Since 1903, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources has been the state agency charged with protecting and conserving the timber, water, wildlife and topsoil in the state forests for the equal enjoyment and guaranteed use of future generations.
This charge came in response to the almost total devastation of Indiana forests through human settlement, farming and logging prior to 1900, when only an approximate 7 percent of Indiana was considered forest land, down from 85 percent less than two centuries before.
But Indiana legislators did not simply charge the DNR with protection and conservation of natural resources.
"It is recognized, however, that by the employment of good husbandry, timber which has a substantial commercial value may be removed in such manner as to benefit the growth of saplings and other trees by thinnings, improvement cuttings and harvest process and at the same time provide a source of revenue to the state and local counties and provide local markets with a further source of building material," reads the statute (IC14- 23-4-1).
On Sept. 17, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Indiana Department of Natural Resources Director Kyle Hupfer held a press conference in the Morgan-Monroe State Forest to announce their new initiative for managing state forests.
And while it's a plan Hupfer stands firmly behind, it is not without staunch opposition by some state environmental groups.
At the root of the controversy is the state's intention to more than double the number of trees harvested for timber on state property each year.
The DNR traditionally has harvested about 3.4 million board-feet of wood annually from the 150,000 acres of state-owned forests. That figure would increase to between 10 million and 17 million board feet under the new plan.
It will also increase revenue from state timber sales from the current $1 million each year to between $3 and $5 million. Hupfer is adamant that all of the increased revenue will remain in the Division of Forestry for the management, purchase and study of state-owned forests. "Every penny," he vows.
Hupfer believes the new DNR proposal fulfills both the conservation and economic aspects of his duties. For him, any change in the management of state forests had to be based on the sustainability of the state's natural resources.
"This is a miniscule amount of timber that's going to be cut. Out of some 6.5 million trees, we currently cut around .3 or .4 percent, and we will get to the point [under the new plan] where we cut a maximum of 1.2 percent of the trees - and that's only trees that are over 10 inches in diameter," he explains.
Even with this dramatic increase, Hupfer believes the overall effect is one that benefits the forests.
"We found that we could cut four to five times the number of trees we are currently cutting and still only be cutting 40 to 50 percent of new growth. We could have pushed it even further, and gone right up to the limit of sustainability, but we didn't. We picked a number that we thought was still well below any question of sustainability."
Saving the trees
Andy Mahler of the Indiana State Forest Stewardship Committee disagrees. "I'm not questioning their intentions," he says, "but they are using a statute written 100 years ago as a mandate for how the DNR should operate today."
Mahler describes the new DNR plan as "profoundly undemocratic," "rushed" and "flawed."
Hupfer responds, "We have spoken and listened to numerous constituent groups; attended protests; held open house meetings ... We have heard what these folks have to say. And the fact is, they think no trees should be cut down. It's hard to compromise with that position."
Mahler acknowledges that groups like the IFA believe private land should be the only source of timber in the state. "We believe there is more than enough timber on 85 percent of privately owned forests. We never said, 'No tree should be cut,' but we do believe in protecting public forests."
But State Forester Jack Siefert believes increased timber harvest in state forests is actually a way to protect both the public and private forests.
"There is huge demand for this wood out there," Siefert says. "People should want as much of the wood going into this economic market as possible to come from sustained, managed forests. Otherwise, you have people who buy the land and come in and clear-cut it. Then it never regrows, it never reaches sustainability."
Hupfer agrees. "Environmental groups should be jumping up and down for what we are doing," he says. "This is sustainable growth and management of our forests. This isn't like mining coal or oil or gas - resources that will eventually run dry. This is being managed so that the entire resource is all back again the next year."
In developing the new DNR plan, Siefert, a longtime forestry research scientist at Purdue, asked for a complete review of all available scientific data that examined the positive and negative effects of this type of cutting increase. In addition, the DNR solicited the advice and input of the U.S. Center for Tree Regeneration at Purdue, the Nature Conservancy, the Wildlife Federation, Farm Bureau and small landowners and businesses in the affected areas.
According to Siefert, scientific studies that contradict the DNR's findings and their presumptive success in managing sustainability while increasing logging don't exist.
"That's pathetic," Mahler says in response to Siefert's conclusion.
"That is the clearest case I've seen of someone not wanting to examine contradictory evidence in order to support a predetermined conclusion. They only invited people to the table who already agreed with a predetermined outcome. They did not seek out members of the scientific community who might have opposed."
Saving the forests
Siefert is hopeful that the establishment of research forests funded by the increased timber sales will provide answers for the future of forest management in Indiana. These research forests will be laboratories, in effect, for studying the DNR's success or failure regarding forest sustainability in a partnership between the DNR and Indiana University, Purdue University and Indiana State University.
"We are going to have universities come in as third-parties, conduct their studies, and report back to us their findings," he explains. "To me, there's no better system of checks and balances. And it creates the base line data that we don't have now."
But opponents of the plan believe the establishment of research forests does little to compensate for the overall damage the increased timber harvest will cause. According to the IFA, the new plan is "not based on sound science, lacks protection for water quality, and fails to ensure protection of endangered and threatened species and their habitat.
"This new plan is driven by economic interests and does not follow the legal mandate to protect forest health and bio-diversity," the organization said in a press release issued after the announcement of the plan.
"For people who live in urban areas like Indianapolis, the public forests are their only forests. And they should be concerned and consulted about what happens to those forests," Mahler insists. "Fundamentally, the owners of this land weren't consulted. And we believe the majority of Hoosiers will not support the DNR's proposal."
Hupfer understands the position of environmentalists like Mahler and the IFA, but believes public policy should not be determined by public opinion.
"When the governor asked me to look at this issue, he said, 'Do what we should be doing, not because it's politically correct or anything else, but because that is what's best for the state,'" Hupfer says.
"Yes, it means more trees will be cut down but, in the long run, we believe more forests will be saved."