Among local grassroots environmentalists it's a standing joke -- and a bitter one -- how government officials behave when they hold meetings to solicit public opinion, as was the case with the struggle against the PCB incinerator in the 1980s.
At meeting after meeting citizens argued passionately against the incinerator, and after each plea the public officials, usually the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in those days, repeated their mantra, "We hear your concerns." After the meetings, which were legally mandated, the government officials ignored the public comments and continued implementing the incinerator project as if the public meetings hadn't occurred.
The latest local encounters between the public and public officials was the "Indiana Forest Stakeholder Summit," held in Bloomington on June 30. Two other summits were held in Wabash and Huntingburg.
"Some 90 percent of the comments made at the Bloomington summit concerned the health of the forest."
Indiana has 150,000 acres of state-owned forest and approximately 4.6 million acres owned privately, for a total of 4.7 million acres of woods across the state. For the first time in more than two decades, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) (actually, its subsidiary, the Division of Forestry [DOF]) is formally assessing the condition of all the state's forests, public and private. To solicit public opinions on what are important forest issues, the DOF is holding the summits.
It might look as though the DNR is holding the summits in a rare burst of democratic sentiment. However, as DOF acknowledged at the Bloomington summit, the real reason for them is pecuniary: the DNR receives $1 million of its annual $10 million budget from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Ag Department requires, by law, periodic assessment of the state's forests, including public meetings, before handing over the funds. If the DNR wants to continue receiving federal funds, it has to complete the assessment by June 2010.
The DOF claims that its assessment, public comments included, will form the basis for its "strategy" for "managing" the state's public (state) forests, which are the only forests the DOF has jurisdiction over.
At the Bloomington summit two DOF employees each gave a short presentation about the assessment and then took comments, both verbal and written, from the public. The public will have an opportunity to review the draft forest assessment.
Lucille Bertuccio, president of the Center for Sustainable Living, attended the summit. She sees it as an exercise in spending money and in not listening. The people who control the state-owned forests' future weren't present and aren't listening to the public. For one, the governor is a prime supporter of logging the state forests for the revenue it engenders. Forest protectionists' top priority is to permanently prohibit logging in the state forests.
"Logging roads, Bertuccio says, disturb the forest's ecosystem organisms, open the forest to light and thus encourage invasive species to move in."
Bertuccio points out that the DOF uses obsolete, 19th-century ideas of how to "manage" a forest, including logging it, whereas the modern science of ecology affirms that what's good for a forest is leaving it alone, without human intervention.
Logging roads, Bertuccio says, disturb the forest's ecosystem organisms, open the forest to light and thus encourage invasive species to move in. Instead of prohibiting logging roads from being built in the forest and staving off invasive species, the DOF wants to continue logging and kill the invasives by spraying pesticides that are toxic to the plants, animals and other organisms to which the forest is home.
According to Bertuccio, leaving forests alone is the best "management" human beings can offer. Leaving them alone preserves the natural balance of organisms living in them.
"There is so much new information," Bertuccio says. "For example, forests provide us with free ecosystem services -- cleaning the air, sequestering and cleaning water, providing oxygen, storing carbon -- that it is foolish to cut them at all. And the money saved is trillions!" Those are some of the reasons to protect the state forests from logging and to protect their health.
"The people who control the state-owned forests' future weren't present and aren't listening to the public."
Also important, Bertuccio points out, is the aesthetic value of an intact forest, which is "of special interest to nature lovers. Their senses wouldn't be bombarded by the ugliness of clearcuts, rutted logging roads and downed trees. It could be a money maker, attracting visitors to our forests."
Some 90 percent of the comments made at the Bloomington summit concerned the health of the forest.
Rhonda Baird, director of the Indiana Forest Alliance, a grassroots forest-protection organization, came away from the summit with guarded optimism, taking at face value the DNR's claim to incorporate the public's opinions in the forest assessment and strategy.
Mick Harrison, an environmental attorney with years of experience fighting EPA over PCBs, is skeptical. The draft assessment will prove who's right.
Linda Greene can be reached at email@example.com.
What you can do
Submit comments on the direction forest "management" should take for public forests in Indiana.
Ask the DNR to send you a copy of the draft assessment when it's complete.
What you can do