Letter: More to the story of Indiana forest management

To the editor:

It will be a sad day for “The Future of the Forests” (Ben Kibbey, Nov. 30 Democrat) and Indiana wildlife if Indiana Forest Alliance (IFA) directors achieve their agenda of eliminating habitat management on public forest.

The means to their end is to demonize foresters, wildlife biologists and science-based conservation groups. Science, history and facts don’t support their position and claims. Based on decades of peer-reviewed hardwood forest and wildlife field studies conducted by prominent researchers and universities, National Audubon Society answers the management debate question Mr. Kibbey poses:

Over the long term and in an extensive forested landscape, maintaining a diversity of wildlife species requires maintaining a mosaic of harvest conditions — from mature, uncut forest areas to lightly thinned to heavily cut and even clear-cut stands. It is important to find a balance that allows a diversity of different species, with different needs, to continue to exist. It should also be remembered that doing nothing — that is, leaving nature to take its course — results in a gradual change in the landscape and will lead to changes in the wildlife habitat and thus the types and total populations of wildlife living there.

For millennia, Native Americans cleared and burned across the northern hardwood forest to shape a predominantly oak and hickory landscape. Plants and wildlife evolved for this mosaic landscape. With fewer sources of natural disturbances such as a forest fire and large herbivores (bison and elk), active management plays a crucial role in creating and maintaining early-successional forest, or young forest.

The Nature Conservancy of Indiana applies disturbance methods of thinning and prescribed burning on their Brown County and southern Indiana properties to regenerate oak and hickory that is critically important for wildlife, and to control invasive species (which by virtue of wind, water and animals are pervasive throughout state forest, including no-harvest and preserve areas). Active habitat stewardship plays a crucial role in maintaining biodiversity.

Over half of Indiana public forest is already no-harvest. Since 1986, old forest (more than 100 years old) has increased over 50 percent and exceeds young forest (0-19 years old) which has decreased over 70 percent. Young forest makes up an alarmingly low 5 percent, compared to forest over 60 years old which makes up 50 percent of state acreage. Young forest composition is lower than all surrounding states. Decades of nominal timber harvesting on state forest have led to this imbalance: the state cut less than 0.01 percent per year (volume) before 2005, and still less than 1 percent per year since 2005.

The U.S. Geological Service annual bird survey conducted since 1966 shows populations of Indiana older forest bird species are faring far better than young forest bird species — 38 percent of old forest species are experiencing significant population increases, but 42 percent of young forest species are experiencing significant declines, with a number of species on the verge of extirpation.

Biologists and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classify ruffed grouse and woodcock as surrogate species that are indicative of forest and wildlife health. Ruffed grouse were abundant throughout pre-settlement Indiana; the Appalachian subspecies of southern Indiana has declined 98 percent since the ‘80s due to habitat loss. Indiana has the troubling distinction of leading central states with the largest woodcock population decline.

Research shows mature forest species also require habitat diversity that includes young forest, including post-fledgling songbirds and Indiana bats.

Perhaps Mr. Kibbey will expand his coverage on this important topic by interviewing respected science-based conservation groups that support active forest management for diverse forest and wildlife including the Indiana Wildlife Federation, Indiana Nature Conservancy, Indiana Amos Butler Audubon, Izaak Walton League and Ruffed Grouse Society.

Regards,

Dan Gehring, Zionsville

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