Creating a Forest Preservation Ethic in Indianapolis

By Jeff Stant, IFA?Executive Director

Yesterday, Federal District Judge Jane Stinson denied our request for a preliminary injunction to stay contractors for the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) from clearing the Crown Hill North Woods while the merits of our lawsuit against the VA for violations of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) are argued. We are initiating an appeal of this decision to the Federal Appeals Court in Chicago and will be asking Judge Stinson as well as the Appeals Court to not allow this clearing to begin while they consider our appeal.

Candidly, our chances of prevailing in this appeal are not good. So we must brace ourselves and prepare to say goodbye to a forest that has endured the eradication of the passenger pigeon and bison, removal of Native Americans and loss of the wilderness primeval of its past to the industrialized city surrounding it but will not survive the greed and short-sightedness that pervades land-use decision-making in Indianapolis today.

It is not as though citizens have just started trying to save this forest nor have city or state leaders been unaware of its importance. Strong citizen outcry led the Marion County Metropolitan Development Commission to turn down a proposal for residential and commercial development of the forest in 2007. Before that, city planners identified it as a ?high quality forest? in the 2005 Comprehensive Master Plan for Marion County. In a detailed statement, City Parks Department staff described the forest as an ideal park site in 2006. After the development was turned down, the state approved $262,500 in funding from the Indiana Heritage Trust as part of a package to buy the forest and make it a nature preserve describing it as ?a remnant of pre-settlement forest? with ?inordinate biological value.? This package fell apart when the private funding was erased in the stock market crash in 2008. Even Crown Hill Cemetery boasted about the forest as part of the natural legacy it was conserving in Indianapolis, in its 2013 coffee-table book, Crown Hill: History, Spirit, Sanctuary.

Tragically, these efforts apparently did not deter the management of Crown Hill Cemetery from quietly selling the forest to the VA in 2015 to become a veterans cemetery. Nor did they matter enough to prompt the VA to explore any of numerous alternative sites that could accommodate the veterans cemetery without destroying this forest. Or make a genuine effort to reach out to the community next to the forest or scientists who had spoken out for its preservation to ensure they were aware of this proposal and could give input to illuminate the decision-making process that NEPA calls for.

This could have resulted in a decision that would have been a win/win for the forest, veterans and residents of Indianapolis. Nor do these efforts matter to Judge Stinson who states in her ruling?that plaintiffs will suffer irreparable harm without the injunction — but apparently also believes the analysis done by the VA under NEPA was exhaustive and sufficient even though no alternative sites were examined and the nearby community was not approached.

Perhaps most importantly, this forest and the public?s concern for it do not matter enough to key political officials who could most definitely have put more pressure on the VA to avert this tragedy.

Crown Hill North Woods is an ecological jewel, but it is certainly not the only forested green space to be put on the chopping block in Indianapolis that citizens have tried to save or that city planners have recognized as important pieces of nature to protect in parks plan after parks plan. In the past 40 years, city residents made diligent efforts to obtain a tree preservation ordinance under one mayor only to have their efforts shelved by another while city councilors of both parties continually tell their constituents complaining about the loss of green space that there is no money in the city?s coffers … not one dime … to acquire or protect any of it for the public?s benefit. Aside from the small amount of it protected in our existing parks, we are systematically losing all of our remaining green space piece by piece because city leaders do NOT believe that the preservation of nature is an important enough concern to their constituents.

We will be leading a candlelight vigil?to say goodbye to the Crown Hill North Forest this Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, from 4-5 pm. It will be your last chance to see what the pre-settlement forests that once covered central Indianapolis looked like.?We thank the veterans who have stood up for this Forest and ALL of you who have marched, written, called, and spoken out for this Forest. We will keep fighting for it in court.

But if it is not to survive, let’s resolve to make its loss a beginning in a movement to save the forested green space that remains in Indianapolis ? a movement that will not stop until city leaders at all levels recognize that the preservation of nature is their obligation demanded by us all, their constituents, and take effective actions to save the nature that remains in our beloved capital city.


photo by Daniel Axler

Hundreds marched in support of Crown Hill North Woods, Sept. 25, 2016. Photo by Daniel Axler