INDIANAPOLIS — At least 25 Brown Countians — possibly as many as 60 — were among the 650 or so who rallied at the Indiana Statehouse on Feb. 20 in favor of a state Senate bill that would protect specific areas of state forest from logging or tree planting.

Curt Mayfield has been hunting and exploring Indiana’s woods for about 60 years. He said he attended because he is concerned that truly wild areas in Brown County are shrinking.

“It’s important to me as a hunter, someone who enjoys being in the wilderness, to find a place where you can get away from the stress and strain of modern living,” he said. “And I think we could do a lot better job managing our forests if we would set aside some old growth and just let nature manage it.”

Jon Kulow lives in the midst of Brown County’s forests. He said he’s concerned about more than just the serenity they offer.

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“I recognize forests as a necessary part of all our lives, not just because it feels good but because they literally serve the function of cleaning the air and giving us fresh air to breathe,” he said. “And when they have ramped up their increase in logging, that, to me, poses a critical threat, for not only our current generations, but more so for future generations.”

As the rally went on, many supporters expressed concern over whether the bill would even make it out of committee.

It didn’t; the bill was not called for a vote by the Thursday deadline.

Republican State Rep. Mike Braun, who authored a House bill last year that was similar to Senate Bill 420, encouraged them to keep going.

Things take a long time to accomplish at the General Assembly, Braun told supporters waving their green bandanas.

The area outside the Senate chambers was crowded to the point people could barely make it through when rally-goers broke into groups to meet with the senators from their districts.

Dave Seastrom, a Brown Countian who attended and spoke at the rally, led the group from Senate District 44 that stayed to meet with Sen. Eric Koch, R-Bedford. With the Senate in session, the group had to wait about two hours before Koch was able to break free, and by that time, it had dwindled from 40 to 50 District 44 constituents to about six.

Koch co-authored a similar House bill a year ago, but he did not add his name to the Senate bill.

Koch’s meeting with the group was pleasant but did not end with any commitments, Seastrom said.

In the meantime, the group was able to meet with newly elected Rep. Chris May, R-Bedford, whose District 65 includes Brown County. May expressed interest in finding out more and agreed to take a hike with Indiana Forest Alliance members through an area of state forest that has been logged, Seastrom said.

Taking a percentage

Senate Bill 420, authored by Sen. Eric Bassler, R-Washington, would have required the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to set aside 10 percent of each state forest to not be managed in any way, including the removal or planting of trees.However, it would have still permitted hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, mountain biking and horseback riding in those areas.

While harvesting timber would not be allowed, harvesting of edible and medicinal plants and mushrooms would have been. It also would have allowed any fires that broke out in those areas to be extinguished, though it would have prevented the DNR from using fires to manage areas as it does in state parks.

The bill would have required 10 percent of each state forest to be set aside in whole parcels, preferably a minimum of 500 acres per parcel.

Ten percent of all state forest land would total 14,971 acres.

According to the state Legislative Services Agency, the result would be parcels ranging in size from 31 acres at Selmier State Forest to 2,516 in Clark State Forest. In Brown County’s Yellowwood State Forest, the protected area would come to 2,395 acres.

The DNR Division of Forestry opposed the bill. State Forester John Seifert testified before the Senate Committee on Natural Resources in opposition to it.

Among state parks, state nature preserves and land run by the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife, about 200,000 acres of state-owned land is already off-limits to management through logging, Seifert said.

Each division has a mandate for the land it oversees, and overseeing land that is unmanaged falls to other divisions aside from forestry, he said. Other divisions, such as State Parks and Reservoirs and Fish and Wildlife, do not permit logging on their lands, he said.

Contentions

IFA Conservation Director Rae Schnapp said the 10 percent figure comes from the DNR’s own strategic plan. The bill would have simply made the DNR designate the specific areas to maintain as older forest, she said.Before 2002, the Division of Forestry had a list of 5,700 acres that were specifically protected from logging, Schnapp said. Some of those areas have been logged, and there is nothing preventing logging in others.

“We believe that the public deserves to know exactly where these older forest areas will be,” Schnapp said.

Currently, as part of the DNR’s 1,804-acre hardwood ecosystem experiment, three “control” areas spread around Monroe and Brown counties have no form of management and are to remain untouched for at least 100 years. These areas are off-limits to anyone not involved in research.

Schnapp said this is not enough, and that having a portion of each state forest left undisturbed aside from recreational use and plant and mushroom gathering would give researchers a much better picture of what undisturbed forest would look like.

Seifert said all the state forests are on land that was either heavily harvested or completely cleared in the past for agriculture. With many plant and animal species that inhabited the area before widescale settlement gone, simply leaving the forest unharvested would not return it to its former state, he said.

Before settlement, Indiana was about 85 percent forested. A natural event such as a tornado or wildfire would have cleared a significant area to allow young or “early successional” forest habitat, Seifert said. In addition, the Division of Forestry has evidence that Native Americans intentionally burned large areas of forest to clear for hunting and agriculture, he said.

Today, only about 3 percent of Indiana is forested. With wildfires prevented from growing very large, and private landowners either harvesting only select trees for profit or not at all, the successional habitat many species rely on is in short supply in Indiana, Seifert said.

“The reality is we should be doing more harvesting and more clear-cutting than we’re doing,” he said.

Schnapp said that interior and old-growth habitats are what is rare in Indiana, and that smaller openings under an acre in size can supply habitat needed by a wide variety of species.

The IFA maintains that the real motivation for logging in state forests is to make up for funding losses at the DNR going back to 2005.

“We simply do not agree with the idea that logging is the only way to ensure a healthy forest,” Schnapp said.

Seifert said that the division is not motivated by profit, and selection of which trees are harvested is based on age and types of trees, such as large stands of non-native pines that were planted to help restore depleted soils but are now dying off, and stands of ash trees threatened by the emerald ash borer.

Though the bill has died, the fight is not over, Seastrom said. The IFA hopes to see a similar bill introduced in the legislature again next year.

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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.