Photograph by Steven Higgs

Mature hardwood trees in the most remote areas of the Morgan-Monroe State Forest will soon be cut down by loggers under contract with the Indiana DNR's Division of Forestry. Forest officials plan to harvest the state's only designated Backcountry Area, which is supposed to provide a "wilderness experience."

In God's wildness lies the hope of the world--the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. -- John Muir

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The Indiana state Division of Forestry (DOF), part of the state's Department of Natural Resources (DNR), is planning to log the Backcountry Area of Morgan-Monroe State Forest. The backcountry hasn't been logged in 30 years.

Backcountry is the DOF's officially designated term for remote, forested areas that are protected from logging and other commercial activity. The backcountry is supposed to remain intact because of its recreational value. According to the map/brochure that the DOF distributes to the public, the backcountry is supposed to give backpackers a "wilderness experience."

The backcountry consists of 3,000 acres in three noncontiguous sections in Morgan-Monroe State Forest and constitutes 2 percent of the 150,000-acre Indiana state forest system.

The Morgan-Monroe backcountry is in the northeast corner of Monroe County and the southeast corner of Morgan County and connects with Yellowwood State Forest, in the northwest corner of Brown County.

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In the 1920s the state bought up farmland and denuded hillsides that had once been forest to allow the land to revert to woods. This land became the state forest system. When white settlers arrived in what was to become the state of Indiana, the region was 80 percent wooded.

"The backcountry is an ecologically sensitive area, and dogs aren't even allowed in it."

The Morgan-Monroe state forest was designated in the 1920s. The backcountry was designated in 1981.

The backcountry is an ecologically sensitive area, and dogs aren't even allowed in it. The area includes a marathon trail and the Tecumseh Trail, built and maintained by the Hoosier Hikers' Council. Tecumseh traverses Morgan-Monroe and Yellowwood and will eventually link to the Knobstone Trail, which extends south toward the Ohio River.

"People can tell the difference between a healthy forest, one that's evolved without human intervention," and "one that has endured human activity," says Rhonda Baird, executive director of the Indiana Forest Alliance (IFA), a grassroots organization that's fighting to preserve the backcountry. She says that out-of-state hikers who backpack in the backcountry are amazed that such a high-quality wild area exists in south-central Indiana.

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The DOF plans to first cut down trees in the northeast and southwest corners of the backcountry and continue cutting inward from there periodically.

"The conflict over how to deal with the Morgan-Monroe backcountry boils down to one between the ecological and economic perspectives."

Logging the backcountry necessitates building logging roads, bringing in heavy machinery, cutting down hardwood trees, damaging some of the remaining trees, and displacing or killing animals that live in the woods. In short, it's pure destruction.

The DOF's motive for this project is profit, but it's questionable whether logging state forests is actually profitable. According to the July 2008 "Comments" on the agency's draft environmental assessment of Morgan-Monroe State Forest, environmental economists Karyn Moscowitz and Christine Glaser said, "It is possible, and actually very likely based on data made available on national forests ... that extracting timber from a forest is a losing business in the long run, in other words, that the taxpayer subsidizes these activities by paying for maintaining, building, and decommissioning roads, plantings, etc."

Undoubtedly, logging the state forests is profitable for the logging industry.

As Moscowitz and Glaser argue, the forest's recreational, aesthetic and ecologic values far surpass its timber value: "The use of a forest for timber generates much lower values than the use of the forest to provide ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration, carbon storage, recreation, air purification, water purification and flow control, and others."

In fact, Moscowitz and Glaser argue, "It seems obvious to us that the DOF plans presented in the environmental assessment have very little to do with the desire to protect or conserve or enhance biodiversity and are instead inspired by the requirements of industrial forestry." Indeed, Moscowitz and Glaser found that the forest is "managed" like a "tree farm" rather than a natural forest.


Photograph by Steven Higgs

Mitch Daniels' administration has shifted Indiana forest policy and turned the woods into profit centers.

Yet, according to Baird, the Morgan-Monroe's 2009 audit report claims the backcountry area is a prime example of "a strong commitment to identifying and protecting high conservation value forests on state ownerships."

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The DOF wants to sell trees from the backcountry for the three main uses of hardwood -- construction, furniture and pallets -- pallets for one-time use, after which they're discarded.

Privately owned land can provide all the hardwood needed for industrial use, according to IFA Board President David Haberman, who was quoted in the Bloomington Alternative as saying 74 percent of Hoosiers do not want to see any of the state forests logged, ever.

What Haberman and IFA are asking for is not outlandish. They want the approach to the Morgan-Monroe backcountry be similar to that of the Charles C. Deam Wilderness Area in the Hoosier National Forest.

"People can tell the difference between a healthy forest, one that's evolved without human intervention."
- Rhonda Baird, Indiana Forest Alliance

Like all 109 million acres of land in the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS), the Deam's 13,000 acres are managed according to natural values rather than consumptive values.

The Wilderness Act of 1964, which established the NWPS on federal lands like the Hoosier National Forest, defines wilderness as "an area where the Earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

Logging is prohibited in designated federal wilderness areas, as are motorized vehicles. Only minimal development, such as trails, is allowed.

As an Associated Press story in the April 12 edition of The Herald-Times noted, "Even Forest Service managers must observe the restrictions placed on wilderness. For example, wilderness rangers must use primitive methods, such as mules for trail work and hauling equipment, and must use hand saws instead of chain saws."

The IFA is asking, again, for just 2 percent of the state forest system to be protected from logging and other commercial activity.

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"Managing" public lands by logging them for profit instead of preserving them comes from an old forestry model that assumes that human beings know what's best for forests, whereas the modern science of ecology holds that forests are delicate and complex ecosystems that are best left to take care of themselves without human intervention.

"It is possible, and actually very likely ... that extracting timber from a forest is a losing business in the long run."
- Comments to DNR, by Karyn Moscowitz and Christine Glaser, July 2008

The conflict over how to deal with the Morgan-Monroe backcountry boils down to one between the ecological and economic perspectives.

The economic perspective sees exacting profits from the trees as the major goal of forest "management," though it couches its management practices in the language of ecology, using terms such as "preservation" and "sustainability."

In contrast, the ecological perspective advocates no logging or other commercial human activity in the backcountry and no "management" other than maintaining trails and protecting the forest from damaging human activity.

The Division of Forestry serves the logging industry, not the public and the forest.

The problems with the DOF run much deeper than mere forest management and pertain to the issue of democracy in the United States. As Dan La Botz observed in The Nation, "The corporate elite that has run this country for a hundred years controls all the governmental machinery, dominates the two major political parties, the lobbyists, and business and commercial associations."

The state DOF is no exception. The public has no more control over decisions that affect the forest system than it does over decisions that affect the rest of civic life.

Though Morgan-Monroe is a state forest and therefore the public's land, the DOF isn't required to ask the public if it approves its forest management plans. In fact, notifying IFA of its backcountry plans was a courtesy, not a legal prerequisite, of logging.


Photograph by Steven Higgs

The Indiana Forest Alliance has challenged the state's forestry policies, but a series of Monroe County judges have allowed the lawsuit to languish for years.

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State Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, introduced House Bill 1550 in the State Legislature this year that would prohibit commercial activity -- including logging -- in the Backcountry Area of Morgan-Monroe and Yellowwood State Forests. At a hearing on Feb. 11, the House Natural Resources Committee heard testimony on the bill.

Tim Maloney of the Hoosier Environmental Council testified in favor of the bill. Haberman testified on the history of the area and the need for wilderness on our public lands. Baird testified on the economic benefits of the area, especially the tourism dollars generated by races on the Tecumseh Trail. (Once the Knobstone trail is finished, the part of it that runs through the backcountry will be the most protected area of that 140-mile trail.)

A representative of the DOF, the head of the DNR, the head of the Indiana Hardwood Lumberman's Association, the head of the Indiana Farm Bureau, the Forester of the Year for 2008, the head of the grouse hunting group and others testified against the bill, generally arguing that even in these "tough times," the people of Indiana want the "experts" (DOF) to log the forests and that such decisions should be left to those "experts."

"The Division of Forestry serves the logging industry, not the public and the forest."

They even suggested that the legislators didn't have the authority to change the management of the land in question. The hearing didn't change anything because IFA knew, going into it, that the bill would be referred to a summer study commission, and that's what happened.

Since the Feb. 11 hearing, Rep. Phil Pflum, a member of the Natural Resources Committee and chair of the House Agricultural Committee, joined Pierce as coauthor of the bill.

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Seven years ago IFA filed a lawsuit against the DOF. "Essentially," says IFA Executive Director Baird, "we are arguing that the Division of Forestry is not following the Indiana Environmental Policy Act (IEPA) and that the timber sale program is harmful to the state. The DOF is now exempt from IEPA, thanks to a law passed during Kyle Hupfer's stint as head of the Department of Natural Resources. However, a judge ruled in December that this does not affect our lawsuit. Our complaint can stand."

The IFA is reactivating a coalition that includes Heartwood, Sierra Club chapters, Earth Charter from Indianapolis, Sustainable Earth from West Lafayette, the Indiana Public Interest Research Group and the Hoosier Environmental Council, for a total of nearly two dozen organizations, to ask for a delay in the cutting and selling of backcountry trees until HB 1550 receives a hearing in the state legislature.

Linda Greene can be reached at lgreene@bloomington.in.us.

Rhonda Baird contributed to this story.

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What you can do

  • Hike by yourself in the backcountry or attend an IFA hike in the warm months (phone 332-4878 or e-mail ifa.director@gmail.com).
  • Contact the DOF and tell the agency to leave the backcountry alone -- 6220 Forest Rd., Martinsville, IN 46151, 765-342-4026, morgansf@dnr.IN.gov.
  • Visit the IFA Web site and Join IFA. It meets at 6 p.m. on the first Wednesday of every month in the Monroe County Public Library. Send a donation to IFA at P.O. Box 1074, Bloomington, IN 47402.

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    For more information

  • DNR Certification and Audit Reports
  • Militant Minorities, by Dan La Botz