Indiana State Forests – This Land is YOUR Land
Many citizens of Indiana seek outdoor recreation and an opportunity to relax and commune with nature in one of our state parks. Some of us will decide to spend the night in the park campground. On my recent trips I’ve had to share trails through the woods with loud rambunctious kids, crowds, smokers, large family groups, in short, the same crowds I encounter at the local mall. Much more beautiful surroundings, but not much opportunity for quiet communing with Nature. There is no avoiding it because Indiana State Park policy is that off-trail exploration in state parks is forbidden. My recent experiences in park campgrounds included a smoky haze from numerous campfires burning green wood, the noise from RV generators, more rambunctious kids zipping around on bikes (at least THEY were having fun), bright lights that wash-out the night sky, loud family gatherings (been on both ends of that exchange), and truck radios blaring music until the wee hours. So much for quiet contemplation of the wonders of Creation.
On my recent trips I’ve had to share trails through the woods with loud rambunctious kids, crowds, smokers, large family groups, in short, the same crowds I encounter at the local mall. Much more beautiful surroundings, but not much opportunity for quiet communing with Nature.
There is only one category of State lands that provides our citizens the opportunity to experience Nature without the crowds and regulations – Indiana State Forests and the 158,300 acres of land therein. These tracts of forested land have been re-growing and recovering from extensive logging since the late 1800’s. Some parts of these forests now have trees in excess of 100 years old and are beginning to acquire some of the characteristics of “old-growth” forests, including large living trees and a diversity of plant and animal life. In short, some of these forests are beautiful. They are also uncrowded and unpolluted sanctuaries from the sundry irritations of modern life; quiet, peaceful, even holy. Various volunteer groups have built and maintained trails that facilitate access. Off-trail travel is allowed. There are no gate fees. If your wanderings bring you to a particularly beautiful, quiet glade in the forest next to a trickling stream, or a ridge top with a grand view, you are free to set-up your tent and spend a night or two, recharging your emotional batteries and cleansing your mind of the worries of the modern world. The Knobstone Trail, the only long-distance hiking trail in the state of Indiana, is located mostly within state forest lands. One would think that such precious recreational resources in a state that is mostly agricultural land would be valued and protected. One would be wrong. Some of the best and oldest forests in the State Forest system have already been partially logged, and more will be logged in the near future, all in the name of “proper forest management”. As a forest scientist with a Ph.D. and 30 years of experience in the field, I can attest that this “proper management” is open to question and debate.
There is only one category of State lands that provides our citizens the opportunity to experience Nature without the crowds and regulations – Indiana State Forests and the 158,300 acres of land therein.
Indiana’s state forests were created by an act of the legislature with the intent to, “protect and conserve the timber, water resources, wildlife, and topsoil in the forests owned and operated by the division of forestry for the equal enjoyment and guaranteed use of future generations”. Only later in that same statement of policy did the Legislature indicate that, “timber that has a substantial commercial value may be removed in a manner that benefits the growth of saplings and other trees by thinnings, improvement cuttings, and harvest processes and at the same time provides a source of revenue to the state and counties and provides local markets with a further source of building material”. This is classic “multiple-use” language, used to guide management of both state and national forests. Historically, policies for national forests allowed forest managers to emphasize the timber production aspect over all the other multiple uses. However, during the past 30 years the National Forest Management Act required forest managers to give much more emphasis to other aspects of multiple use, including recreation, wildlife habitat, and protecting soil and water quality in forested lands. This law also mandated extensive and meaningful participation by the public in the process for determining management plans and priorities for national forest lands. Unfortunately, Indiana Division of Forestry (IDOF) has not been required by our legislature to make similar changes to the how and why of state forest management.
This law also mandated extensive and meaningful participation by the public in the process for determining management plans and priorities for national forest lands. Unfortunately, Indiana Division of Forestry (IDOF) has not been required by our legislature to make similar changes to the how and why of state forest management.
According to IDOF documents, 97% of state forest lands will be managed for timber production; the remaining tiny fraction is set aside in nature preserves that are not intended for significant public visitation. Current logging activities have occurred in “Backcountry Areas” that contain much of the oldest and most beautiful forests. Prior to the Daniels administration, these lands were set aside and not included in timber production plans so that they could provide high quality recreational opportunity. Since then the “backcountry” designation has been dropped and logging operations have occurred in these areas. Logging has also occurred in areas where hiking trails constructed by volunteer groups were located, destroying this important recreational resource and demoralizing the selfless individuals who worked so hard to create something for their fellow citizens. This increased emphasis on logging in state forests was intended to increase revenues to the state forest bureaucracy. However, a recent economic analysis produced by the Indiana Forest Alliance casts serious doubt on whether the timber selling process on state forests actually makes any profit at all.1/ So the IDOF may be destroying recreational resources that will take decades to recover and then making the citizens of Indiana and their children pay for the privilege of a diminished environment. Maddening, isn’t it?
The managers of our state forests need to clearly understand what the public wants from these lands and be held accountable that these needs are met.
But we are the Indiana League of Women Voters; we don’t just sit and complain; we DO something about it. So what is worth doing something about? We need to encourage our legislature and the governor to mandate that at least 10% of the best remaining mature forest in the state forests system be permanently set-aside as old-growth forest preserves that are open for recreational uses such as hiking and camping and that will provide important wildlife habitat. This needs to happen SOON, before IDOF logs all of these areas and sets-back the recovery process for decades. Just as importantly, we need to encourage our state leaders to make the processes of state forest management and planning open and transparent to the public, as is already mandated for our national forests. Public involvement in open and transparent deliberations is the only antidote against backroom deals with special interests that harm the public good and destroy our shared natural resources. The managers of our state forests need to clearly understand what the public wants from these lands and be held accountable that these needs are met.
The following bills up for consideration in the current legislative session would accomplish these goals:
SB 286 (Stoops) Designated wild areas in certain state forests
SB 305 (Stoops) Timber management (requires cost-benefit prior to timber sale)
SB 610 (Ruckelshaus) State forest commission and management plan
1/ Concealed Costs of State Forest Timber Sales: Report 1 of 3. 2019. By Rae Schnapp (Ph.D), Jeff Stant, Spencer Phillips (Ph.D.), Carolyn Alkire (Ph.D.), and Morton J. Marcus. Indiana Forest Alliance.