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Soul of the Forest

A controversial project slated for Hoosier National Forest underscores a larger struggle percolating over America’s trees.

Madison Stacey

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Published: 5:28 PM EDT November 2, 2022
Updated: 5:28 PM EST November 30, 2022

(UPDATE: The U.S. Forest Service has now opened the comment period on the Draft Environmental Assessment (DEA) for the Buffalo Springs project. If you’d like learn more about how to submit comment on the proposal through the Forest Service click here. If you'd like to read the DEA, click here. For more information on how to contact your public officials, click here.) 

A massive change happens along Indiana’s southern half, almost a third of the way down the boot. Hills rise out from flattened cornfields. The limestone juts up high where karsts carve down deep, in a place where intense glacial forces formed a landscape well apart from the flattened ones Indiana became known for.

Few people can claim tangible evidence of some generational tie to this ancient land, awash in white oak and shortleaf pine. Robbie Heinrich can though, in the form of a humble sheepskin deed made out to his 10th time great-grandfather, made dignified through the neat penmanship of James Madison, the fourth president of the United States. 

It was signed in 1811. The family’s 93-acres of property in Orange County bore witness to the happenings along the Buffalo Trace - a trail carved by buffalo migrations years ago that eventually coalesced into the Oregon Trail. 

“Our property has got some trees that are dated 250 years plus that saw the buffalo roam this area. They saw all my generations of grandparents farm the land. I, as a child, have hunted and played and enjoyed them,” Heinrich said. 

This sheepskin deed has, within Heinrich family lore, held a revered place on the mantelpiece, passed from son to daughter and so forth, even landing briefly into the hands of Governor Eric Holcomb. In 2016, he declared no one in Indiana had owned a piece of land longer than Heinrich’s family had held onto these woods.

Credit: Robbie Heinrich

In October 2021 though, another piece of paper that could prove as transformative as the cherished deed arrived on Heinrich’s doorstep.

The paper bore the U.S. Forest Service’s insignia, stamped next to the title: ‘The Buffalo Springs Restoration Project.’  It was notice of their intent to log more than 5,000 acres of trees near the family’s home, lay down nineteen miles of road construction, and turn 8 of 13 miles of horse trail into gravel log road. 

Thousands of acres would be burned. Herbicide treatments were planned as well. 

Heinrich read the notice, baffled by the word “restoration.” To him, the project would destroy the land he loves or, at best, leave it unrecognizable for his young children. 

Credit: USDA, Buffalo Springs Restoration Project Scoping Letter
The Buffalo Springs Restoration Project scoping letter was delivered to residents and released to the public in October 2021.

“The more I've learned about this project, and the lack of information shared with local residents and landowners, or any people that are interested in Hoosier National Forest, the more involved I've been able to get,” Heinrich said. 

Inside the heart of Hoosier National Forest, the last truly wild place in Indiana, a deep chasm has formed - between longtime area residents like Heinrich, environmental advocates, and U.S. Forest Service managers - over the proposed Buffalo Springs Restoration Project. 

Forest Service leaders maintain that burning, cutting, and spraying thousands of acres of mature trees is necessary to preserve the forest’s “overall health.” They say it will protect the wilderness near Patoka Lake in southern Indiana from the impending stressors of climate change. 

U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Chris Thornton is from Tell City. Like Heinrich,  he grew up exploring the wild thickets throughout southern Indiana, especially the area near Lincoln’s Boyhood Home. 

He will soon be tasked with signing off on what could be the most transformative project in the forest’s history. He believes failure to implement the Buffalo Springs Restoration Project in this specific part of the Hoosier National Forest would weaken it considerably over time. 

“I think the general public probably wants the forest to stay just like it is now forever. And I agree, it’s beautiful,” Thorton said. “But the Forest Service people - the specialists - are thinking 100 years down the road. And what kind of stressors are happening to the forest now? How can we set it up to be good for the next generation?” 

The project would further a larger U.S. Forest Service initiative to sustain oak-hickory ecosystems in the forest, which they said are “important to keep…on the landscape as many wildlife species have evolved with it and depend on it.”

They also aim to create larger age diversity between different tree species within the forest in order to “provide for diversity in wildlife species,” according to the proposal. 

“Our forest is all pretty much the same age. We call it even-aged. That's not good to have trees that are all the same age, because they're all going to get old together. Which isn't a bad thing in some part of the forest, but you want to have that diversity. You want to have those younger trees coming on too,” Thornton said. 

But several environmental advocacy groups, including the Indiana Forest Alliance, Sierra Club, Protect Our Forest, Save Hoosier National Forest and the Hoosier Environmental Council, believe the Forest Service is making a mistake. 

They maintain the Forest Service is operating within an archaic framework that profoundly – and erroneously – simplifies the makeup of a complex forest system, and that the real reason the Forest Service is moving forward with the Buffalo Springs Restoration Project is because they want to auction off its most valuable trees for profit.  

Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service
A map provided to 13News by the U.S. Forest Service shows what treatments are being proposed for areas around the historical Buffalo Trace throughout the next decade.

“This does not mean they're bad people, but it means they respond to perverse incentives that incentivize cutting down more and more highly valuable trees to maintain budgets, so they can do all the other important work that the public expects them to do,” said Andy Mahler, who lives near the forest and is affiliated with the Save Hoosier National Forest group. Mahler founded the group 'Heartwood' and has been a forest activist for more than 20 years. 

At the crux of their dissent is the belief that the Forest Service is moving forward with the project within the guidelines of an outdated forest plan they were legally supposed to update years ago,  and which gives excessive permissions for logging and burning. 

The National Forest Management Act of 1976 mandates forest plans for national forests be revised at least every fifteen years. Because the current plan is from 2006, advocates say it is already out of compliance. They maintain that the 2006 plan did not take proper considerations for how to properly manage forests amid an ongoing climate disaster

“Everything that they're proposing now is based on the 2006 plan, which is based on a planning rule which applied to all national forests that was written in 1982. So, everything they're proposing for the Hoosier National Forest now is based on the planning rule that's 40 years old, and the forest plan that's 16 years old, even though they're required to have a new plan every 15 years,” Mahler said. “We've been asking for a plan that is responsive to changing circumstances, changing public attitudes. And that is what they refuse to give us, because they are so wedded to the financial benefits of logging and burning the forest.” 

Thornton said the current plan restricts land management activities on public land by a certain volume, which the U.S. Forest Service equates to acres. In the last 10 years, he said the Forest Service has used an average of 266 acres a year, or .13% of the whole forest, for commercial logging treatments. But he acknowledges logging and burning practices have increased in the Hoosier National Forest since the 2006 Forest Plan.

Credit: Madison Stacey
The Hoosier National Forest is spread across 9 Indiana counties.

“[Logging] has definitely increased since the 2006 Forest Plan has come online. The Forest Plan, for lack of a better word, breaks up the forest into zones, management areas where different things can happen. So, on half of the National Forest silvicultural activities such as clear-cutting are acceptable. The management on the other half, areas like the Deam Wilderness that we're also close to - that's not going to happen,” Thornton said. 

Fragmentation of the forest is yet another reason critics maintain the area identified by the federal government for the Buffalo Springs project should be left well alone. 

The Hoosier National Forest is already one of the most fragmented national forests in the country. Although the Forest Service manages 204,331 acres of the Hoosier National Forest, the total acreage inside the purchase boundary is 646,949 acres. 

That means when you look at Hoosier National Forest on some maps, you're not necessarily looking at the total amount of land available to the public. 

A map provided to 13News by the Forest Service shows the bulk of Hoosier National Forest is already inaccessible.

Credit: USDA / Forest Service
The amount of land managed by the Forest Service inside Hoosier National Forest is denoted in green.

Similarly, a map from 2007 shows how much of the forest was privately owned around the time the 2006 plan went into effect. Areas in pink demonstrate land managed by private owners, while areas in green show areas managed by the Forest Service. 

Those opposing the Buffalo Springs Project think the Forest Service could reach out to private landowners in order to further their land management goals inside the Hoosier National Forest, and leave public acres alone. 

“That land is much more valuable for these other values - water quality, recreation, endangered species, climate moderation, and carbon sequestration than it is for logging and commercial extraction,” Mahler said. 

That the project could potentially threaten water quality in nearby Patoka Lake has also been a massive point of contention for those opposing it.

Spread across three counties, Patoka Lake makes up the second largest reservoir in Indiana - a source of drinking water for some 65,000 people. Critics fear the removal of thousands of acres of pine trees, and the constant transportation of logging equipment in the area, would clog the reservoir with excess sediment pollution.

“That is a huge supply in southern Indiana, which doesn't have these giant glacial outwash aquifers that are in the northern and central part of the state, that people get their water here from,” said Jeff Stant, who is the executive director of Indiana Forest Alliance, an Indianapolis-based non-profit which works to protect forests across the state.

Credit: Madison Stacey
The Buffalo Springs Restoration Project would take place near Patoka Lake, a source of drinking water for about 65,000 people.

Concerns over how Forest Service projects in Hoosier National Forest could affect water quality for people living closest to it were the focus of a recent federal ruling. 

The Houston South Vegetation Management and Restoration Project, based in a northwest corner of Jackson County, is a similar proposal to the Buffalo Springs project. It would aim to burn as many as 12,300 acres, and apply herbicide to more than 2,100 acres. 

Earlier this year, a federal judge ruled the U.S. Forest Service failed to properly evaluate the project’s impact on nearby Lake Monroe. 

Despite that admonishment, the U.S Forest Service recently announced a “correction, supplement, or revision to the project’s Environmental Assessment was not necessary”. 

The public has until Nov. 7 to provide input regarding the draft for that project. Many of the same groups who oppose the Houston South project also oppose the Buffalo Springs project. 

Thornton, who made the decision that there would be no need for revision in the Houston South project, has heard the water quality concerns from the public. He said the Forest Service has a plan to implement management strategies to prevent erosion, which include collaborations with their staff of hydrologists and biologists to monitor the sediment level in water.

“The main thing that comes to mind is our water bars. The main area the logging equipment goes on is called the skid road. And then, we would rehabilitate those roads with water bars to divert the water before erosion can happen. And, we'd also seed and mulch those areas,” Thornton said. 

Additional concerns have been raised that precious wildlife will face continued threats from the persistent burning, proposed for more than a decade, under the project. 

Critics disagree with the Forest Service’s assertion that the project’s goal of increasing the overall age diversity of the forest would help provide a proper habitat to species who need early successional habitat to thrive. 

“What they need is deep forest, deep hardwood forests, of a variety of trees. What they're doing here is trying to reduce this forest down to a much less diverse, unnaturally less diverse forest type that, really, is what existed here after the pioneers cleared this area and did a lot of the logging, burning to maintain it, as is cleared ground to plow and planting crops,” said Jeff Stant, who is the director of the Indiana Forest Alliance. 

Credit: Madison Stacey
The Hoosier National Forest is spread across 9 Indiana counties.

There are currently six federally listed and endangered species whose range includes Hoosier National Forest. The Indiana and gray bats are considered endangered, while the Northern long-eared bat was listed as threatened in 2015, according to the USDA. Three species of mussels are also endangered: fanshell, rough pigtoe, and sheepnose. 

Those species, and many others, Stant said, will be threatened in large numbers if the project goes through. 

“During so many times of the year they're burning these creatures – the ovenbird, the black and white warbler, the hooded warbler, the worm-eating warbler, these are birds that evolve nesting on the forest floor. If they've got their nestlings down in the forest floor in May, June, and they do some of these burns, what do you think happens to the nestlings? They're just fried alive,” Stant said. “We find turtles that are scarred. They can't outrun prescribed fire.” 

What we are now seeing within our state’s largest forest is a conflict that will percolate well beyond the boundaries of Hoosier National Forest. Indeed, the challenges now facing all of these people and organizations dedicated to serving the natural world will go far beyond Indiana as the climate crisis worsens.

The challenge is this: in a world increasingly threatened by human-driven climate change, the fate of the natural world rests in the very hands of creatures who helped create it. 

As the situation intensifies throughout our lifetime, how involved should humankind be? In a crisis of our own making, what role should the hand of nature play in its own regeneration? 

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