GUEST OPINION: Legislation needed to ensure balance in state forests

By LESLIE BISHOP and JEFF HYMAN, guest columnists

Our legislature is currently considering a bipartisan Senate bill that would require the Department of Natural Resources to set aside 30 percent of each state forest free from timber harvest to develop naturally into old-growth forests (SB 275).

Recent comments by the DNR and others have defended the role of timber harvest as a tool for achieving particular goals, such as creating oak-hickory stands, early successional habitat and timber revenue.

But whether timber harvesting is a useful tool for achieving these goals is not the issue addressed in SB 275. Rather, SB 275 speaks to a different goal — that of providing unique values such as development of an underrepresented forest type, support for biodiversity, widespread opportunities for wilderness camping and a hedge against an uncertain future.

Importantly, SB 275 does not suggest that the DNR’s other goals are unimportant. Rather, the bill recognizes that providing the values associated with unharvested old forest is also important and that this goal can coexist with the other goals.

Anyone who tries to characterize the issue as an either-or choice between timber management and no timber management is setting up a straw man that dodges the real issue of set-asides.

This idea of set-asides is not new. Other states have set-asides in their state forests called wild areas or reserves, which are not managed by timber harvest.

This idea is also prudent. We live in uncertain times, with changing climate and increasing frequency of extreme events. Multi-aged forests that include old growth have greater resilience and supply more pathways to recovery from unpredictable events. Set-asides free from timber harvest can serve as reference plots for studying natural processes of an aging forest and as control plots for assessing the consequences of timber management in the remainder of the forest.

Currently, most of our state forest trees are 20 to 99 years old. Some of our forest tree species are only middle-age by 100, and yet DNR, from a harvesting perspective, labels those trees mature and declining.

Under current DNR management, 97 percent of the state forests will experience timber management within the next 20 years. The DNR currently undervalues old forest controlled by natural processes, rather than by timber management, as a critical component of our state forests. Therefore, legislation is necessary to ensure that old growth is adequately represented in our state forest system.

Predictably, SB 275 has critics. The Nature Conservancy, for example, has commented that we already have set-asides in the form of state parks, state nature preserves and some federal lands. But state parks and state nature preserves do not provide for wilderness recreation, such as backcountry camping.

In addition, the majority of state nature preserves with old forests are less than 100 acres in size, and they are often isolated; this does not meet the needs of many species of forest wildlife.

Federal forest management cannot be relied upon to advance state policies. Set-asides within each state forest are an obvious way to ensure widespread protection for the values associated with unharvested old forests.

The DNR and others have tried to gain advantage in the political debate over forest policy by labeling the issue of old forests as one of “science” and then by claiming that they are the true scientific experts. This tactic is a smokescreen.

First, no one to our knowledge has cited any scientific evidence indicating that setting aside a percentage of state forests free from timber management, as part of a diversity of age classes, is worthless or is detrimental to biodiversity. In fact, the science supports old forest set-asides as valuable additions to the diversity of forest ecosystems.

Second, the ultimate issue is one of policy, not science. Science can tell us how to promote a particular forest type and what we stand to lose if we don’t, but science cannot tell us what to value most as a society. The primary policy question that SB 275 raises is whether Indiana should rebalance the goals for our state forests so that the values associated with old forest set-asides are more explicitly encouraged.

Finally, the DNR and others freely toss around the popular but undefined term “forest health.” The DNR recently claimed that its timber sales mostly target “dying” and “declining” trees and that such trees are “unhealthy.” The Nature Conservancy has labeled oak-hickory stands as “good” forest, implying that old, unlogged beech-maple forests are “bad” forests.

The main fallacy of such claims is that these terms are simply euphemisms for trees that do not contribute to particular goals, such as revenue production or regeneration of oak seedlings. Set-asides promote a different goal that is also an important part of the mix: areas in which forest trees would naturally grow old, die and fall, contributing to nutrient cycles, biodiversity, wildlife habitat, and forest ecosystem “health.” Analogously, although a teenager may grow faster and have better lung capacity than her grandparents, we like to think that we, in our 60s, still provide value to our community.

Similarly, in set-asides, old, “declining” trees are allowed to contribute to the health and resilience of the forest. If the DNR is claiming that forest not managed through timber harvest is likely to be “unhealthy,” then is the DNR also claiming that the unharvested forests in state parks and nature preserves are “unhealthy”?

The DNR currently manages most of our state forest with timber harvest. New legislation is necessary to promote the full range of values that our state forests can provide.

Leslie Bishop, Ph.D, professor emerita of biology at Earlham College, and Jeff Hyman, Ph.D, JD, who teaches and practices conservation law in Bloomington, live on the edge of Yellowwood State Forest in Brown County.