On Sunday afternoon, May 23, 13 people set out together to explore the backcountry area that spans part of the Morgan-Monroe and Yellowwood state forests. The "walk-in," sponsored by the Indiana Forest Alliance (IFA), was a combination pleasure trip and protest.
The backcountry, which constitutes only 3 percent of Indiana state forestland, was exempted from commercial logging 30 years ago to preserve an area in the forest that would give people a "wilderness experience." Now the Indiana Division of Forestry (DOF), Department of Natural Resources, has proposed logging the area and returning to it every 20 years to log it again.
The walk-in was an opportunity for people to weigh in on their thoughts about the campaign to protect the area.
"I'm here because I totally oppose logging in the backcountry, and in general I oppose logging on public lands," Timothy Wilson said. "Keep them all protected -- for biodiversity, carbon sequestration and just for people's emotional and spiritual needs."
Indeed, all the participants in the walk-in expressed similar thoughts about the forest: no logging should take place anywhere on public lands, not just in the backcountry.
Carol Polsgrove, a member of IFA, said she attended the walk-in because the backcountry "is such a lovely place, and we need to keep it the way it is and not cut trees out of it. We need a place like this close to Bloomington."
Maya Baird, age 9, had some thoughts to add about the cycle of life in the forest. "If people cut down the forest, the entire ecosystem would be destroyed," she said. "Trees provide shade for some plants. It's certain animals' home. Animals when they die give back to the plants. The plants, when they die, give back to the trees."
The talk turned to invasive plants during a wildflower walk led by Lucille Bertuccio from the Center for Sustainable Living, who said opening the canopy that the forest provides opens the areas to invasives.
"The forest," she said, "should be kept for the people and as a laboratory, to see how native plants survive on their own without human interference. Logging increases openings in the canopy, disturbs the land and creates the way for invasive species to come in, so if we want to get rid of invasive species, not logging is one thing we can do."
"Then we think we're going to use poisons to solve the problem, but we don't solve anything, just create more problems," Bertuccio said. Invasives are "edge species"; you don't find invasive grape vines, for example, in the deep forest. In fact, little grows on the floor of deep forests.
The wildflower walk revealed the rich diversity of plants growing in the forest. The walk-in participants observed wild ginger, a young ginseng plant, valerian, white violets and flowers with vividly descriptive names, such as old man's beard, touch-me-not (jewelweed) and Christmas fern, among many others.
Lively discussions between Bertuccio and another wildflower expert, Marti Crouch, punctuated the walk-in, and both pointed out which plants had medicinal properties and which were edible, letting the participants sniff the fragrant and widely different odors of leaves.
In 2009, IFA worked with state representatives Matt Pierce (D-Bloomington) and Ralph Foley (R-Martinsville) to introduce a bill that would protect the backcountry permanently from logging. The bill was referred to the state Indiana House Natural Resources Committee, which held a hearing that included four hours of testimony with no discussion afterward. There was no opportunity for a rebuttal.
"The process didn't support dialogue," Rhonda Baird, IFA director, said.
The committee took no action. According to Baird, the legislature is so used to working with the timber industry and DOF, which are "closely aligned," that it "couldn't hear what we were saying. It's a matter of changing their perspectives."
Pierce said he intends to introduce the bill again this fall. IFA is still working for its passage. Meanwhile, the organization keeps offering positive experiences, like the walk-in, to the public. IFA wants to "get more people from across the state to engage," Baird said.
Crouch, who aided Bertuccio in identifying flowers, asked in an e-mail after the walk in, "When you look at the whole landscape of Indiana, both private and public lands, what kind of landscape is most scarce?"
It's neither agricultural land nor wooded land that is being logged on a regular basis, she said. "We have plenty of 'edges' between woods and fields. What we don't have are areas where the forest is being allowed to grow without being logged and is being left alone to manage itself."
Indiana, Crouch said, was primarily deep forest, prairies and wetlands before white settlement. The state had forests with trees that rivaled those of Central America, according to visitors then.
"Many of our native birds and wildflowers need this kind of habitat," Crouch said, "and although it was almost all cut over by the late 1800s, the forests that are growing back have the potential to be big, old and deep again, if we would let them."
IFA and Heartwood, an Indiana-based, nationwide national forest protection organization, have performed economic studies demonstrating that Indiana doesn't need the timber from its scanty public lands since private landowners are the major source of wood products in the state.
"...[W]e have the potential to manage public lands for the long term, which is not an option on private land," Crouch said. "I am in favor of stopping logging on all public lands so that at least a fraction of Indiana can regain the deep forest ecosystems that have been destroyed."
John Davis, deputy director of the forest that includes the backcountry, is open to hearing what [IFA] has to say, according to Baird. He told her he receives phone calls every week urging him to protect the backcountry.
"The fact that they aren't issuing the proposed sales this year," Baird said, "is a sign that they're listening."
After the walk, Crouch summed up the day's experience by e-mail, expressing the exhilaration that the walkers all seemed to feel.
"The backcountry area we hiked into today was just fantastic," she wrote. "As we climbed out of the low areas by the creek, choked with multiflora rose but still containing some nice wildflowers and riparian trees and shrubs, the tall, big trees started to dominate. The understory was shady and open, with all kinds of special plants along the trail, plants I just don't see very often.
"It felt wild! Areas like this need to be buffered, protected, expanded; not encroached upon, fragmented ... logged."
Linda Greene, a member of IFA's board of directors, can be reached at email@example.com.
For more information
E-mail Rhonda Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To reach the backcountry
From Bloomington: Drive north on Old State Road 37, east on Anderson Road and turn north on Low Gap Road. The backcountry parking lot is on the right.
IFA Strategy Meeting
On Wednesday, June 1, from 5 to 6 p.m., IFA will hold a strategy meeting at the Eco-Center, at 323 S. Walnut, Bloomington, for everyone who's interested in protecting the backcountry.