Photograph by Steven Higgs

State Representative Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, lost a bid to have the Backcountry Area of the State Forest System made off limits to logging. A Legislative Study Committee refused to act on Pierce's proposal, clearing the way for logging in the remote areas of Yellowwood and Morgan-Monroe State Forest.

On Oct. 29 came a long-awaited state legislative study hearing about the future of the Morgan-Monroe/Yellowwood State Forest backcountry, a 3,000-acre wilderness that hasn't been logged commercially in 30 years. As polls have demonstrated repeatedly, environmentalists and the majority of the public want it to stay that way. But the state's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) plans to commercially log the backcountry.

The Indiana House of Representatives Natural Resources Summer Study Committee, made up of three representatives and three senators, held the hearing on a bill, introduced by Rep. Matt Pierce (D-Bloomington), to prohibit logging in the backcountry. The DNR gave a presentation advocating commercial logging in the backcountry, and then the floor was opened to comments.

Hunters' groups and timber companies testified in defense of commercial logging, but the majority of the 50 to 75 people in attendance who offered comments over more than four hours opposed commercial logging in the backcountry. One woman whose property abuts the backcountry organized her neighbors to oppose the logging. IU professors submitted letters supporting preservation of the backcountry.

In the end the committee chose "legislative inaction," or "letting the bill die," as Rhonda Baird put it. Baird is director of the Bloomington-based grassroots forest-protection organization Indiana Forest Alliance (IFA). This legislative inaction was actually a disguised vote for the status quo -- a vote for the logging industry and the DNR. It's an example, all too common in the United States, of for-profit business corporations dominating the people's will, with government eager to serve those business interests.

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Those on both sides of the issue agree that forest health is their highest priority, but what they mean differs enormously. It's a question, Baird said, of the "utilitarian vs. the ecological approach," or forestry vs. forest science.

"The Bloomington City and Monroe County governments have already passed resolutions to permanently protect the backcountry from commercial logging."

The DNR and logging industry assume the old utilitarian approach, which holds that what's best for the forest is human intervention, or forest "management," the goal of which is to provide timber for the logging industry. In contrast, the ecological approach is more contemporary and holds that forests have flourished on their own for millions of years and that a hands-off approach is best.

IFA is disappointed in the way the hearing turned out but remains optimistic. Protecting the backcountry is a years-long project. Pierce intends to reintroduce his bill in the House. The Bloomington City and Monroe County governments have already passed resolutions to permanently protect the backcountry from commercial logging.

Baird said the hearing underscored the importance of the fight for the backcountry. Preserving it is a reasonable request: the backcountry constitutes only 1 percent of the state forests. It isn't asking for much to ask that the small backcountry area remain safe from commercial logging.

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Originally the DNR intended to cut down trees in the backcountry starting in August. A public outcry over the fact that the Pierce bill was under consideration made the agency postpone the sale. However, the DNR did build a new logging road in the backcountry and could start logging it any day, now that the Pierce bill is dead.

Baird has an upbeat perspective on the backcountry debate. "Over the years," she wrote in an e-mail, "I think people become entrenched in their positions about an issue. As this has happened, people have developed hardened stereotypes about their supposed opponents in an issue and questioned their motivations. For example, how someone views an 'environmentalist' or a 'liberal' or a 'Republican' or a 'consumer' or a 'treehugger' may have become defined in a way that doesn't serve the resolution of an issue.

"... I believe the media perpetuates these stereotypes. I've come to perceive much of the task at hand as challenging these stereotypes, muddying the waters -- because they don't reflect the real situation. ... If people took a breath, thought about what they really want, and were willing to look at the situation with fresh eyes, we might find we have a lot more in common than previously imagined."

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Related Story: Read the IFA news release on timber sale


Meanwhile, IFA has an immediate task ahead: monitoring an impending timber sale in Yellowwood and Morgan-Monroe state forests. Its purpose is to cut down 3,000 trees on 300 acres, with the sale of those trees beginning on Nov. 19. According to an IFA news release, "The increase in sales on the state land represents a fourfold increase since the beginning of the Daniels administration, from 3 million board feet to 12 million board feet sold from the public forests each year."

IFA encourages the public to attend the sale and register opposition to this commodification and sale of public assets for private profit -- a theft of the commons. (The sale begins promptly at 9 a.m. at the Yellowwood State Forest office.)

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