We live in a recovering landscape. It has been recovering since the glaciers wiped it clear thousands of years ago. Sometimes recovery takes that long. Trees are slow movers. Though the pollen from trees can drift a thousand miles, the seeds rarely move more than a few miles on their own. So it can take hundreds of years for a forest to recover from a major disturbance. It is fair to say that the forests of Indiana, which once spread over 98 percent of the state, were stabilizing and that the native peoples co-adapted to the forested wetlands and uplands.
White settlers felled great oaks, walnuts, chestnuts, and other hardwoods both for timber needed to build homes and also to clear land for farming. Settlers in the northern part of the state were blessed with a depth of topsoil that yielded well even after the forests, grasslands, and wetlands were cleared. The southern part of the state with its rocky ridges and flooding lowlands did not fare as well. By the 1910s it was obvious: farms were failing, and the timber industry had already stripped much of the best trees from the area.
It was at this time that the legislature created the state forest system — now nearly 150,000 acres — in part as a buy-out program for farms that just couldn’t make it any more. It was also meant to demonstrate best management practices to landowners who could and should be producing timber on their lands. At the time, this was seen as a progressive way to support the people of the state, to recover some forest lands in a landscape where the soils had grown so thin they threatened to become wastelands, and to demonstrate the economic benefit of good timber production of hardwoods over generations.
Until a couple of decades ago, Indiana’s state forests have been in a state of recovery. Only a tiny fraction of forests in the state have never been cleared (Pioneer Mothers in Paoli is one of the best public examples, and even that may have been cut at some point). The state forests have been managed primarily for timber. Though recreational activities of all kinds take place on the waterways, in a few campgrounds, and on the trails, the intent of the state has been to sell the timber from these forests. Over the last several years, now that there are parts of the forest reaching greater age, there is an increased desire by the Division of Forestry to maximize the economic benefit by selling timber. Logging on state forests has increased 500 percent, with clear intentions to maintain that level of timber extraction, disrupting natural cycles and replacing them with destructive manmade ones, for at least the next several decades. In essence, of the 150,000 acres of state forest run by and for the people, every possible acre will see the removal of trees that are of economic benefit or that will prohibit the growth of trees that are of economic benefit. Although we, the people, own these “tree farms,” it is what’s on the spreadsheet and not what’s in the soil quality that determines the timber industry’s interest in on our state forests. Even the local forest managers are increasingly pressured to “get the cut out.” Federal policies subsidizing forest products for biomass energy production only encourage this mindset — and indeed have encouraged the Hoosier National Forest’s managers to begin increasing forest product extraction on a level not seen in over a decade.
This is a mindset anchored to the past. Recent advances in ecosystem sciences and the restoration of landscapes stand in sharp contrast with forest management perspectives in Indiana government. The state asks how we can keep improving our extraction, or how can we use science to justify continued cutting (such as the assertion that we need more early successional habitat), when what we need to ask is whether there should be any cutting on public lands. We need a society where the timber industry trades fairly with private landowners instead of leaning on the crutch of the public forest system. We need people to create more forests, both for wilderness and for the resources they provide, and to make a clear distinction between wilderness and forest farms. State parks, often promoted as a wilderness experience, are anything but — crisscrossed with roads, parking lots, trails, inns and restaurants. They do not fulfill the need for a wild place, nor are they sufficient for the recovery of our landscape from the damages it has seen in the industrial era.
People who prioritize resource extraction think wilderness is a naive or an antiquated notion. Despite this view, Indiana is likely to become more forested. If we plan well, some of those forests will be wild — areas existing strictly for their ecological, psychological, and spiritual benefits. With the anticipated failure of industrial agriculture, which is propped up with subsidies throughout the entire food production and distribution system, monocrop farmlands will likely begin to return to forests.
This adjustment of humanity’s impact on the landscape will result in more space for the wild forests and wetlands of Indiana to return to doing what they were meant to do: build soil, purify and hold water, generate rain, increase biodiversity, support more kinds of animals in larger populations, purify the air, disperse or lock up heavy metals and other pollutants, and create healthier and happier people living in connection with their natural environment.
Remember, trees are slow movers. It is often said that the best time to plant a tree is ten years ago. So plant trees now. Plant useful trees: fruit trees, nut trees, trees for animal and bee fodder, trees that can be coppiced and used for building, fuel or fiber supply. If you are a farmer, do the same on a larger scale. Diversify what you are growing. All along the way, restore watersheds to create more capacity for life and diversity in your landscape. Invite nature into your life and your land in a balanced way. Work with state, county and city programs to increase forests and forested wetlands along riparian zones. Urge re-forestation and protection of ridges and slopes that would be unstable if the trees were cut. Create community orchards and forest gardens. Visit your state and federal forests. Plant a tree with a child. The Earth can be an amazingly abundant place. It takes a little effort and understanding from everyone to see it re-cover itself.
Rhonda Baird (vitalconnection.wordpress.com) is the former director of Indiana Forest Alliance and serves on the Heartwood board of directors. She tends a small forest garden surrounding home). This article first appeared in the March/April 2011 issue of Branches Magazine.