21 June, 2013

State threatens to mar beauty of pristine Indiana forest

Matthew Tully
Indianapolis Star, 21 June 2013 

The Low Gap Trail in the Morgan-Monroe state forest takes you over small trickling creeks and under an almost constant umbrella of what the Indiana Department of Natural Resources calls “some of the state’s finest hardwoods.”

With birds providing a nonstop soundtrack, the rugged 10-mile trail wanders deep into the forest’s lush backcountry, mercifully far away from iPhone service and the rest of civilization, giving hikers plenty of time to think about anything. As I winded my way through the trail Thursday morning, getting lost a time or two but never minding, one thought kept popping up over and over.

Why in a state with a short supply of natural beauty, one without the mountains or plains or oceans that grace so many other states, are Indiana government officials so eager to bring loggers and their chainsaws into places such as Morgan-Monroe with increasing frequency?

In case you missed the story, which the state has done its best to underplay, DNR is taking another big step in the most aggressive logging plan in state forests in decades, targeting the backcountry areas that environmentalists, hikers, birdwatchers and others value so much. Morgan-Monroe, just 45 minutes south of Indianapolis but a world away, is on the latest list, as is Yellowwood State Forest. It’s all part of a dramatic increase in state forest logging that began during the Daniels administration and looks certain to continue under Gov. Mike Pence.

But why? To please the politically connected logging industry, which counts key legislators as its friends but has so much private land on which to work? To raise money for the state, roughly $2 million annually, according to DNR? It doesn’t make sense.

That’s not to argue against logging in general, or against the need for smart timber management. But this ongoing effort to invade state forests is just another example — along with over-the-top protections for factory farms and attacks on industrial regulations — in the never-ending disregard for basic environmental protections in Indiana.

As I walked around Morgan-Monroe State Forest on Thursday, hundreds of trees in my field of vision at every step, it was hard to imagine anyone having the thought that, ‘Hmm, there are just too many trees.” Or that anyone would wish to destroy the most mature trees in the forest, which loggers have their eyes on in particular.

But this is more important than spoiling a good walk.

Tim Maloney, senior policy director with the Hoosier Environmental Council, said Morgan-Monroe’s backcountry is one of the few forests in the state with the potential to reach old-growth maturity and that leaving it undisturbed from logging would give researchers a unique opportunity, as “old-growth forests are complex, dynamics ecosystems that still are not fully understood.”

“If you log a forest that is moving toward old-growth conditions, you’re going to change the condition and the wildlife that inhabits that area and the entire nature of the forest environment,” he said. “We need to protect these areas because they’re so rare.”

In its newsletters in recent years the timber industry has celebrated elections that have put friendly faces into key government spots — from legislative committee chairmanships to the governor’s office. Over that time, timber harvesting on state land has increased by up to 400 percent, DNR spokesman Phil Bloom said, though he added that only 1 percent of the land is harvested each year.

Bloom made several arguments in favor of logging as we talked and shared emails in recent days. He said the removed trees would be replaced with new planting and that the money raised funds forestry programs, including the purchase of new land.

“Timber harvests create forest openings that foster new growth, greater diversity of growth, and habitat beneficial to some woodland wildlife species,” he said, offering a case that clearly many people accept.

When the backcountry areas were established in 1981, he noted, pointing to a news release at the time, timber harvesting was part of the plan. Environmentalists question whether it was as big a part of the plan as it is becoming.

The question is when will the increase in logging stop, and when will environmental concerns begin to get a seat at the adult table when decisions are made. Logging has increased to this point with little outcry from Hoosiers and at absolutely no political cost for former Gov. Mitch Daniels and now Gov. Mike Pence. If bumping the figure up to 1 percent of state forests is acceptable, will anything change if, and when, that figure doubles or triples?

Indiana has its strengths and its weaknesses, both now and in its long history. And one of its consistent weaknesses has been an unwillingness to protect its environment. I’m not talking about an Oregon-like belief in placing environmental concerns at the top of the list of every debate, but rather just a basic understanding that clean air and water, open spaces and reasonable controls on industry and factory farms, can add much to the quality of life.

The logging in Morgan-Monroe State Forest is certain to move forward. DNR’s spokesman told me that the environmentalists who have objected to the plan “brought no new issues to light.”

But that’s the point. They shouldn’t have to. In Indiana, the old issues still haven’t received their due.

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