“In the late 1700s, settlers reaching a crest of the Wilderness Road in a notch of the Cumberlands stood blinking into the western light across the greatest deciduous forest that ever was.”
- Robert O. Petty, Professor of Biology, Wabash College, 1959-1982
Indiana’s forests are known worldwide for the high quality hardwood lumber they produce. Countries as far away as Turkey and Vietnam buy our forest products. But there are many other reasons why our forests should be valued, restored and well-managed.
According to 2011 forest inventory analysis data compiled by the U.S. Forest Service, about 21 percent of Indiana is forested, equating to 4.8 million acres. Of this area less than 2,000 acres remain of old growth woods that escaped the ax. Contrast this with the 20 million acres of forestland that covered Indiana prior to European settlement, and with the less than 2 million acres remaining at the beginning of the 20th century after agricultural clearing and uncontrolled logging ravaged our landscape.
Due to modern forestry practices, public and private land conservation efforts, and tree replanting on small and large scales, Indiana forestlands have rebounded and today are fairly stable in total area.
Yet thoughtless development on the edges of our urban areas, needless new highway construction, clearing for agricultural drainage and a few rogue logging companies continue to cause localized forest loss and fragmentation.
The 2010 Indiana Statewide Forest Assessment compiled by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources identified the top threats to the state’s forestland and examined in detail the factors that contribute to forest loss and degradation. In the assessment’s survey of woodland owners, resource professionals, and other stakeholders, fragmentation/conversion of forestland to other uses was identified as the most important Indiana forest issue.
In order, the next three most important issues were conservation and maintenance of soil and water resources, the spread and control of invasive species and conservation of biodiversity. In follow-up, the Indiana DNR and stakeholders produced the Indiana Statewide Forest Strategy which sets forth a series of conservation and policy strategies intended to address these priority forest issues.
Indiana is part of the central hardwood forest ecosystem, stretching from the Appalachians to the Ozarks to southern Wisconsin. Within this vast region is a great diversity of forest communities — the oak savanna near Lake Michigan, the beech-maple-oak flatwoods that once blanketed central Indiana, the oak-hickory stands in the uplands of south-central Indiana, the dry limestone glades in Indiana’s karst region, and the oft flooded bottomland woods of maple, ash, hickory and oak along the Wabash, White and Patoka rivers.
Before our forests were cleared, cougar, black bear, woodland bison and elk roamed the woods. Today, these large mammals are gone, but Indiana’s forests still provide invaluable habitat for hundreds of fish and wildlife species. Among these are common animals such as whitetail deer and wild turkey; songbirds, raptors, woodpeckers, waterfowl and wading birds; box turtles and salamanders; fox and coyote; as well as rare and endangered species such as the timber rattlesnake, cerulean warbler, Indiana bat, and hellbender.
Forests protect our watersheds, replenish our soils, shade and nourish our streams and absorb carbon dioxide. The value of these ecosystem services is virtually incalculable. And forests’ role in carbon sequestration clearly warrants added attention to the fate of Indiana’s forestlands, given global concern over climate change.
There is much agreement between foresters, forest industry officials, environmentalists and others about the need to conserve, sustainably manage and restore Indiana’s forestlands for the many benefits they provide. But forest management practices on public forests like Yellowwood and Morgan-Monroe State Forests and the Hoosier National Forest capture public attention and create controversy.
Many Hoosiers disapprove of logging public lands, and believe these forests — which comprise just 16 percent of Indiana’s total forest area — are more appropriately left protected as unmanaged ecosystems, as habitat for mature forest-dependent wildlife, and for outdoor recreation.
However, disagreements over public land timber harvests should not get in the way of cooperation among preservationists, conservationists, loggers, hunters, birdwatchers, cabinet makers and just plain forest lovers to address the many priority issues facing our Indiana forests.