DoF Committee Rejects Yellowwood Conservation Proposal

On May 9, IFA received a Committee Recommendation letter from the IDNR’s Division of Forestry (DoF) rejecting our proposal that nominated  2,380 acres of forest within the Backcountry Area (BCA) of Morgan-Monroe and Yellowwood State Forests to be a High Conservation Value Forest (HCVF), five years after we submitted the proposal.

The HCVF program is part of the DoF’s ongoing State Forest certification for practicing sustainable forestry overseen by the national Forest Stewardship Council. HCVFs are to be managed to maintain or enhance a forest’s biological, ecological or culturally significant attributes.  As one of, if not the only, block of 90 to100 year old forest exceeding 2,000 acres left in the state forests after the past 20 years of intensive logging, IFA has been seeking the HCVF 2 classification to allow this forest to return to the “secondary old growth condition.” That condition is exceedingly rare, comprising less than a third of one percent of state forest acres.

Dr. Leslie Bishop, biology professor emeritus from Earlham College assisted by Dr. Rae Schnapp, IFA’s former Conservation Director, prepared the HCVF proposal which was backed by more scientific data than any previous HCVF proposal considered by the DoF.  Many scientists as well as the former, longest-serving Director of the Indiana Division of Nature Preserves, John Bacone, submitted comments supporting the HCVF designation in a comment period that concluded four years ago. The data came from IFA’s 4-year Ecoblitz inventory of flora and fauna in 900 acres of the BCA by some 41 scientists from 13 colleges and universities.

The DoF Committee argues that the BCA is not “regionally significant” because Brown County State Park and the Charles Deam Wilderness (approximately 12 to 25 miles away) are providing adequate examples of old growth forest returning to public land. Further, they argue that the proposed area is not uniquely positioned for secondary old growth potential because the surrounding state forest has canopy tree stands in the same “older forest” age range, and all the imperiled flora and fauna species identified in our Ecoblitz have been documented elsewhere in surrounding state forest. Finally, the committee determined that the proposed area is already being managed for a late seral forest community as a BCA and does not need to have HCVF classification to maintain or enhance the forest’s old growth potential.

(The Main Branch of Honey Creek in the Yellowwood/Morgan Monroe Back Country Area. Aerial photographs indicate there has been no logging in the watershed of this Creek for decades before the BCA was created in 1981. Photo by Karen Smith)

IFA profoundly disagrees with the Committee. According to federal and state inventories, as of 2020, approximately one fifth of 1 percent of Indiana’s 4.8 million acres of forests have reached the old growth condition (with dominant trees 140 years or older and no human disturbance for 80 years), and only 280 of those acres are in Morgan-Monroe or Yellowwood State Forests.

While there are other canopy stands surrounding the BCA that are between 95 and 100 years old, they are in the active timber production areas of these state forests. Designating the 95 – 130 year old stands in the BCA as a HCVF-2 would ensure that at least one large, (i.e.,”landscape sized”) block of forest will be allowed to return to the old growth condition in the state forests, an objective recommended by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). While the BCA is managed as “late seral condition” forest, the selective logging that DoF has carried out on six tracts there since 2011 will prevent the old growth condition from ever returning to the BCA if it continues once a moratorium on logging in Yellowwood and Morgan-Monroe State Forests is lifted. See the discussion of new logging announced in these state forests later in this issue.

Aside from IFA’s Ecoblitz, there have been no baseline inventories in Morgan-Monroe, Yellowwood or any other State Forest. The IDNR’s Hardwood Ecosystem Experiment (HEE) in Morgan-Monroe and Yellowwood referenced by the Committee has not inventoried vascular plants, nonvascular plants or insects all of which have been inventoried in the BCA by scientists in IFA’s Ecoblitz. The Ecoblitz also surveyed taxonomic groups such as lichens that had not been surveyed in an Indiana forest for 75 years or, in the case of bees, never surveyed before in an Indiana forest. The survey found 895 moths, more than were found at any other site in Indiana, and dozens of lichens, fungi, bees, spiders and other invertebrates that have never been found in Indiana before.

Two Floristic Quality Assessments performed in the BCA by top botanists in the state found the vascular plant community there was of higher quality than most of the state’s nature preserves and unsurpassed by any nature preserve in southern Indiana.  Among 420 plant species, their assessments of the BCA identified many native plants that survive only in undisturbed deep forest and few nonnative invasive plants compared to other natural areas of the state.

Nationally recognized sedge expert, Dr. Paul Rothrock summarized the plant community as follows: ‘‘The forest community in the Ecoblitz area of Morgan-Monroe State Forest is one of superlatives. It is a biological hotspot that deserves only the most sophisticated management protocols and the highest conservation priority.”  These words mirrored those of Dr. Don Ruch, then President of the Indiana Academy of Science who, based on an earlier floristic quality assessment of the plant team’s data, stated, “These matrices indicate that the Morgan Monroe Back Country Area possesses sufficient conservatism and species richness to be of paramount importance from a regional perspective.”

Neither the DOF nor the HEE have ever done a floristic quality assessment in the state forests. Contrary to their assertions, they have never found a plant community elsewhere in the state forests that has the undisturbed quality documented in the BCA.

(Large yellow lady’s slipper (Cypripedium pubescens) is one of 15 vascular plants found in the BCA that are rare, threatened, endangered or on the state’s “watch list”. IFA staff photo)

The Committee’s assertion that all of the 39 rare, threatened and endangered species found in the BCA have been found elsewhere in Yellowwood and Morgan-Monroe State Forests is  unsubstantiated and overlooks the healthy reproducing populations of many of these species found in the unfragmented old forest habitat of the BCA.

The Ecoblitz identified 79 bird species in the BCA and documented successful reproduction of 14 forest songbirds many of which have  suffered major declines elsewhere in the state. This included the successful fledging of young by state endangered cerulean warblers in two seasons and abundant numbers of other state species of special concern, such as the hooded and worm-eating warblers. For example, the surveys identified 22 worm-eating warblers in one hollow in 2015 and 14 families with fledglings in 2016. Herpetologists found adult state endangered timber rattlesnakes with newborn in two maternity dens in the large root buttresses of downed trees. They identified eleven different salamanders and found larger tiger, marbled, spotted, Jeffersons and small mouthed “mole” salamanders breeding in vernal pools across the survey area.

Mammalogists tracked federally endangered Indiana Bats to two maternity roosts. They caught lactating females and young of federally endangered northern-long-eared bats and proposed endangered tri-colored bat, respectively.

(This injured male northern long-eared bat was one of three NLEBs caught in the YW/MM Ecoblitz in the northern half of the BCA. The other two were lactating females indicating that this most imperiled of the endangered bats in Indiana is reproducing in the BCA. Photo by Jeremy Sheetz, Orbis Environmental)

The large (i.e., landscape) size of the BCA’s undisturbed forest interior contributes to the health and richness of the animal community. For example, research from three forests in Missouri found that the worm-eating warbler would only nest in the largest forest which was approximately 2,000 acres, in the same size range as the BCA. The Ecoblitz finding of smoky and pygmy shrews, state species of special concern, in the BCA has corroborated other research which has only found these species in Indiana in large undisturbed forests living under big logs.

DOF has designated 27 HCVFs in the state forests, but their average size is 156 acres. Collectively, they comprise 4,203 acres, only 2.5% of the state forests. This is down from 60,000 acres or 40% of the state forests that had been set aside from logging by the IDNR prior to 2004.

If you want the 2,380 acre BCA to be allowed to return to old growth as a High Conservation Value Forest, please say so to: John Seifert, Director of the Indiana Division of Forestry, who will make the final decision on the HCVF nomination.

Email John at:

PLEASE send a copy of your email or letter to Governor Eric Holcomb and your state legislators.

Share this post >