By Elizabeth Mahoney
Forest preservation is an issue that affects every community in Indiana, even the inner city of Indianapolis. As unbelievable as it may seem, there is a 15-acre tract of old-growth forest within Crown Hill, a 555-acre cemetery in Indianapolis. It contains burr oaks, Northern red oaks, and tulip poplars, some of which are at least 300 years old–a century older than the state itself. Even more unbelievable is the fact that our federal government is about to destroy it to “honor” our veterans.
The Veterans Administration purchased the property from Crown Hill last year with a plan to build multiple elaborate columbaria to inter cremated remains of 25,000 veterans. This plan is a tragic failure of imagination when there are ample opportunities to locate this cemetery in alternate spaces around Indianapolis that have not been examined.
Ten years ago, robust citizen action, led by the Alliance of Crown Hill Neighbors, stopped a commercial development that would have destroyed this same forest. A proposed retail/condominium development was turned down in 2007 by the Indianapolis Metropolitan Development Commission in a year-long fight that made the front page of The Indianapolis Star.
Afterward, the president of Crown Hill Cemetery assured a scientist involved in that fight that the Cemetery would never sell this forest: it would always be a sanctuary. Crown Hill even published a sumptuous coffee table book in 2013, Crown Hill: History, Spirit, Sanctuary, which showcased this forest as an indelible part of the cemetery’s heritage. In this book, Dr. Rebecca Dolan describes this forest:
Woods of this size and quality are not found in many places in central Indiana. These woods are special. At least forty-seven species of trees grow here … Very large and old trees hold their leaves up to the sun. Among the largest and oldest are burr oaks. Some in the woods measure more than fifteen feet around and are likely several hundred years old…Trees at Crown Hill preserve the gene pool of early Indiana and so connect the past with the present.
Unfortunately, a 2007 attempt to protect this forest as a state nature preserve, backed by $262,500 in approved state support from the Heritage Trust, did not materialize when private funds committed were lost in the stock market crash of 2008.
So the nightmare has returned, and this time the peril is imminent. Within a year of publishing its coffee table book, Crown Hill Cemetery sold the old-growth forest to the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) within the VA, which was seeking to expand the filled National Veterans Cemetery at Crown Hill under their Urban Initiative to house the cremated remains of veterans in Indianapolis and four other cities.
The NCA’s design will destroy and replace this pre-settlement forest with multiple concrete columbaria to house the urns, a memorial wall along with paved roads and parking areas; an information building with restrooms; an electronic kiosk to locate the remains of the deceased; sewer, water, drainage, and power lines; and a flag pole area. Designs for this memorial were sketched in 2012–long before the NCA bought the property. The VA emphasized that the conversion of the site will start immediately but take place slowly, in ten phases over a century.
Their bottom line is that this wild, multi-layered, old-growth forest will be replaced with manicured lawn, concrete, and pavement. When the VA showed their design at a public meeting complete with non-native grasses and ornamentals, the crowd jeered. The plantings look like those you might see in the parking lot of a new big box store: a painfully ironic substitute for a native old-growth forest so rare in Indiana.
With Crown Hill refusing to sell any of some 70 acres of vacant lawn and brush land immediately to the east and west, NCA bought the old-growth forest for $810,000 in September 2015, one month before they had completed the comment period on their Environmental Assessment and Finding of No Significant Impact, turning any idea of an objective examination of alternatives in these documents on its head. Thus these documents only considered two alternatives: building the cemetery in the old-growth forest, or not building it at all. Other vacant space within Crown Hill, and plenty of other vacant space in other cemeteries in Indianapolis, was not considered.
Obliquely publicizing the public comment period with classified ads in the back of The Indianapolis Star, and representing the project to a few nearby institutions as a non-intrusive and serene, somewhere in the north end of Crown Hill, the VA received no public comment. Not until August of this year did IFA get wind of this destructive project. Mobilizing with the Sierra Club Heartlands Group, the Alliance of Crown Hill Neighbors, the School for Community Learning, Crown Hill Neighborhood Association, arborists, scientists, veterans, and others, IFA published a blog post on the issue that went viral: 6,000 people visited IFA’s website in one day, and 400 shared the blog on Facebook.
Children, veterans, neighbors, and conservationists continue to flood Indiana’s congressional delegation with calls, letters, and e-mails demanding that the VA move the project to an alternative site. The adjacent neighborhood has made known their opposition to the project as it currently stands by penning a letter to U.S. Representative Andre Carson, the Congressman in whose district this irreplaceable forest lies. Read the letter the Crown Hill Neighborhood Association wrote to Congressman Andre Carson. Citizens displeased with the project are also directing their concerns to Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and VA Secretary-General Dr. David Shulkin. The VA will go forward with construction bids unless Sec. Shulkin orders them to stop.
The people own these woods. The VA bought them with our tax dollars. This project is a major federal action that will impact the quality of the human environment in Indianapolis. The presence of trees has been proven to improve health and well-being, increase home values and public safety, and reduce crime. Surely there is a compromise available to find another piece of land for the project that saves the trees, respects our community’s wishes, and pays proper tribute to our veterans.
Fortunately, the Dr. Laura Hare Charitable Trust has offered to purchase these woods from the VA and make them whole again. Former Chief Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court, Randall T. Shepard, penned an op-ed in the Indianapolis Star in which he wrote: “I urge our elected officials, the Veterans Administration, and Crown Hill to act on the Hare Trust’s remarkable offer.”
Wherever you live in Indiana, you have a voice on this issue. Contact Sens. Joe Donnelly and Todd Young, and Reps. Andre Carson or Susan Brooks if you live in their districts, to let them know you object to this project in its’ current location. Everyone is also encouraged to contact Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett.
I plead with you to contact decision-makers. Clearing of this irreplaceable ecological jewel is due to commence any day now. A tremendous outcry from the public is our last chance at saving these woods.