(This piece was originally published on November 7, 2017 in the Indianapolis Star.)

More than 200 scientists from across Indiana are urging Gov. Eric Holcomb to stop a scheduled timber sale in the Yellowwood Backcountry Area, which is among the only remaining wild areas in the entire state.

The sale, scheduled for Thursday, would be the first time this particular section of the forest has been logged since the area was designated as “back country” in 1981. The area is meant to offer visitors a forest experience “much the same as it may have appeared a century and a half ago,” according to a DNR article from that same year.

David Leblanc, a professor of biology at Ball State University who specializes in forest ecology, was among the 228 scientists who signed the letter, which was delivered to Gov. Holcomb’s office last week.

“This is state land. It belongs to the public. What’s the objective?” wondered Leblanc. “I’m a backpacker, I’ve been to a lot of national parks, I spend a lot of time and effort to get out into nature and away from other people. It’s a very different experience than camping in a campground. And you have very limited ability to do that in the state of Indiana.”

The Yellowwood backcountry area is just a few decades away from looking like an old growth forest, according to Leblanc, a stage which is characterized by a mix of tree ages, large fallen trees and some old, wide trees — unique features that develop generally without significant disturbance.

The letter to the governor was delivered by Brown County resident and retired biology professor Leslie Bishop. She stressed the importance of having portions of Yellowwood remain free from logging to ensure there can be standards for comparison within the forest.

“You need that area. It’s like a control,” Bishop added. “What would be happening if we were not altering this habitat? And that’s probably what concerns me the most.”

Still, it does not appear the letter has done much to sway Holcomb’s opinion.

When asked the governor’s reaction to the letter and what it would take to intervene in the planned timber sale, his office offered their full support of the DNR’s plan.

“DNR has a well-researched and thoughtful plan for this and all healthy forestry management practices, and the governor supports their plan for Yellowwood,” the governor’s press secretary said in an email.

Indiana’s DNR often uses profits from timber sales to fund part of its budget. The Department did not comment on the letter or plans for Yellowwood, directing IndyStar to the agency’s website. Officials have previously pointed to the fact that the department’s forestry division has certifications for sustainable forest management and makes its decisions based on forest health, rather than the budget.

A handful of licensed timber buyers in Indiana have said they are not against the sale, but that they likely will not bid on the timber.

“To me, all timber needs to be managed in a proper way,” said Tiger Hill Sawmill contractor Steve Morgan, who mentioned he plans not to bid with the publicity and controversy around Yellowwood. “But I also believe they do need to explain why they are cutting so much on it.”

Paul Rothrock, a botanist and professor at Indiana University Bloomington who signed the letter sent, says he was puzzled by the DNR’s decision to move forward with a cut.

Rothrock, Leblanc and many others have been studying the Yellowwood backcountry for the past year as part of an inventory organized by the Indiana Forest Alliance and the Hoosier Environmental Council. Called the “Ecoblitz,” it’s meant to establish a baseline of what older Indiana forests should look like.

“For us it’s been the ignoring of the work that’s being done (by us) as an independent but scientific community,” said Rothrock. “It’s the sense, do we have room in the state to preserve our natural heritage?”

The DNR plans for these areas described the method as selective cutting, which is typically around five to six trees per acre. With the trees now marked, some areas appear to have as many as 10 trees set to be removed — some near trails while others are set back, requiring equipment to navigate through dense forest.

Timber buyer Jake Kreinop said he believes that the state should set aside a portion of land to be completely untouched, which includes no logging as well as no carved-out trails, etc. He does not, however, have a suggestion of where that should be — or if Yellowwood should be it.

“We are such a consuming nation and people want to see something untouched,” the owner of Upland Forest Management, Inc. said. “We need to be good stewards of the things and resources, but I do also believe we need to use them.”

Kreinop said he has heard these tracts are “mature prime timber” with “a lot of monetary value,” but he, too, does not plan to bid because of the controversy. In the past, several timber buyers that opposition has included people camping out in trees, blocking off roads and even going as far as damaging equipment — the IFA, however, has said they encourage only peaceful opposition.

Yet he does respect the other side, Kreinop said.

“As a person and as a free American,” he added, “I do believe the government should hear and listen to their opinions, too.”

Those opinions and concerns about the logging in Yellowwood are coming from more than just scientists.

Residents of Brown and Monroe Counties have also expressed concerns about what will happen to the forest as well as the roads and trails that will be affected by logging equipment. For one, large vehicles called skidders will have to be driven into the forest, where they will be affixed with logs that are then dragged back out via small back roads.

One such road, Possum Trot Road in Brown County, has residents particularly worried. The small, gravel route that leads right up to a Yellowwood trail is currently maintained by local residents.


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