Plans to log Brown County, Ind. backcountry area threatens century-old trees

(INDY STAR) -- In a forest meant to be primitive and pristine, many conservation groups and community members say the state's recently announced plans to log the Brown County woodlands are disturbing and disheartening.

Earlier this month, the Department of Natural Resources' Division of Forestry released proposals to log nearly 300 acres within the Yellowwood State Forest backcountry area. Designated in 1981, this wooded land was set aside to offer visitors an experience of a forest "much the same as it may have appeared a century and a half ago," according to a DNR article from that same year.

Forestry officials say the planned timber harvest fits in as part of their management of the backcountry as a "wilderness area."

Some advocacy groups and recreationists think otherwise. While not the largest cut across the state in recent years — either in acreage or total trees removed — the logging in the Yellowwood backcountry, they contend, would be the most egregious.

"What makes this cut so dramatically different is that it's right in the heart of this deep-wood wilderness and will not only disrupt popular hiking trails but could displace many rare species," said Jeff Stant, president of the non-profit Indiana Forest Alliance.

"They are violating the promise made to maintain this as an older forest from those decades ago," he added. "How far will they go to throw that commitment out the door?"

The forestry division's plan is to sell to a private bidder the opportunity to log three tracts of forest, likely beginning sometime this winter and involving some trees that are 150 to 200 years old.

DNR spokesman Phil Bloom said the typical cut for a backcountry area is five to six trees per acre, as prescribed by the single selection cut method meant to be used in such woodlands. The management guides for these tracts, however, suggest that number could be much larger.

According to the plans' harvest volume, the logging could generate between roughly 475,000 to 712,000 board feet of timber — which could equate to as many as 30 to 40 trees per acre.

Bloom said that range is only an estimate of sawtimber-sized trees and stressed that the trees have not yet been marked for sale. The targeted trees are primarily those that have been damaged by fire or insects such as the emerald ash borer, he added.

"This is not a budget-driven decision, but decisions about our forest are driven by forest health," Bloom said of the fact that the department often uses profits from timber sales to fund parts of its budget.

He told IndyStar that the forestry division's certifications for sustainable forest management are based on that premise.

A criterion of the Forest Stewardship Council, one of the certifying bodies, for older forests is a no-harvest zone around active Indiana bat hibernacula, or winter habitat. Attempts to reach the Council auditor were unsuccessful.

The Forest Alliance and researchers have found two maternity roosts, or summer habitat where female bats have their babies, for the Indiana bat in and around the planned cut areas. The Indiana bat is a federal and state endangered species.

These findings are part of the Ecoblitz — a comprehensive survey by the Forest Alliance of flora and fauna in this exact area that began in 2013. The inventory — established to study wildlife in the backcountry's deep-forest habitat — has also found timber rattlesnakes and several types of warblers, all considered rare or threatened species.

Some ecologists and wildlife experts worry the timber harvest would disrupt these species that require undisturbed forest. Bloom said the department's wildlife biologist agrees they use mature forests but also thinks they could benefit from some canopy openings.

He said the Ecoblitz provided "interesting observations" but does not suggest for or against a particular type of management, or lack thereof.

In neighboring Michigan, its forestry division designates wilderness areas that are used for recreation but not timber harvesting, according to Michigan timber sales specialist Doug Heym. Even with recreation, he told IndyStar, certain activities are restricted to avoid damaging the environment.

Similar restrictions exist for the Yellowwood backcountry — including camping groups no larger than six persons and no pets other than hunting dogs. Both policies, among others, are to help preserve the "delicate conditions of a Backcountry experience," according to a 1981 article.

That same article does say timber harvesting will continue to be allowed but will be restricted to single-tree selection.

Cliff Chapman said it is important to consider the woods and not just the policy's words.

"There is a question of what is legal and what is right," said the executive director of the Central Indiana Land Trust, which includes Brown County. "This truly is a science and does get complicated very quickly, but our forests were getting along OK before we started cutting and managing them."

In this situation, Chapman said he thinks the right thing would be to slow down, listen to both sides and have a broader conversation to help find a balance.

The 30-day public comment period for these plans ends Sept. 3; Bloom said he does not know if the forestry division has received any comments that would lead it to press pause on the plans. Delaying the harvest beyond this winter would result in ash trees too decayed to salvage for their value, he told IndyStar.

That is why many community members, including Linda Baden and her husband, Charlie Cole, of Brown County, are encouraging the public to write and call the governor's office.

"My first reaction was 'How dare they?'" said Baden, who moved with Cole to Brown County the same year these woods were designated backcountry area. "This has stirred up a hornets nest, and we hope it will be a galvanizing moment — new groups are forming and old groups are energized and letter-writing campaigns are underway."

Calls to Gov. Eric Holcomb's office seeking comment were not returned.

Baden said she and Cole will visit the forests as much as possible over the next several weeks in case their efforts are unsuccessful.

"We aren't saying don't cut in the state forests. We are just saying don't cut in this beautiful and majestic place," she said. "It's a significant treasure for the state and should be handled differently."

Indy Star


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