we harvest a site like this,” Seifert says pointing to an area overgrown with brush. “Our goal is to close the canopy quickly so all that other regeneration that would be competitors start to die off from lack of sunlight.”

Seifert says to understand the DNR’s policy, you have to know the background of the state’s forest. Settlers in the 1800s and early 1900s aggressively harvested trees in the area for farmland.

They left after realizing the soil wasn’t viable for farming. The DNR and federal government then bought up much of the farmland, and the trees started to grow back.

But the mix of species was different. There were fewer oak trees, and more maples and poplars. The DNR is experimenting with regeneration sites to determine whether it would beneficial or financially viable to try and return the forests to the species mix it was before the 1800s.

But the state’s current logging policies largely trace their roots back to 2004, when then-governor Mitch Daniels pushed for more public agencies to fund their own budgets, including the DNR’s Division of Forestry.

“I think at its heart it is an economical management style in that when Gov. Daniels took office he switched the management strategy of the DNR Division of Forestry to the position that they needed to bring in enough revenue to pay for their division’s functions so it is much more of a business model now,” says Daniel Johnson, a former timber technician with the Division of Forestry.

Seifert maintains that in about 95 percent of the cases, the state conducts single tree selection – or cutting a tree here and a tree there.

“We’re only harvesting about 60 percent of what we’re growing so if you think about that we’re still accumulating,” Seifert says. “We’re still growing bigger trees. We have really good inventory data that supports what we’re doing.”

Logging ‘Seems To Know No Boundaries,’ Critics Say

The backcountry is 2,700 acres that extends from the Morgan Monroe State Forest into the the Yellowwood State Forest, and it’s different than the rest of the forest.

In 1981 the DNR, at then-Governor Robert Orr’s request, established the backcountry as an area where people could enjoy a rugged, primitive experience. There are a number of restriction,s such as you can only access the area by foot, there are no roads and you can’t have horses.

According to a DNR press release from 1981:

Users of these areas must exercise a great deal of caution to not disturb the natural habitat.

“They’re going to be an area of solitude and repose for the wilderness seeker to find what they can’t find elsewhere – forests as they existed 150 years ago,” says Jeff Stant, Executive Director of the Indiana Forest Alliance.

Although it wasn’t prohibited by law, the area was never logged.

“I think people find particularly upsetting is that it seems to know no boundaries,” say Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington. “Now we have logging in what was considered the most important part of the forest.”

Two years ago, loggers came in and cut about 100 acres at the southern end of the backcountry. It was unprecedented, and it’s happening again now at the northern end despite ongoing protests.

“Taking 101 acres in the north end of the backcountry and they’re going to take 1,100 trees, and they’re saying that’ll have no effect, you won’t notice it,” says Stant. “Go hiking in the southern end of the back country where they did the cutting last year. There are stumps everywhere, skidder trails, a 40 foot wide gravel road across the ridge, a log landing area where you can turn a semi around in. You don’t notice that when you’re hiking in the woods? Of course you notice that.”

Despite the opposition, the DNR collected the bids in sealed envelopes. A little more than $50,000 is what the land went for. Robert Hamilton’s company is working now to take out some of the 1,200 trees.

“We watch our tree falling, skidding,” says Hamilton. “Just try to be careful – really careful. Private or state- any job just try to be careful.”

“In reality you have heavy machinery going in to do the logging,” says Rep. Pierce. “You’re clear cutting sections of the forest and that can create the potential for soil erosion and a lot of other impacts on the environment, let alone removing the tees from the forest.”

According to Forest Alliance, the state is getting less money for timber than private owners. Their data shows that in most cases timber buyers pay about half of what they would for the same quality wood from private woodland owners.

As he enjoys his walks through the forest, Usrey says he’s confronted by the logging operations – whether it’s a newly marked section of spray painted trees, leftover fragments of tree tops, or the trail marks crushed into the soil from the logging equipment.

“That’s always a little bit depressing to me – oh there’s the new section that’s been marked and all these trees I know are going to be gone a year from now and the forest is going to be torn up,” he says.

 Evie Soloman contributed to this story.

Indiana Department of Natural Resources Press Release

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