Log and Burn, or Leave Alone? Indiana Residents Fight US Forest Service Over the Future of Hoosier National Forest

PAOLI, Indiana—When Jesse Laws rides her 7-year-old palomino, Roscoe, in Hoosier National Forest, she often steers his reins toward the tall pines. Needles carpet the trails, muting the clop of his shoes and shifting the feel of the air.

“The ground stays moist there, so it’s cooler and so quiet,” says Laws, whose great grandparents founded a saddle club in these woods about 30 miles north of the Kentucky border. “There is nothing more peaceful than listening to the breeze in a pine stand from the back of a good horse.”

But the tranquil evergreens Laws loves soon could disappear.

In two of the largest projects the U.S. Forest Service has ever undertaken in the historic Hoosier, the agency plans to log more than 9,000 acres, conduct prescribed burns on another 28,000 and build more than 27 miles of roads. 

The “Houston South” and “Buffalo Springs” proposals have engendered fierce local opposition, not only from horse riders and hikers but chambers of commerce, and elected officials, Republicans and Democrats alike. 

When added to the impact of two similar restoration projects already underway in adjacent counties, the “Oriole” and “German Ridge” projects, the Forest Service’s plans would transform about 18 percent of the Hoosier.

The contest taking shape in southern Indiana is part of a larger battle now being waged over the future of the National Forests, the nation’s greatest reservoirs of forest carbon, in a changing climate. President Joe Biden has sought to protect mature and old-growth forests, but clearly his Forest Service is resisting the concept of preserving older forests as a strategic reserve of carbon, which some climate scientists have advocated. 

Last month, the Biden administration announced a plan for new regulations to enhance “climate resilience” in those forests. It was a follow-up to a first-of-its-kind inventory ordered by Biden that showed mature and old-growth forests make up 60 percent, or 112 million acres, of the forests managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. 

But the Forest Service has more than 20 projects underway like the Hoosier plans that include logging or burning in 370,000 acres of those mature and old-growth forests, according to the Climate Forests Campaign, a coalition of environmental groups. 

The Forest Service, which is taking public comments through June 20 on what its new climate rules should look like, argues “restoration” and “vegetation management” activities, like the Buffalo Springs and Houston South projects proposed in Indiana, may be better in the long run from a climate change perspective.

Transforming the Hoosier

“With predicted changes in climate, especially hotter, drier summers in the Midwest, Hoosier National Forest [is] more likely to experience wildfire and we must plan appropriately to have a fire-resilient forest in place,” the Forest Service said in written responses to Inside Climate News.

More than half of the stands in the Hoosier are 80 years old or older, and there has been a sharp decline in establishment of new ones, the Forest Service said in its assessment of the carbon impact of the Buffalo Springs portion of its Hoosier proposal. 

“If the Forest continues on this aging trajectory, more stands will reach a slower growth stage in coming years, potentially causing the rate [of] carbon accumulation to decline,” the assessment said. 

The plan is to make way for new oak habitat by clear-cutting 1,100 acres and otherwise culling mature trees the Forest Service says are less resilient and beneficial to the ecosystem, including maple, beech and pine.

But Richard Birdsey, who spent 40 years with the Forest Service before his retirement as a distinguished scientist in 2016, says, in effect, that the agency’s climate science in this instance is wrong. Such a fall-off in carbon absorption can take hundreds of years to unfold as trees die and decay. Middle-aged forests of the eastern United States would continue to absorb and store carbon over the next two crucial decades for staving off the climate crisis—if they are allowed to stand, he said.

“If you look back at what these forests were once like, presettlement, those areas had on the order of twice as much carbon stock as they do now,” said Birdsey, now a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts. “It’s not like, all of a sudden these 100-year-old forests are going to start losing carbon. If left alone, they’ll grow in most cases to twice their age.”

Barren acres like this one, photographed in March in Crawford County, are being carved out of Hoosier National Forest in southern Indiana. The Forest Service says the logging is needed to make way for young oak trees. Credit: Robbie Heinrich

Recent scientific papers Birdsey has co-authored show how protection of large-diameter older trees can help further biodiversity and other forest resilience goals, and how more robust forest conservation policy could help mitigate climate change. “If you harvest an older forest, it creates what’s called a carbon debt,” Birdsey said. “You’ve removed a lot of stored carbon, and in order to replenish that we’re looking at decades, if not centuries.”

Having worked in the eastern U.S. for the Forest Service, Birdsey is familiar with oak restoration like the agency proposes in the Hoosier. He said the agency may have reason to pursue such projects, but should not try to justify them on the basis of climate protection.

“There might be other reasons—let’s say for wildlife—for removing some of the trees and allowing some different species to grow,” Birdsey said. “But that has nothing to do with climate. And in a case like that, you just have to accept that it is not going to be good for climate.”

The Case for Cutting the Hoosier

The Forest Service’s Land and Resource Management Plan for the Hoosier, the guiding document for its current projects, was completed in 2006—before the most recent science on older trees and carbon sequestration. It was also before rules changes under President Barack Obama that put more emphasis on community input and managing National Forests for recreation and other uses besides timber harvest.

Although the law governing the 154 National Forests says management plans should be updated at least every 15 years, the average plan age is 22, with some dating back to 1983. (Congress now includes language in annual appropriations bills exempting the Forest Service from the 15-year requirement as long as it is acting in good faith.) 

The 2006 Hoosier plan stresses one tree above all others: the mighty oak, which dominates the landscape but is not regenerating young trees—a phenomenon recognized for decades in forests of the East. The hickory tree, oak’s partner in the deciduous ecosystem since the American chestnut was wiped out by blight in the 20th century, also is declining. The Forest Service says restoration of the oak-hickory ecosystem in the Hoosier is crucial to wildlife that rely on tree fruits, or mast, like acorns and nuts. 

Oak’s economic value clearly is a consideration for the Forest Service, which describes thinning and prescribed fire as methods of “timber stand improvement.” “The stumpage price for oak consistently ranks near or at the top among all commercial hardwood species,” said a 2014 Forest Service synthesis of studies on oak regeneration that also detailed its uses—for fine furniture, flooring, whiskey barrels, pallets and railroad ties.

The Forest Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, refers to the nation’s forests as “Lands of Many Uses,” but chief among them is harvesting timber. It sets targets each year for wood production and acreage cut, and employees are evaluated on meeting such goals. Although the amount of timber harvested from national forests has fallen from its peak in the late 1980s, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore has told Congress the agency is working toward increasing output by more than one third to 4 billion board feet per year—harvest levels last seen during President Bill Clinton’s administration. 

To meet those goals, Congress has given the agency authority to enter into “stewardship agreements” with outside groups that stand to earn revenue from timber sales and other management activities and are strong advocates for harvests. Regarding its plans for the Hoosier, the Forest Service said, “projects such as this are strongly supported by many conservation-focused groups and communities.” 

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One of those supporters is the hunting group, the Ruffed Grouse Society, which entered into a 10-year contract with the Forest Service in 2019 to provide timber sale and forest management services throughout the eastern United States. It is one of many such wildlife groups pushing to increase habitat for game birds and other species through “young forest creation,” primarily by cutting older forest.

Due to the forest age and overcrowding in the Hoosier, the Forest Service says trees will have a harder time weathering climate change. Oak wilt, a fungal disease that is deadly to the trees, has been identified in small portions of the forest over the past six years, and an unprecedented insect outbreak occurred in 2020—signs that the Hoosier is under stress, the agency says.

“The consequences of inaction will be ecologically dire,” the Forest Service said in written responses to questions from Inside Climate News.

And a key action that the agency is planning—covering more acres than logging—is prescribed fire.

“I could give you probably a six-foot high pile of scientific papers showing the strong relationship between fire and oak,” said Michael Saunders, professor in Purdue University’s School of Forestry and Natural Resources, author of some of the studies.

The Forest Service has partnered with academics, held symposia and compiled meta-reports on the fire prescription for oaks. 

“Oak needs canopy openings and needs fire and needs other things to be able to regenerate successfully and replace itself,” Saunders said.

This pine stand is one of many planted throughout Hoosier forest 50 to 90 years ago to control erosion. The Forest Service says it is overstocked and less suitable habitat for wildlife and biodiversity than native species. Credit: USFS
This pine stand is one of many planted throughout Hoosier forest 50 to 90 years ago to control erosion. The Forest Service says it is overstocked and less suitable habitat for wildlife and biodiversity than native species. Credit: USFS

Both Native Americans and early white settlers provided plenty of disturbance. They burned the forest repeatedly, usually to clear the land for agriculture. The territory that became Indiana, which was 90 percent forest-covered prior to the start of the 19th century, had only 4 percent forest cover left by 1900, according to a 2018 report by the Purdue-led Indiana Climate Change Impacts Assessment. Thick-barked oaks survived the fires, and thrived in the open spaces—even on north-facing slopes with less direct sunlight.

“We got a lot more oak back than probably we would have naturally gotten without that cut-over,  just because oak was the only thing that could handle all the disturbance we threw at it,” Saunders said.

Indiana’s forests now cover about 20 percent of the state, but most of that woodland remains in private hands. The Forest Service began buying abandoned land here and in other Eastern states during the Great Depression. Only after the lifting of a restriction requiring tracts purchased by the Forest Service to be 20 percent contiguous could the 200,000-acre Hoosier National Forest be established.

The Hoosier is now filled with stands of non-native pines planted 50 to 90 years ago through federally funded efforts like the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps to stop rampant erosion on bare, abandoned farmland. But the Forest Service says the pine plantations are less suitable habitat for wildlife and biodiversity than oak, and should be removed.

Also targeted are shade-tolerant species like American beech and sugar maple that have been regenerating instead of oaks and hickories.

Prescribed fire—in most cases, preceded by logging mature trees—reduces forest density and removes the competition. The projects will “improve the sustainability of the oak-hickory ecosystem” and “move the landscape toward historic conditions,” the Forest Service said in its statement of need for the Buffalo Springs project.

The Forest Service said it is looking to mimic Native American settlements in Indiana that date back to 12,000 BC. “Evidence suggests extensive use of fire by Native peoples for centuries and people have been on this landscape since nearly the last ice age, therefore our native plant and animal life evolved with fire and are adapted or tolerant of it at low intensities, which is what our prescribed fires are,” the Forest Service said. “Recent projects propose actions to improve the health and diversity of the forest to increase its adaptability and resilience to the predicted changes to climate, among other ecological objectives. We take a long-term view and plan for 100 years or more ahead.”

The Indiana Society of American Foresters, representing professional forest managers,  supports the Forest Service’s plan for the Hoosier. “Timber harvesting needs to be implemented at a scale large enough to address the myriad of current threats facing overstocking public forests,” said Edward Oehlman, the group’s vice chair, at a public meeting in April. It’s an “appropriate implementation” of the Forest Service’s 2006 Land Management Plan, which calls for increasing the amount of young forest to as much as 12 percent of the Hoosier. In the areas the Forest Service wants to log, less than 1 percent of the forest is less than 20 years old. 

The Case Against Cutting the Hoosier

The power of Indiana’s only National Forest to bring the state’s residents together from across the political spectrum is demonstrated by this unlikely pair of opponents of the current plans for the Hoosier: J.C. Tucker, a member of one of Indiana’s most prominent Republican families, and Andy Mahler, longtime forest advocate, songwriter and food co-op operator. 

“People who live here love the county, and Andy and I both think it’s the most beautiful place in the world,” said Tucker, brother of former second lady Marilyn Quayle and father-in-law of one of Indiana’s two Republican U.S. Senators, Todd Young. “We want to make sure it sustains for generations.”

Forest preservation advocate Andy Mahler and his wife, Linda Lee, with their dog, Wagner, outside their home in the woods adjacent to Hoosier National Forest. Credit: Marianne Lavelle
Forest preservation advocate Andy Mahler and his wife, Linda Lee, with their dog, Wagner, outside their home in the woods adjacent to Hoosier National Forest. Credit: Marianne Lavelle

Tucker, longtime county attorney for Orange County, where most of the Buffalo Springs project would take place, says the plan should be “re-evaluated.”

“They need to reduce the emphasis on clear-cutting and logging, and have more emphasis on preserving the natural state of it,” he said. “If burning has to happen, it should be limited. What they’re planning is extreme.”

Mahler is more blunt in criticism of the Forest Service. “They are trying to convert the forest into a tree plantation essentially to promote the most commercially valuable species,” said Mahler, who, with his wife and songwriting partner, Linda Lee, lives in a cabin surrounded on all sides by the Hoosier. “Of course, they won’t talk about the commercial value. They talk about the wildlife and the mast and the birds and everything, but it’s really, really all about the money.”

Established in 1951, the Hoosier is among the smallest, youngest and most fragmented of the national forests. And yet the trees on this well-used land inspire passionate defenders who have shaped the course of U.S. forest policy.

In 1940, when a lumber company purchased a long-untouched family tract of hardwood trees in southern Indiana, local civic groups raised money to buy the land in one of the first community-led campaigns in the nation to preserve old-growth forest. Those 88 acres, called Pioneer Mothers Memorial Forest, are now part of the Hoosier and a National Natural Landmark, with trees nearly 300 years old and five feet in diameter—one of the few sites of its kind in the eastern United States.

An Aug. 23, 1957 photo shows signs of restoration after shortleaf pine was planted three to four years earlier in what would became Hoosier National Forest. The Forest Service now has plans to remove many of the 70-year-old pines that were not native to the area. Credit: Hoosier National Forest via Flickr
An Aug. 23, 1957 photo shows signs of restoration after shortleaf pine was planted three to four years earlier in what would became Hoosier National Forest. The Forest Service now has plans to remove many of the 70-year-old pines that were not native to the area. Credit: Hoosier National Forest via Flickr
Erosion along German Ridge Road in Perry County shows on May 7, 1941, when the U.S. Forest Service purchased the land for restoration, which included planting of pine trees. The now-mature pines, which were non-native species, are now being removed in a Forest Service "restoration" project. Credit: Hoosier National Forest via Flickr
Erosion along German Ridge Road in Perry County shows on May 7, 1941, when the U.S. Forest Service purchased the land for restoration, which included planting of pine trees. The now-mature pines, which were non-native species, are now being removed in a Forest Service “restoration” project. Credit: Hoosier National Forest via Flickr

In the 1970s, when unregulated off-road motorcycles were tearing up hiking trails and the fragile forest floor in the Hoosier, a career Forest Service employee, A. Claude Ferguson, turned against his own agency and joined environmentalists in a lawsuit to halt the damage. The case exposed agency officials’ diversion of Forest Service funds and efforts to silence Ferguson, and was an impetus for what became the federal Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989. In 2005, after years of debate, the Forest Service adopted rules to manage off-road vehicle use throughout the national forest system.

Now, with impacts of climate change already evident, critics say the Forest Service is seeking to recreate an era that was anything but a healthy one for Indiana’s forests. “They’re trying to restore the forest back to the most degraded baseline that ever existed there,” said Jeff Stant, executive director of the Indiana Forest Alliance. “They always use the word ‘historic,’ so that the public will think they’re trying to go back to the way nature really was. But much of the dominance of oak-hickory forest in southern Indiana is an artifact of heavy rural settlement in the 1800s.”

The Native Americans whom the Forest Service says it seeks to emulate didn’t use herbicides like glyphosate—better known as Roundup—which the agency plans to apply on 2,700 acres in the two Hoosier project areas. And project opponents ask why the Forest Service isn’t protecting the mature trees of all species, since many will be lost to severe weather and other climate impacts in the years ahead.

“The tornadoes in December 2021 that flew in all the way from Arkansas created more [forest openings] than the most ambitious silviculturist could imagine,” Mahler said. “We do not need to create more disturbance. We need to hope that our forests will be free from disturbance,  because I guarantee you in a time of radically altering weather patterns and extremes, Mother Nature will create plenty of disturbances across the landscape, including in our forests. We need to make sure we have as much standing as possible for future generations.”

A Forest Protecting Troubled Waters

At an April public meeting in Orange County, where dozens of residents spoke up in opposition to the logging and burning, a local tree farmer voiced support for the Forest Service’s plan.

“We have a golden goose in Indiana that’s putting out $10 billion dollars a year in economic activity, and a lot of that is because of oak,” he said. “We have a lot of oaks that are big and not many that are smaller… Our oak trees are going to be gone in our lifetime.”

“We’ve got to feed the goose and we need to get more oaks on the ground,” he said, “and fire and management is a tool to do that.”

But today in Indiana, tourism generates more revenue than timber—about $13 billion a year, according to state officials—and local leaders see the Hoosier as integral to that business, and the reason has a lot to do with water.

The Forest Service touts its role as a national water protector and agency officials quote its first chief, Gifford Pinchot, as saying the connection between forests and rivers is “like father and son.” Since his time in the early 1900s, science has learned even more about how forests help regulate the water cycle and reduce the impacts of intensive storms—a particularly important function in an era of climate change.

Water from Forest

Last fall, Forest Service scientists calculated 125.5 million people in the continental United States, close to 40 percent of the population, derive part of their drinking water from National Forest lands. Communities around the Hoosier are among the most dependent, on par with many areas of the West. 

That’s due to two water impoundments dug out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—Lake Monroe, in 1965, and Patoka Lake, in 1978—mainly to control flooding in the Wabash River basin. They are Indiana’s two largest reservoirs, together providing drinking water to 200,000 people and pumping tens of millions of recreation dollars annually into local economies.

The Houston South (pronounced “How-ston”) and Buffalo Springs projects would take place in the watersheds of the two lakes, which clearly are under stress from both pollution and climate change. At Lake Monroe, officials have issued recreational advisories every year since 2011 because of blue-green algae blooms. Caused by agricultural and other runoff and worsened by warming, the blooms can sicken people and animals. The Hoosier, which covers the steep eastern side of Lake Monroe, has been a critical buffer and filter of pollution.

“The trees themselves are holding moisture in the forest and creating an environment in which water is released slowly, rather than letting it run off quickly,” says Sherry Mitchell-Bruker, a retired Forest Service hydrologist who now is pitted against her former agency over its plan for logging and prescribed burning in the watershed.

Mitchell-Bruker, who worked in the Everglades and in the Sierra Nevada mountains before returning to her native Indiana to retire, started kayaking in Lake Monroe and quickly learned of its problems. She founded the nonprofit, Friends of Lake Monroe, seven years ago, and worked with local communities on a watershed protection plan finalized last year. But some of the partners in the project feared their work would be for naught if the Hoosier became a new source of runoff. 

Sherry Mitchell-Bruker, a former hydrologist with the U.S. Forest Service and local clean water activist, in her garden in Bloomington, Indiana. She gave testimony crucial in Monroe County's bid to block the Forest Service's prescribed burning plan that was to take place this spring near Lake Monroe. Credit: Marianne Lavelle
Sherry Mitchell-Bruker, a former hydrologist with the U.S. Forest Service and local clean water activist, in her garden in Bloomington, Indiana. She gave testimony crucial in Monroe County’s bid to block the Forest Service’s prescribed burning plan that was to take place this spring near Lake Monroe. Credit: Marianne Lavelle

Monroe County led a lawsuit against the Houston South project, and on March 29 won a federal court injunction blocking the Forest Service from the prescribed burning set to begin days later.

A year earlier, U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt, chief judge for the southern district of Indiana, ruled mainly in favor of allowing the Houston South project to go forward, with one exception: she said the Forest Service had failed to fully analyze the potential impact on Lake Monroe as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

In response, the Forest Service put out a 40-page “supplemental information report” in December to “clarify relevant portions of the existing project record.” But such brief reports, only acceptable for addressing new information or changed circumstances, couldn’t be used to avoid doing the kind of detailed analysis and consideration of alternatives that NEPA required, Pratt ruled.

The Forest Service has since withdrawn the report and is evaluating the decision. The agency would not comment on a possible timeline for Houston South while the matter is in litigation.

But the Forest Service has maintained that its low-intensity prescribed burns would be a “significant distance” from Lake Monroe and would not harm the reservoir. Silt fences, log landings and other best management practices would be in place to prevent erosion. Overall, the Houston South project “will restore a mosaic of healthy forest that will support diverse populations of wildlife and provide resilience to climate change,” the agency had said in its report. The Forest Service said it had more controls in place to protect the lake than Monroe County, which exempts agriculture from zoning ordinances meant to combat sedimentation.

Mitchell-Bruker—who provided expert testimony in the case—does not dispute that farm pollution contributes to Lake Monroe’s problems, or that local governments need to do more.  But she argues that the Forest Service has a major role to play.

“If you talk to a farmer, they’ll say, it’s the boats in the lake, and the people in the forest will say, it’s the farmers,” Mitchell-Bruker said. “The message we have been working very hard to convey is that it’s everyone, everyone in the watershed. All the small contributions along the way add up to a big contribution. And the Forest Service, with a huge amount of land, can have the most impact—the most potential for harm and the most potential for good.”

Lake Monroe, Indiana’s largest drinking water reservoir, serving 130,000 residents, is impaired by sedimentation and runoff. A federal judge blocked the Forest Service’s plan to begin prescribed burns this spring in surrounding Hoosier Forest, ruling the agency failed to adequately study the potential impact on the lake. Credit: Marianne Lavelle

Monroe County, the home of Indiana University, is led by Democratic elected officials. But sentiment about Forest Service logging and burning is much the same in Republican-led Orange County, where the Buffalo Springs project would reach close to the banks of Patoka Lake, not only a drinking water source but a recreational center. 

“We have concerns about water quality, we have concerns about the fact that so many people use our forests and trail riding and hiking and all those different things that lend to commerce in Orange County,” said Richard Dixon, president of the county board of commissioners.

“We need every resource we can to draw people in and keep our county solvent,” Dixon said. “It’s just something that’s very, very important to our county to have those drawing cards, and we’re going to lose one if we just go in and, in my words, ravage that forest.”

With a draft decision on the Buffalo Springs project expected by this fall, the Orange and Crawford boards of commissioners, along with local chambers of commerce  and economic development partnerships and the local farm bureau joined in a March letter outlining their concerns to the Forest Service, raising questions about the legality of the plan under NEPA.

Republican U.S. Sen. Michael Braun, who knows the region well as a native of nearby Jasper, Ind., has sought to play a mediating role between his constituents and the Forest Service. Braun, who announced in December he is running for governor in 2024, organized an unusual meeting in April in Paoli, Ind. for local residents to air their concerns directly with Homer Wilkes, undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who oversees the Forest Service. 

“Treating forest in a respectful way, it gives back in so many different ways,” Braun said at the start of the meeting. With a nod to the Great Smoky Mountains, 300 miles to the south, he said the hardwood forest of Indiana also was a unique ecosystem with much opportunity for recreation, education and conservation.

“I think you’ve got to look at the total value of a unique property like this, and listen carefully to the people that live around it and use it most,” Braun said.

Andy Mahler, founder of the forest preservation group, Heartwood, crumbles a copy of the Buffalo Springs logging project map at a meeting with U.S. Sen. Mike Braun and USDA Undersecretary Homer Wilkes on April 3 in Paoli, Indiana. Credit: Marianne Lavelle
Andy Mahler, founder of the forest preservation group, Heartwood, crumbles a copy of the Buffalo Springs logging project map at a meeting with U.S. Sen. Mike Braun and USDA Undersecretary Homer Wilkes on April 3 in Paoli, Indiana. Credit: Marianne Lavelle

Shade Above, History Below 

Nearly 300 residents crowded the Orange County Community Center for the April meeting, many of them clad in bright orange t-shirts that read “Save Hoosier Forest,” and “Stop the BS Project.” Among them was Jesse Laws, whose great grandparents started the Orange County Saddle Club.

Laws can cover a lot of ground in the Hoosier on a horse, including in the neighboring counties of Crawford and Perry, where the Forest Service has been executing logging and burning projects similar to the plan for the Buffalo Springs area. Trails have been converted to gravel logging roads, and the clear-cuts are barren and hot.

“It’s really disheartening because you go from this beautiful, shady woods, and then you come out to a clearing and there’s nothing but stumps, or the tops of trees, left behind on the ground because they aren’t worth anything,” she said. “They leave a big mess.”

The Forest Service says that such sites eventually will be restored. “Regenerating the upland oak-hickory community is a multi-decade long, multi-step process,” the Forest Service said in written answers to Inside Climate News. “We have several sites that we believe with high confidence are developing as expected for the stage of treatment they are in.” The agency pointed to a recent study by a Purdue University graduate student that showed a 94 percent survival rate for oak seedlings at one research site in Perry County after a “shelterwood harvest”—the logging of most mature trees—followed by a prescribed burn. The site showed the planned shift away from moisture-loving species like the maple to the oak, and increased richness, diversity and cover of understory plants than it had before the treatments.

But it will be decades until such sites return to mature forest. To Laws, the Hoosier forest is already full of new growth and life.

“I’ve been riding on those trails my entire life and without fail, almost every time you ride through the big mature pines, you scare up deer or wild turkey,” she said. “As pines age and die, when they fall it creates a sunlight opening. Hardwood trees are growing up in these openings. There are many hardwood species growing in the pine stands.”

Robbie Heinrich has seen the same happening—native species replacing the non-native pines—in the portion of the Hoosier forest that borders his family’s 92-acre property in Orange County. 

“Those pine trees, they did their job,” Heinrich said. “Now they are at the end of their life and are not regenerating, and there’s about as many hardwoods as pines. Where pines have fallen, it is naturally being replaced with hardwood forest. It is returning to the condition it was in before there were white people here.”

Heinrich’s ancestors were among the settlers who first altered the Indiana Territory’s forests. The family property was purchased by his 10th great grandfather, Joseph Farlow, in 1811—five years before Indiana’s statehood. The family still has Farlow’s sheepskin deed signed by President James Madison and received a Hoosier Homestead Award in 2016 for holding one of the longest continuously owned properties in Indiana. 

Heinrich, an engineer who works on electric vehicle projects in the auto industry, used a drone to photograph the agency’s oak restoration projects in neighboring Crawford and Perry counties. 

“It is horrific, what we’re doing today in Hoosier National Forest,” Heinrich said.  “When I drive through the clear-cuts and think, ‘Oh my God, this is what will happen to the public property next to my property that I love and where my wife and I want to retire,’ it makes me want to vomit.

“I hope it doesn’t come to this, but I will chain my happy ass to the top of a tree to stop this if I have to,” Heinrich said, noting that he finds common ground with the activists who stopped the logging of spotted owl habitat during the timber wars of the 1990s in the Pacific Northwest. “I’ve been a self-proclaimed redneck all my life, and now have turned into a grassroots preservationist, because I am so upset that they won’t listen to us.”

Heinrich’s ancestors were among a group of Quakers who traveled and settled in the Indiana Territory alongside 11 Black families who were free citizens, but faced increasingly harsh treatment in the 1800s in the South.

A cemetery and a few stone remnants in the Hoosier forest mark the Lick Creek Settlement, which thrived for 50 years before Black families abruptly abandoned it after the start of the Civil War.

When 78-year-old Diana Daniels, a descendent of the Lick Creek settlers, first visited the site in the Hoosier forest with her family in May 2022, she cried. 

A teacher and education activist in Indianapolis, Daniels has researched the struggles of her ancestors—who had come to America as indentured servants, not slaves.

Diana Daniels (left, in green) recounts the stories of her ancestors at their burial site in Hoosier National Forest in May 2022. Her family members and Forest Service personnel gathered for the visit to the historic Lick Creek Settlement site. Credit: USFS
Diana Daniels (left, in green) recounts the stories of her ancestors at their burial site in Hoosier National Forest in May 2022. Her family members and Forest Service personnel gathered for the visit to the historic Lick Creek Settlement site. Credit: USFS

When Daniels recounted the story behind each of the stone tablets standing in the underbrush to younger members of her family—”That’s your sixth great grandfather, that’s your fourth great grandfather”—she recalled the African American ceremony of “libations,” pouring liquid onto the ground while calling out the names of the dead. 

“I began to feel ​​that spiritual connection, and it was like the graves were saying to me, ‘Thank you! Welcome back! Glad to see you!’” Daniels recalls. “I just broke down and started crying. It was just so much.”

The Lick Creek area is marked for prescribed burning in the Buffalo Springs restoration plan. The agency says it will establish at least a 30-meter (about 100-foot) buffer zone around cemeteries and burial grounds and take other precautions. Crews will cease work and call a heritage resource specialist in if they discover cultural materials or human remains, the Forest Service says in its plans. In addition to the 2,500 discovered sites like Lick Creek containing evidence of prior human occupation that have been recorded in the Hoosier, the Forest Service estimated there are probably 2,500 more sites that have yet to be identified. Most of the Buffalo Springs area has not been surveyed for historical sites.

 Lumber is loaded onto trucks in Hoosier National Forest in March. Residents in neighboring Orange County have been capturing images they believe show the degradation in store if a new logging proposal in their region goes forward. Credit: Robbie Heinrich.

After learning of the Buffalo Springs project and the surrounding controversy, Daniels called the Forest Service, which forwarded her the plan and more than 700 pages of analysis.

She said she understands the need to cut and replace dying trees—she’s done that on her own property—but her brothers were alarmed after reading the materials from the Forest Service.

“They said, ‘This is terrible. We shouldn’t go along with this,’” Daniels said. “But I said wait until we get down there and see what they’re talking about before we hop on any bandwagons.”

The family plans to visit the gravesites again this summer, and she hopes to learn more. She would like to see a true memorial established in the Hoosier that tells the stories of the settlers and the struggles they faced, where children can learn a nearly lost but important part of history.

“The people that can help us do that are Orange County, and the Forest Service,” Daniels said. “If we all could come to the same table over that same vision, boy, it would be a powerful team.”

In The Footsteps of The Buffalo

But at the moment, there’s mostly strife and division over the future of Hoosier National Forest.

At the public meeting in April, Heartwood founder Andy Mahler crumpled a poster-sized copy of the Buffalo Springs plan in front of Senator Braun and USDA Undersecretary Wilkes. “If I could burn this, I would, but burning pollutes the air and warms the planet,” Mahler said. “You are not going to destroy the forest of Orange County, the last best forest in the Midwest…the best forest remaining in the state of Indiana.

“We need this forest for recreation, for water quality and for historic and cultural preservation,” Mahler said. “We need it for biodiversity and we need it for carbon sequestration. The Hoosier National Forest is going to be protected. It’s either going to be protected by the Forest Service, or it is going to be protected from the Forest Service.”

The Forest Service, which sent no representative to the April meeting, maintains that the projects it is planning are the best hope of maintaining a healthy, resilient Hoosier Forest for the long term.

“We understand that some feel that no forest management is the best path forward,” the Forest Service said in written responses to Inside Climate News. “However, the science tells us that on the fragmented forested landscape of the Hoosier National Forest, this strategy is counter-productive to the broader goals of building and maintaining healthy forests that we all share.”

But at its core, the dispute over the future of the Hoosier isn’t over that science, but over whether there is time to execute such an extensive overhaul of the forest. “The problem is the idea that you can sacrifice the short-term for the long-term in this day and age, with climate change and all the ecological crises we’re seeing right now,” said Mitchell-Bruker, the former Forest Service hydrologist who has studied the climate impacts on Lake Monroe. “We have to ask, ‘What is the impact going to be in ten years?’”

At the end of the April meeting, opponents of the Forest Service project sang an original ode to forest preservation. “The Song of the Buffalo Springs” lamented the “long-gone” chestnut tree and the buffalo that once roamed here by the thousands. 

It was the trampling of these American bison as they migrated for thousands of years that created one of the area’s beloved historical features: the Buffalo Trace, a trail as wide as 20 feet that was followed by early pioneers. Hundreds of loaded wagons could pass through what is now Orange County in a single day. The route brought Daniels’ ancestors to the area along with other Black settlers of Lick Creek and the Quaker ancestors of Heinrich.

But now, homes, farms and other development covers most of Buffalo Trace. Indiana State Highway 56 was built over part of the route. “Today, the Buffalo Trace is fading into obscurity,” says the Forest Service website, and a sign at a Hoosier trailhead calls it “Indiana’s Forgotten Highway.” Indeed, the only remaining portions that can be seen are within the Hoosier National Forest, in an area now marked for prescribed burning and logging.

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                <a href="https://insideclimatenews.org/profile/marianne-lavelle/">
                    Marianne Lavelle                    </a>


                <h4 class="profile-subtitle">Reporter, Washington, D.C.</h4>

                Marianne Lavelle is a reporter for Inside Climate News. She has covered environment, science, law, and business in Washington, D.C. for more than two decades. She has won the Polk Award, the Investigative Editors and Reporters Award, and numerous other honors. Lavelle spent four years as online energy news editor and writer at National Geographic. She spearheaded a project on climate lobbying for the nonprofit journalism organization, the Center for Public Integrity. She also has worked at U.S. News and World Report magazine and The National Law Journal. While there, she led the award-winning 1992 investigation, “Unequal Protection,” on the disparity in environmental law enforcement against polluters in minority and white communities. Lavelle received her master’s degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and is a graduate of Villanova University.

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