About 4.7 million acres of Indiana is forested — about 20 percent of the state, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

About 3.9 million acres are privately owned. The rest is held by state and federal governments, counties and other local municipalities.

The DNR’s Division of Forestry is responsible for managing about 155,000 acres across 15 state forest properties.

Each property is unique, and so is the way each is managed, State Forester John Seifert said.

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Some, such as Greene-Sullivan State Forest, are oriented more toward recreation, including hunting, he said.

Others — like Yellowwood State Forest in Brown County — have multiple uses, including hiking, boating, camping and timber harvesting.

“Conceptually, at the highest level, we maintain conservation as our highest priority — conservation and management of the forest,” Seifert said.

Management style

What “management” means has been under debate.

Jeff Stant, executive director of the Indiana Forest Alliance, said there was a change in how the forestry division went about managing state forests after Seifert took charge in 2005.

That included allowing logging in areas of Yellowwood and Morgan-Monroe State Forests which previous state foresters had set aside.

Stant said the IFA is concerned that logging in state forests is being driven by profit goals. He said he believes the DNR views forests like a farmer views cornfields.

“We believe that there are other ways to fund and manage our state forests besides logging,” he said.

Seifert said part of the forestry division’s mission is to manage the forests as a renewable natural resource. Yet, there is no profit motivation in decisions to cut trees down on state land, he said.

The money made from harvests does supplement the division’s budget. But the management plans created by state foresters are what decides where and when harvesting happens, not what the budget says, he said.

Those guides take into account the trees present in the canopy and the saplings sprouting below. They also consider the animal habitat and foraging opportunities that are provided by dead trees which have grown to full age and fallen over on their own, said Jim Allen, Yellowwood State Forest property manager.

Stant said that there is no reason trees need to be harvested before they die naturally. Those that do die naturally return nutrients to the soil and create openings for new growth, he said.

Seifert said that currently, the number of trees being harvested in state forests is significantly less than what is dying off — particularly as the DNR deals with problems such as the emerald ash borer that is killing ash trees.

Lee Casebere, a member of the IFA and former assistant director of the DNR’s Division of Nature Preserves, said managing state forests is the mission of the division, “but that doesn’t mean they have to manage every square inch,” he said.

There are varying opinions even among scientists concerned with the flora and fauna of forests, Casebere said. “I don’t know that anybody can say that their position is absolutely right,” he said.

“But what’s wrong with a little bit of diversity?”

The question of which method is best is being studied, though an answer isn’t expected anytime soon.

The forestry division is currently conducting a 100-year study in conjunction with Purdue and other universities called the Hardwood Ecosystem Experiment.

It spans nine research tracts in Morgan-Monroe and Yellowwood state forests ranging from 900 to 1,000 acres, according to the project’s website.

Its mission is to study various forest management practices and their impact on plants and animals.

As part of that project, there are “control” areas where no forestry management whatsoever will be conducted, as well as other areas where selective and clear cutting will be done.

Only about seven years in, it is difficult to draw any conclusions so far, Allen said.

Meeting ends

The forestry division’s funding has limits, regardless of where it comes from. If the division takes in less revenue than it has budgeted for a fiscal year, it only spends as much of the budget as there is revenue to fund, Seifert said.

In fiscal year 2015, the division came up about $500,000 short of the approved budget for its dedicated fund. That fund is where money made from state forest camping fees, gate fees, timbering, nursery sales and other fees is deposited.

In 2016, the division’s revenue was about $1 million short of the budget.

It is quite possible that future visitors to state forests will see more gates with fees to be paid than they did in the past, Seifert said. Three forestry properties — Starve Hollow and Deam Lake state recreation areas and Ferdinand State Forest — already have gate fees.

Most other things the division could charge for — such as camping — already carry a fee, Seifert said. However, it is possible those fees could be increased if needed.

If fee increases are tied to decreased timbering, Stant is all for it, he said.

He would rather see the General Assembly provide more funding to the division to replace timber revenue, but he said fees offer a funding option regardless what legislators do.

Currently, a little more than half of the division’s operating expenses come from tax dollars, according the DNR.

In 2015 and 2016, timbering accounted for a little more than half of the division’s revenue and a little less than a quarter of the operating budget, or about $5 million, according to the DNR.

Forests vs. parks

The general public doesn’t completely understand the differences between state forests and state parks, Seifert said.

“Nine times out of 10, you ask an average citizen about Yellowwood, they’ll call it Yellowwood State Park,” Seifert said.

State parks and state forests both offer recreation such as camping, hiking, fishing, mountain biking and horseback riding. Both have conservation as a portion of their mission.

But the activities permitted on them differ.

Logging and hunting are permitted on state forest land but prohibited at state parks and reservoirs. The only exception is an annual hunt at select parks and reservoirs to reduce deer populations.

State parks do practice some forest management through controlled burns, but no wood is harvested from state parks and reservoirs.

Park land and forest land also differ in size.

State parks and reservoirs span about 206,000 acres of Indiana — about 50,000 more acres than state forests do.

Yellowwood State Forest holds about 24,500 acres of land and water spread out in various parcels across the western half of Brown County.

Brown County State Park — the state’s largest park — comprises 15,776 acres, all in one chunk in the south-central part of the county.

With three manned gates, visitors to the state park can make no mistake about where they are. But it is entirely possible to drive or walk through a portion of Yellowwood and never know it.

But with gate fees being considered for state forests — and their clientele changing — the differences between state forests and state parks may become less noticeable.

Since Allen started working at Yellowwood in 1995, he said he has seen a decline in visitors to the state forest, and a shift in what those who do visit want.

Twenty years ago, the primitive campgrounds would be packed with campers on fall weekends, he said. Now, there are more unoccupied than occupied sites most weekends.

Electricity at campsites, as well as developing “comfort stations” with restrooms and showers, are a matter of meeting demand, Allen said.

Yellowwood doesn’t offer those amenities yet.

Some state forest properties already have cabins, and there are plans to bring them to Yellowwood, too, Allen said. However, those are not comparable to the cabins at state parks; forest cabins would only have electricity and bare bunks with no mattresses provided.

Improvements?

One ongoing project related to Yellowwood State Forest is the plan to repair and resurface Yellowwood Road and Yellowwood Lake Road. The two roads connect Yellowwood Lake and several camping areas in the state forest to state roads 46 and 45.

The Department of Natural Resources has said that one of the motivations for the estimated $6.6 million project is improving access to the forest.

Portions of Yellowwood Road that are currently paved will get a new overlay, some curves in the road will be altered and the bridge that spans Salt Creek will be replaced. A gravel portion of Yellowwood Lake Road also will be paved, ending at the northern end of the lake, and culvert crossings will be added where vehicles now have to drive through sometimes-moving water.

Though the Indiana Department of Transportation had discussed installing culverts this fall, no road work is slated to begin until spring.

Opponents have voiced concerns that the road work will lead to increased traffic, which will disrupt the way of life of residents along the road. They’ve also complained about lack of public input and have argued that the “improvements” aren’t needed.

INDOT has addressed some concerns, such as changing plans for a curve that would have cut substantially into the property where Mark Cagle lives. However, Cagle and other residents remain critical of the need for changes to the roads through the state forest.

“The benefit, in all areas, is to provide safer travel for the motoring public,” said Greg Prince, the INDOT lead on the project, “not only for the locals out there, but anybody that’s wishing to visit.”

“What they’re planning on doing here will destroy what people come to Yellowwood to see,” said Yellowwood Lake Road resident Charlie Cole.

The roots of forestry

When the forestry division was conceived at the turn of the last century, its mission statement focused on forests as a natural resource.

The division was tasked with preserving forests not just for future generations to enjoy, but also to make use of the forest’s products.

That remains a core mission of the division, State Forester Jack Seifert said.

By 1900, Indiana was one of the nation’s biggest producers of oak and walnut.

In the previous century, Indiana’s tree inventory had plummeted from 19.5 million acres of forest to 1.5 million acres.

In Brown County, much of the land that is now forested was completely clear-cut in the late 1800s. There may be no trees in Yellowwood State Forest that predate that time, said Property Manager Jim Allen.

Forest preservation efforts began in 1899, when the state offered tax incentives to private landowners for maintaining forested land.

In 1901, the forerunner of the DNR’s Division of Forestry was established: the Indiana Board of Forestry. Its purpose was to “collect, digest and classify information on forestry and recommend methods for the better practice of forestry and for the establishment of state forest reserves.”

Two years later, the 2,000-acre Clark State Forest became the first such reserve. It was used primarily as a forest laboratory and demonstration area, and later, as a nursery.

More than a century later, the division of forestry manages state forests and assists private landowners with information on forest management.

Forest studies underway

Ecoblitz is a partnership of the Indiana Forest Alliance and other environmental groups to inventory flora and fauna in a 900-acre tract of Morgan-Monroe and Yellowwood state forests: indianaforestalliance.org/ecoblitz

The Hardwood Ecosystem Experiment is a 100-year project in Yellowwood and Morgan-Monroe state forests funded in part by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Purdue University and private groups such as the National Geographic Society and the Wildlife Management Institute: heeforeststudy.org

Forestry strategic plan

The Indiana Division of Forestry’s strategic plan through 2019 lays out eight goals for state forest properties:

  • Actively manage state forest holdings with professional leadership in accordance with accepted scientific and forest certification standards for timber, wildlife habitat and historically or ecologically significant resources.
  • Conserve and manage wildlife habitats, cultural resources and high conservation value areas.
  • Conserve important lands through strategic acquisitions, active resource management and boundary line management. Acquire 1,500 acres of lands of strategic and/or ecological importance to the long-term conservation of Indiana’s working forests in partnership with nongovernmental organizations, the Bicentennial Nature Trust, the Indiana Heritage Trust and state forest timber revenue.
  • Improve the state forest recreation user experience by bringing water, wastewater treatment, camping sites, trails, education centers, lakes and other related capital assets up to market expectations.
  • Provide forest-based recreational opportunities on appropriate state forest lands — in particular, primitive cabins.
  • Improve the security and fiscal position of state forest properties — general improvement of facilities, implementation of entrance gates and/or a pass system.
  • Provide information to the public and develop an improved process to determine public attitudes, needs and desires.
  • Evaluate and modify administrative procedures and organizational structure to improve management efficiency.

Read the entire report at in.gov/dnr/forestry/files/fo-State_Forest_Strategic_Plan_2015_2019.pdf.

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Ben Kibbey is a Brown County transplant from the cornfields of central Ohio. He covers county government, business, outdoors, sports and general news.