What Can Save a 300-Year-Old Indianapolis Forest?

We are about to lose the only old-growth forest in inner city Indianapolis. Your calls to your Congresspeople are the only way to save these trees.

By Anne Laker

We are about to lose the only old-growth forest in inner-city Indianapolis. Your calls to your Congressional leaders are the only way to save these trees. Read on for background, talking points, and legislator contact information.


Indianapolis’ Crown Hill Cemetery is a spiritual, historical, ecological treasure, as described in this sumptuous coffee table book. Its 555 total acres contain a stunning variety of native trees.

Large burr oak.One stand, on the north end of the property, is an incredible pre-settlement remnant. That means its trees have been undisturbed for as many as 300 years. The stand contains at least one burr oak tree thought to be 500 years old, some 15 feet in circumference. This stand of woods “preserves the gene pool of early Indiana,” wrote Rebecca Dolan, director of Friesner Herbarium at Butler University.

With its rich wildflowers, huge trees, and ephemeral wetlands, the North Woods is in a nearly pristine state, sculpted only by time — in the midst of the inner city!

Now, most of this virgin forest is slated to be cleared. Last fall, Crown Hill sold a 15-acre parcel to the Veterans Administration for $875,000. According to this 2012 design plan, the VA plans to cover the area with columbaria to house 28,000 remains: part of a larger federal plan create more space to inter deceased veterans near major urban areas. They plan to “nestle” a flagplole stand, public information and restroom building, roadways, and parking into these woods.

Is the virgin forest stand the only place where the columbaria could be built? Absolutely not. There are 50 adjacent acres to the west the VA could consider that Crown Hill currently uses for dumping vegetation waste; other parts are vacant brushland. Another 10 acres to the east are an open lawn. Plus, the costs of clearing the virgin woods are a significant but avoidable taxpayer burden.

Large branches of a burr oak.Ten years ago, robust citizen action led by the Alliance of Crown Neighbors successfully stopped a proposed commercial development on this same property. At that time, the Central Indiana Land Trust proposed to buy the woods and make it a nature preserve, but the stock market crash prevented the purchase. Since then, despite assurances by Crown Hill representatives that they would never develop the virgin forest and consider it a sanctuary, the North Woods are in peril again.

Last year, the VA quietly put forth an environmental assessment report — stating that the parcel was of no significant ecological value, and that the project would have no land use impact. Worse, the VA skirted obligation under the National Environmental Policy Act to reach out to neighbors and the public to genuinely solicit their comment on the proposed destruction of this forest.

Now, bidding on the construction is about to begin. But a few hundred contacts NOW to Congresspeople to request a public re-noticing of the environmental assessment can trigger a reexamination of this project and alternatives that will not destroy these woods. Alliance of Crown Hill Neighbors, Indiana Forest Alliance, Heartlands Group of the Sierra Club, Earth Charter Indiana and others are working together to generate these calls.

Large tulip poplar.Of course, we support the idea to provide veterans with appropriate, well-deserved memorials. However, we need an actual community conversation about the decision to build in such a sensitive environmental area, when there is plenty of other suitable land on the Crown Hill property and in other nearby cemeteries where deceased veterans can be interred without disrespecting their memories by decimating the only virgin forest in inner-city Indianapolis and one of the only such forests in all of Central Indiana.

The large trees’ ability to absorb rainwater, store carbon, filter chemicals, and relieve the heat-island effect is just some of the ecological services provided by the Crown Hill Woods that benefit all citizens of Indianapolis. American redstarts, Cooper’s hawks, gray squirrels, fox squirrels, and swallowtail butterflies take harbor in these woods. Large dead snag trees serve as the perfect roosts for the nationally endangered Indiana bat and Northern long-eared bat, just listed as nationally threatened.

Crown Hill refers to itself as “an outdoor classroom.” What exactly is being taught when old-growth forests are being needlessly destroyed?

We stand against the destruction of the irreplaceable.

What to Say When You Call or Write

“I hear they are going to cut down a forest with 350-year-old trees at Crown Hill on a 15-acre parcel of land that was sold to the Veterans Administration. The construction bidding is about to begin. I’m appalled at this needless destruction when there are 50 adjacent undeveloped acres that could be used for this veterans’ cemetery. I demand the opportunity to voice my concerns about this taxpayer-financed federal project. I respectfully ask you to request that the Environmental Assessment for this project be republished to allow for public comment and a public hearing. I am certain alternatives could be found.”

Keep it simple and short. You’re a concerned citizen, and it’s the congressperson’s job to listen to you! FYI, Sen. Joe Donnelly is on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Thank you for contacting your legislators today, and sharing this cause with others.

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