JACKSON-WASHINGTON STATE FOREST, Ind. (WDRB) -- Philip Todd Stewart hiked a muddy stretch of the Knobstone Trail on a recent morning, passing clumps of downed trees and rising pines. He paused when the path crossed a makeshift logging road.

Behind him, a large stump at the edge of a ridgetop was all that remained of a tree that once stood – evidence of the routine logging that occurs in Indiana’s 12 state forests.

The Department of Natural Resources listed 4,400 trees for sale last year from this state forest less than an hour’s drive from Louisville. To the south, roughly 1,220 trees from the Clark State Forest were available to buyers.

“It’s just emotional to see the damage being caused,” said Stewart, a board member of the Indiana Forest Alliance who lives in Scottsburg. “This logging is not just a tree here or a tree there. It’s pretty much industrial, wholesale logging with bulldozers and skidders, and it’s quite destructive.”

For the second straight year, a measure in the Indiana General Assembly would rein in logging in Indiana’s public forests. The Republican-backed Senate Bill 420, whose original co-sponsors include Senators from Clark County, aims to make 10 percent of those lands off-limits to timber sales.

In front of a packed hearing room and overflow crowd that spilled into a hallway, the Senate’s Natural Resources Committee took more than two hours of testimony on the bill last week before adjourning without a vote.

Roughly five percent of state forests are protected from logging, according to supporters of the bill. They argue that the proposed increase is modest, especially when considering that no-logging zones once accounted for 40 percent of state forests, and say older forests guard against soil erosion and water pollution and provide habitat for endangered species.

But the Department of Natural Resources defends its management practices, noting that less than one percent of all state forest trees are cut each year and that most state forests have emerged as a result of careful oversight of land that previously was clear cut.

The agency already has a goal of having old-growth areas make up 10 percent of state forests, according to its strategic plan. It warns that the bill would have unforeseen results – such as accelerating the loss of some oak trees – and change how state forests are managed.

“The unintended consequences of this bill, in my opinion: It takes away the ability of the best science and the decision making of the people in the field and it legislates it,” John Seifert, Indiana’s state forester, told the Senate panel last week.

The push for logging restrictions comes amid a growth in timber sales from Indiana’s public forests. While 3.5 million board feet of forest timber were sold in the 2003 fiscal year, more than 10 million such units were sold by 2007 and more than 17 million in 2014.

Meanwhile, there are no plans to drastically reduce logging. The forestry division’s four-year strategic plan through 2019 calls for harvesting 14 million board feet a year.

Since 2003, the Department of Natural Resources has taken in $25.5 million from the sales and returned $3.5 million to local governments. Part of each county’s proceeds is earmarked for volunteer and rural fire departments under Indiana law.

With most state forests south of Indianapolis, counties in Southern Indiana have benefited from revenue from timber sales. Crawford County received $50,000 last year, while Harrison County got $46,000 and Clark County about $22,500.

The Sellersburg Fire Department has used its proceeds to help pay for a Kawasaki Mule all-terrain vehicle with a rescue basket and chainsaws, Chief Boyce Adams said. The funds, which generally are limited to $1,000, represent a “very small” but consistent part of the agency’s budget, he said.

“It’s been a lifesaver for us in a lot of ways,” he said.   

Even though the vast majority of Indiana’s timber harvests happens on private property, industry groups such as the Indiana Hardwood Lumbermen’s Association are vigorously opposed to the measure. The group’s executive director, Ray Moistner, told lawmakers at the February 13 hearing that activists want to create new laws and broaden the state’s regulatory powers.

“The forest products industry just wants freedom to operate and do the job of producing the products we all need while providing jobs and supporting families and communities,” Moistner said.

The push to preserve more state forest land doesn’t take into account other state holdings, such as nature preserves and state parks that don’t allow logging, said Scott Reckelhoff, chair-elect of the Indiana Society of American Foresters. The organization also opposes the bill.

“They’re preaching that they want to save the forest or that this is more environmentally friendly,” he said. “In all actuality, you know, the logging is not eliminating forest, it’s not negatively affecting the environment. It’s just creating a different situation, a different ‘age status’ within different parts of the forest.”

SB 420 would require at least one contiguous area in each state forest, of at least 500 acres when possible, to be protected from logging. The changes could result in an annual net loss of roughly $400,000 for the state’s forestry fund and possible reductions of $70,000 a year to all counties, according to a fiscal note attached to the bill.

At last week’s hearing, retired Indiana State University ecology professor Marion Jackson told lawmakers that he supports the bill but also believes it should go further and include a greater share of older forest tracts, perhaps as much as 20 percent. 

“We need to have this for future generations to see what was here, what is still here and to protect the remnants into perpetuity in the future,” he said.

The issue emerged in the Indiana governor’s race last fall. Then-Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, said during a debate in October that Indiana was being a good steward of state forests while his Democratic challenger John Gregg said he backed a review of timber operations on those lands.

The legislative and executive branches stayed under Republican control after Holcomb’s win last November. But in the GOP-led statehouse, the state forest debate isn’t strictly partisan.

Sen. Eric Bassler, a Republican from Washington, Ind., is the chief sponsor of SB 420. He told lawmakers last week that Indiana state government has placed the Department of Natural Resources in a position in which the “more trees they cut down the more funding they have – and that’s a tough position to be in.”

He also questioned the state’s role in timber sales, which critics have claimed results in prices below those fetched in the open market. 

“I find it a little bit challenging that we have a taxpayer-subsidized entity helping keep timber prices down in the state of Indiana,” Bassler said. “I’m a big proponent of the free market system, and I think that we need to have as little impact there as possible.”

Sens. Ron Grooms of Jeffersonville and Jim Smith of Charlestown also signed on as so-sponsors of the bill. Smith’s district includes the Clark State Forest.

Smith declined repeated requests for comment. In an interview, Grooms said that after talking to loggers in his area he no longer supports the measure and has asked to be removed as a co-sponsor.

“There’s been a lot of pushback, and I think most of us want to take another look at it next year after DNR puts together a summary of their forest management program,” he said.

Back on the Knobstone Trail at Jackson-Washington State Forest, Stewart said the Indiana Forest Alliance doesn’t want to stop all logging, as some of its critics have claimed. For his part, he said he simply wants tracts of forest left undisturbed for people like him who want to hike, camp and spend time outdoors.

“I’ve never considered myself an environmentalist,” he said. “But we have to strike a balance at some point between the revenue and what’s good for the environment.”

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