Letter: YOUR Hoosier National Forest

This is in response to the letter from Steven Stewart published in the Free Press on April 28.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a professional forester who has spent my career managing public and private woodlands for a multitude of owners and stakeholders for multiple objectives, both economic and intrinsic. I am self-employed and am not on the payroll of any government agency. I go to work every day and work hard to proudly deliver these services and I really don’t have time to defend my profession from professional complainers. Steven Stewart is a paid mouthpiece for the Indiana Forest Alliance (IFA). Paid to find fault, write letters and stir up support against any management the Hoosier National Forest (HNF) or Indiana Division of Forestry (DOF) wants to do. 

His letter to the Free Press is full of false information, misdirection and misleading comments.  His first sentence erroneously states that our land was dominated by deep forests “for millions of years”.  Most of Indiana was covered by ice sheets repeatedly over the last 1 million years, the Wisconsin ice sheet only melting away around 15,000 years ago.  While much of south-central Indiana was not under the ice, the climate was much cooler and the hardwood forests we associate with the area today did not exist. 

His accuracy doesn’t get much better after that, but this letter would be too long to go through and point out every inaccuracy.  However, I want to make a couple of points.  I have long felt that the basis for the preservation movement, the locking up of the forest from any direct human impacts, is based on the ideological vision of what the landscape was before the European settlers came and destroyed it all.  I grew up with this vision also, depicted in books, movies and popular culture.  But it is widely accepted by the scientific community now that this landscape was actually a managed landscape.  It was obviously more forested and wasn’t abused as it has been for much of the settlement era, but still managed.  

The IFA groups want you to believe that the Native Americans were barely existing, only taking what the forest gave them, having minimal impact, so basically, “Nature” was unimpeded, and everything was pure.  But humans manipulate their environments.  Always have, right or wrong.  And the Native Americans were no different.  They managed their environment in multiple ways, including clearing land for crop fields, building cities, they had coast to coast trade, and they used fire as a tool.  They probably burned for multiple reasons, but I think that they were smart enough to know what they were doing was good for the forest and the wildlife that used it and, thus, good for themselves.  

Stewart claims that Indiana is in “the least fire-prone area of the country”.  He is trying to insinuate that managers are defending a burning program based on fire danger.  This is simply not true.   NO forest manager in Indiana is making the claim that we live in a fire-danger area.  A burning program is being proposed and defended on the basis that this is the history of the ecology of southern Indiana for the better part of 10,000 years.  Since we do not live in a fire-prone area (as Stewart agrees!), the only explanation for our oak-hickory forests, a fire-dependent community, is human-caused fires. 

Without that fire history, we would have a lot fewer oak and hickory in our forests and the whole ecology that has evolved with those forests.  I don’t know if the IFA people understand oak ecology or choose to ignore it when it doesn’t fit their rhetoric but those of us who actually work in the forest know that oaks generally do not do well without fire or some other management assistance, including managed harvesting.  Then again, I once had an IFA volunteer tell me, very passionately, that all the oaks on State Forests were planted because that is all the State wanted to grow.  While this is obviously ridiculous, it must(?) have been overlooked in his training before he was actually sent out to talk to people about forest management.  Or maybe they really think that all the oak trees in Indiana were planted by greedy foresters? 

Another falsehood IFA is using right now is that they actually are supporting a diverse, healthy forest, and the forest managers want to beat everything into oak trees.  Again, this is not backed up by fact.  Fire has its own way of affecting a landscape to create a diverse forest.  Fires tend to burn hotter and cleaner on the south and west slopes, where we find most of our oak stands today (coincidence?), and cooler on the north and east slopes, if they burn at all, where we have more of our maple and tulip stands (again, coincidence?). 

What a managed burning program does is maintain this diversity and restore it where we are losing the oak component on the oak sites.  On the other hand, 100 years of eliminating fire from our forests is slowly replacing our oak stands with maple and beech, thus creating a LESS diverse forest and limiting the wildlife that can use it.  Any wildlife biologist, forester, ecologist or hunter can tell you that.  Walk into almost any oak stand in southern Indiana and note the large oak trees with almost no oak regeneration on the ground.  It is usually sugar maple, beech or other shade-tolerant species.  This is what Stewart is advocating, the continued loss of our oak forests.  Philosophies and personal opinions aside, we will lose a significant portion of our oak forests if some human intervention is not taken.  FACT!

A few other misleading statements Stewart makes: destroying archaeological history.  No one has to jump through more hoops to protect historic features than the US Forest Service.  Degrading Patoka Lake for recreation and drinking water. Are they serious?  If that was even remotely possible, this project would never have even been proposed. There is a lot more sediment washing off unmanaged timber sales on private lands in Crawford County, not to mention even more off crop land, than will ever happen on this project.  Foresters actually do a good job of managing sedimentation with Best Management Practices and wise logging layout and operations.  These timber sales will be among the most closely monitored in the State.  And there are thousands of acres of forest lands being burned in Indiana across public and private lands, and no one has documented an erosion problem.

I could go on and on.  But the basic issue here is that differences of opinion are fine.  The people opposed to this project are genuinely concerned about aesthetics and how they THINK the proposed activities will affect what THEY value from the forest.  But that does not excuse them from distorting the facts, misdirecting, and making up issues that don’t exist.  And they do not take into account what is best for the ecology that currently exists or what is best for other people who have just as much a right to use the forest as they do.  They want everything to be “natural,” and we can debate if Native American fires were “natural” or not, but there is really no debate that they helped create the forests we have.  By trying to protect the current forest by excluding the tools that created and maintained it for thousands of years, IFA is actually trying to create something that has never existed in Southern Indiana.  

Doug Brown, Professional Forester, Four Rivers Forestry Committee