Photograph from the HNF Web site

Despite wide public opposition to biomass incinerators in Southern Indiana, Interim Hoosier National Forest Supervisor Anne Carey supports them. She met with southern Indiana environmentalists in her office earlier this month and told them her mission was to "grow trees."

On Thursday, July 1, 10 grassroots environmentalists met with Anne Carey, Hoosier National Forest acting supervisor, at the Hoosier's office in Bedford to convey their vision for the future of the national forest.

The activists represented Heartwood, the Sierra Club, Concerned Citizens of Crawford County, Concerned Citizens of Scott County, the Indiana Forest Alliance and Citizens Action Coalition. State Senator Richard Young, D-Milltown, was among them.

The first item on the agenda was biomass incineration.

Biomass incinerators are highly polluting and threaten human health and the environment. In a position paper called Biomass Position Statement, the American Lung Association of New England outline the environmental concerns: "Biomass emissions contain fine particulate matter, sulfur oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and various irritant gases such as nitrogen oxides that can scar the lungs. Like cigarettes, biomass emissions also contain chemicals that are known or suspected to be carcinogens, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and dioxin."

A company called Liberty Green wants to site biomass incinerators in Crawford and Scott counties. It intends to burn wood waste and to locate near the state and national forests, near the fuel source, wood. After 19 months of struggle, Concerned Citizens of Crawford County have nearly defeated the incinerator proposed for their county; Concerned Citizens of Scott County are still fighting their proposed incinerator.

Since there isn't enough woody biomass in southern Indiana to maintain one incinerator, let alone the 10 planned for that region, grassroots activists are concerned that the incinerator operators will use trees from the national forests to feed the incinerators, as has happened elsewhere. When an incinerator in Michigan ran out of biomass, it started burning tires.

As to CO2, the primary greenhouse gas, biomass incinerators are not carbon neutral. According to "Biomass Fuels, Energy, Carbon, and Global Climate Change," "The use of biomass fuels does result in some discharge of carbon dioxide."

At a recent Scott County public hearing about their proposed incinerator, not one of the 500 people in attendance spoke in favor of the incinerator. At a later meeting, Carey was one of only seven people who testified in support of the incinerator.

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When people at the meeting went around the table introducing themselves, Carey opened by saying, "We grow trees." Andy Mahler, of Heartwood, countered that trees have been growing on their own for thousands of years. The difference between those statements underlines two mutually exclusive points of view.
"Forests resonate with the soul. ... You don't want to destroy what brings people to the area." - Pat Berna, Concerned Citizens of Scott County
David Haberman, of the Indiana Forest Alliance, told Carey, "I would have loved it if you had opened up saying you'd come out of a school of forest restoration or restoration ecology." It's from those types of schools that we need to bring workers into the Forest Service, he said.

Carey maintained that the tops of trees left in the woods after logging could be chipped and used for biomass incineration, as could trees left over from thinning. Haberman maintained that the wood "waste" from logging is best left in the forest. Young forests, he said, have a "voracious appetite for nutrients," and for a forest to remain healthy, the nutrients need to cycle within the forest. Removing biomass from forests after logging means the nutrients won't be replaced.

As Senator Young observed, biomass incineration is a scheme for making quick profits; federal subsidies and tax credits drive it. In other words, the speculators who are behind those incinerators want to make a profit with tax dollars while externalizing the damage.

Pat Berna, of Concerned Citizens of Scott County, said, "Forests resonate with the soul," and pointed out that the forests in her area they bring in tourists, who love the "large, green, cool forest space."

The area is fairly pristine, so it makes no sense to bring in a dirty industry like biomass incineration. "You don't want to destroy what brings people to the area," she said. Biomass incineration is "like Pandora's box, and we're asking you not to open the lid."

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When it comes to visions of the Hoosier forest's future, the Forest Service's views and the environmentalists' were incompatible. As Haberman put it, "I assume that all of you [Carey and her colleagues who were present at the meeting] have come out of schools of agriculture, who have looked at forests as basically tree farms."

The Forest Service takes a utilitarian view of the forest: it manages the forest for several uses, one of which is commercial logging. To the environmentalists, the forest is an end in itself.
"Private lands have 'enormous productive capability to provide the products that the wood industry needs.'" - Andy Mahler, Heartwood
All the activists but Senator Young opposed commercial logging in the national and state forests and favored leaving the forest to grow naturally, without human intervention. "I would say that the real wealth of southern Indiana is in our forests," Haberman said. "And I don't mean just monetary wealth; I mean wealth in terms of life."

Human health is inextricably linked to forest health, he asserted. Forests supply people with clean water and fresh air and manufacture plants for soil, among their other benefits.

A healthy forest is a mature forest, Haberman said. We need to nurture the trees into maturity, which takes some 150 years. Studies have shown that biodiversity is greatest in mature forests. Not cutting trees in public forests boosts biodiversity, health and economics, he said.

Mahler added that 88 percent of the forests in southern Indiana are owned by private landowners. Those lands have "enormous productive capability to provide the products that the wood industry needs," he said. A public forest has a different role to play "because it's the only place you're going to be able to find habitat for species that depend on large blocks of relatively closed canopy."

The southern portion of Indiana constitutes the largest block of relatively closed-canopy hardwood forest between the Appalachians and the Ozarks.

Although the environmentalists thought that the discussion with the Forest Service was important because they have made a point of attempting to carry on a working relationship. But the environmentalists think in terms of trees and other living things when they think of public forests, and the Forest Service thinks of board feet.

The key to the differences between the Forest Service's and the activists' perspectives is what Haberman called "a whole different agenda for how we think of our forests and what we can do with them."

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