Democratic Déjà Vu in the Forests of Southern Indiana

Shagbark hickories in Mogan Ridge Roadless Area, Hoosier National Forest. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

I’ve long used the phrase “back when democracy worked” while discussing citizen victories on the Hoosier National Forest and other environmental struggles in Indiana over the last half of the 20th century.

As I documented in my 1995 IU Press book Eternal Vigilance: Nine Tales of Environmental Heroism in Indiana, Indiana activists effectively shut down logging in the Hoosier National, prevented the industrialization of the entire Indiana Lake Michigan shoreline, killed two under-construction nuclear power plants and stopped an experimental PCB incinerator in the years before and after the first Earth Day.

And that’s just a few highlights.

Since 1991, the Hoosier National has been managed under a plan that was authored by CounterPunch Editor Jeffrey St. Clair and considered one the most ecologically sensitive in the nation. Through the decades and one plan revision, though, Forest Service officials initially inched, and recently raced, away from the plan’s principles, stealthily returning to their old slash-and-burn ways.

But today, activists are feeling a palpable sense of déjà vu. Forest Service plans to log, burn and poison wide swaths of the 204,000-acre Hoosier have spawned widespread opposition. And, similar to 1991, indications are the U.S. Forest Service is likewise being heeled once again.

it really does feel like democracy is rearing its seductive head in Southern Indiana.

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In 1985, the Forest Service proposed a management plan for the Hoosier’s then-188,000 acres that would have clearcut 81% of the forest over 120 years. It would have allowed a network of 112 miles of off-road vehicle trails, and oil and gas leasing on 90% of the forest.

As legendary Hoosier Supervisor A. Claude Ferguson told me as I wrote my final masters project on the subject at the Indiana University School of Journalism, the foresters’ role would have essentially been reduced to drawing circles on maps. It would have been easy to go for coffee, he said, but it wasn’t forestry.

Overwhelming public opposition to the 85 clearcutting plan led to its withdrawal and ultimate replacement in 1991 when the Forest Service implemented the Conservationists Alternative, which had been proposed by Jeff Stant and the Hoosier Environmental Council and written by St. Clair.

New groups like Andy Mahler’s Protect Our Woods and St. Clair’s ForestWatch sprouted overnight. Ultimately, 120,000 citizens signed petitions against the clearcutting plan. Indiana politicians from both parties banned ORV use on state forests. Local officials from across the region joined the resistance.

The 85 clearcutting plan’s demise was sealed when the entire Indiana congressional delegation, minus one, signed a letter saying: “The Hoosier National Forest represents an opportunity to initiate environmentally sensitive management practices on public land in Indiana” and “should be managed for their amenities, rather than for their commodity values.”

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Regional Forester Floyd “Butch” Marita ultimately rescinded the 85 plan, replaced the Hoosier supervisor and set in motion a revision process that resulted in the Conservationists Alternative.

Driven by what came to be known as “amenities-based management” principles, the 1991 plan allowed no ORV trails, effectively eliminated oil and gas leasing, reduced clearcuts from 30 acres to five and designated two-thirds of the forest off limits to timber harvesting.

Hoosier management mostly reflected those amenity values until a 2006 plan revision increased the amount of forest open to harvesting to 41% and doubled the size of clearcuts to 10 acres. For species remediation, it allowed clearcuts up to 40 acres in one 13,178-acre area.

But Hoosier National Annual Reports show an increasingly proactive approach to forest management before and after the 2006 revision. In the eight years before, annual timber harvests ranged from 4.6 to 7.6 million board feet, driven largely by “salvage” harvesting, through which trees damaged by storms and other forces can be logged. Between 2007 and 2014, the range rose to between 7 and 9.4 million board feet.

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One consequence of the 1985 clearcutting/ORV debates was the “Zero Cut Alternative,” whose name is self-explanatory. Pioneered in Southern Indiana Zero Cut was championed in Indiana by Bob Klawitter and Protect Our Woods and was a formal management option considered in the 1991 Hoosier plan revision.

By the time Mike Chaveas assumed the Hoosier National’s supervisor office in June 2014, public support for Zero Cut had spread throughout the nation. An undated Forest Service document titled “Polls about whether the Public Accepts Logging on National Forests” found:

“The following 16 polls indicate that average Americans do not want the trees in their national forest harvested. They feel they are more valuable when left standing.”

The polls, conducted between 2000 and 2011, surveyed opinions in New England, the Deep South, the Rocky Mountains, the Western States and across the nation. While each asked different questions, the results were remarkably similar – ranging from 60 to 90 percent opposed to logging on national forests.

In 2015, a year after Mike Chaveas assumed the HNF supervisor position, I sat down with him in his Bedford, Ind., office for a video chat about the Hoosier’s past and future. He said many of the right things.

Timber harvesting would be a component of Hoosier National management during his tenure, he said. Commercial logging provides jobs and revenue for local loggers and mills. He would manage the portion of the forest that permits harvesting to produce a predictable supply of logs.

Otherwise, timber harvesting would occur only to further other management goals and would not be utilized for bottom-line concerns, Chaveas told me. Long term, the primary motivations would be ecological need and biological diversity. Clearcutting would be used in places to create young, early, successional forest habitat for the benefit of wildlife species, both game and nongame.

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Hoosier advocates would soon learn that the emphasis on forest “restoration” was a Trojan Horse filled with chainsaws, drip torches and herbicide sprayers.

In 2018, Chaveas proposed the Houston South project (pronounced how’-stun in Hoosier-ese), the first of two restorations that would represent the most ambitious management undertakings in the Hoosier’s 70-year history.

The project called for thinning pine and hardwoods on 2,438 acres, clearcutting on 1,131 and selection harvest on 435. Approximately 396 acres would receive mid-story treatments, which remove shorter trees without breaking the canopy.

Chaveas cited as a goal “improving forest health and sustainability of the oak-hickory ecosystems while also improving wildlife habitat.”

Three years later, Chaveas proposed another restoration for a 30,000-acre area called Buffalo Springs that called for logging on more than 5,000 acres, including more than 1,200 acres of clearcuts; constructing 19 miles of road; burning 15,000-plus acres, multiple times; and spraying nearly 800 acres with herbicides.

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Reminiscent of 1985, a wide range of citizens responded to Houston South and Buffalo Springs with outrage, grassroots organization and legal challenges.

Houston South is located in the watershed of Lake Monroe, a 10,750-acre reservoir that provides drinking water for nine counties, which include the cities of Bloomington and Bedford.

The Monroe County Commissioners in Bloomington, Jeff Stant’s Indiana Forest Alliance and the Hoosier Environmental Council sued the Forest Service in May 2020, which resulted in a federal judge agreeing the agency failed to adequately consider impacts on water quality in the Lake Monroe watershed. The court sent the plan back for reconsideration.

Sherry Mitchell-Bruker, a hydrologist in Bloomington whose resume includes stints with the Forest Service, organized the Friends of Lake Monroe and joined the three original plaintiffs in a second court action that resulted in a March 2023 injunction against Forest Service plans for a controlled burn in Houston South.

In the Hoosier National’s southern reaches, Andy Mahler’s Heartwood, Protect Our Woods and others rallied the masses against the Buffalo Springs project.

“From billboards and banners to ubiquitous yard signs and bumper stickers, our iconic buffalo silhouette against a bright orange background is everywhere in Orange County,” Mahler recently wrote to forest activists. “And from media coverage, public meetings and letters to newspapers, to clear expressions of opposition from elected officials and economic interests, opposition is strong, bipartisan and growing.”

Among the Buffalo Springs opponents are commissioners from two counties, a town board, a Farm Bureau, multiple economic development organizations, a historic preservation group and the county capital’s Chamber of Commerce.

Republican U.S. Senator Mike Braun has said the Buffalo Springs area is more important for tourism and recreation than for logging. He twice brought USDA Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment Homer Wilkes to the area to hear citizen concerns. A public meeting with Wilkes attracted nearly 300 people attended on a workday afternoon, the vast majority of whom expressed opposition.

At that meeting, Wilkes echoed the 85 plan process when he announced that the Forest Service would prepare a new Hoosier management plan.

“This is a truly remarkable and positive development,” Mahler wrote.

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Other recent events increase the odds that democracy will prevail in citizen efforts to secure protection for Houston South, Buffalo Springs and the rest of the Hoosier National.

The Heartwood Forest Council, which has been held in different hardwood forest states since 1991, was hosted in Indiana this year, with a regional focus on Buffalo Springs. The council is the largest annual gathering of citizens from Eastern, Midwestern and Southern states dedicated to protecting public forests in the region.

“There is clear and unequivocal regional support for doing whatever might be necessary to protect Buffalo Springs.” Mahler said.

In spring, roughly 40 activists attended a tree-climbing training conducted in the Buffalo Springs area. The majority were 20-something women who learned how to conduct tree-sits, banner drops, and other creative, non-violent direct actions.

Mahler recently spoke to Regional Forester Gina Owens and believes that, similar to Marita and the 85 plan, she may be willing to put Buffalo Springs on hold pending the new plan and work with the public to chart a new course for the Hoosier and other small national forests in nearby states.

“Those National Forests like the Shawnee in Illinois and the Wayne in Ohio are far more valuable for water quality protection, recreation, climate moderation, biodiversity and other non-extractive uses than they are for logging,” he wrote.

It feels like democracy is once again working in Southern Indiana.

Steven Higgs is a retired journalist and author who lives in Bloomington, Ind., and teaches journalism at the Indiana University Media School. He can be reached at BloomingtonAlternative@gmail.com.