Before European settlers arrived in the late 18th century, about 20 million acres of Indiana — or 85% of the state — were covered by forests.
Twenty-first century Indiana still has about 5 million acres of forest land, but only a small percentage isn’t exposed to exploitation for timber or development. The Department of Natural Resources oversees 150,000 acres in state forests, scattered in 15 pockets mostly across southern Indiana.
You can see clearly how largely untouched natural forest lands in the Hoosier State have dwindled from 20 million acres in pre-settlement Indiana. Today, just 0.6% of those lands lie in state forests.
So it’s easy to understand why protesters reacted strongly when the DNR sold the rights in November 2017 to log a portion of the Yellowwood State Forest in Nashville. Like other state forests, Yellowwood offers wildlife habitat as well as camping, fishing, hunting, hiking and other outdoor activities to those who want to enjoy the natural beauty of Indiana.
The Yellowwood controversy shined a spotlight on increased logging in state forests. According to the DNR, in the 12 years leading up to the Yellowwood harvest, logging of commercially viable trees had increased from 0.3% to 1.2%. The department attributed the increase, in part, to the “low harvest levels” of the previous decade.
Last year, a bipartisan amendment on a DNR-related bill would have designated 10% (15,000 acres) of state forests as old growth and free from commercial logging. The amendment was voted down 52-42 on the House floor. Another amendment that would have created a state forest commission to advise the DNR in the management of state forests received just 31 votes in favor.
While selective logging to remove non-native species and return an area to its natural condition can be beneficial to old-growth forests, such operations should be vetted thoroughly and monitored closely to ensure that commercial benefit or government profit doesn’t become the motivator.
Such independent oversight of logging proposals, coupled with the DNR’s responsibility to explain to the public the benefits of selected logging operations well before they begin, would demonstrate to Hoosiers that it’s not about the money.
A renewed effort to assure that our dwindling forest lands are treated as a precious natural commodity deserves careful consideration in the legislative session that begins in earnest Jan. 7. A bill should be introduced to form an oversight commission and establish that logging should be performed only to improve the health of the forest.