By Sherry Mitchell-Bruker
Some say that Lake Monroe is fortunate because 82% of the watershed is forested and 43% of those forests are under state and federal management.
But what happens if both the state and the U.S. Forest Service aggressively harvest in the watershed? This is the issue we are now facing. Of the 24% of the watershed that is state forest (Morgan-Monroe and Yellowwood), logging projects are completed, planned or ongoing in both.
Until recently, the Forest Service had refrained from large logging projects within the watershed. That is now changing.
Timber harvesting in the Hoosier National Forest (H.N.F.) has increased from 3,868 cunits (100 cubic feet or C.C.F.) in 2011 to 7,444 cunits in 2014. In 2016 the 38-acre Buffalo Pike project was completed under a Categorical Exclusion, meaning no public review was required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Although the record of decision for Buffalo Pike stated that the project was not in the Lake Monroe watershed, in fact the entire project was in the South Fork Salt Creek basin, which is the most impaired section of the Lake Monroe watershed. Now the Forest Service is planning a 4,000-acre logging project called Houston South, which is also in the South Fork part of the Lake Monroe watershed. The Forest Service manages 42% of the land in the South Fork section of the watershed.
The proposed Houston South project includes 417 acres of clear-cut logging, 714 acres shelterwood harvest, 2,342 acres of hardwood thinning, 96 acres of pine thinning and 435 acres of hardwood selection. Most of the area is steeply sloped with highly erodible soils. The project is in the early planning stages and will most likely change as new information and analysis is provided. According to the 2006 management plan for the H.N.F., habitat in this area is best suited for wildlife that uses large hardwood trees and a mosaic of different-aged forest. The plan said restoring wetlands should be the highest priority to maintain and restore watershed health.
Friends of Lake Monroe is a local group dedicated to finding solutions to improve the water quality of Lake Monroe and its watershed, enhancing its value as a drinking-water, recreational, and ecological resource. We envision a regional community that appreciates, sustains, and enjoys the lake, including its larger surrounding ecosystems, to ensure drinkable, swimmable, and fishable waters.
We have worked with various environmental and governmental organizations, including the Forest Service, to obtain funding to develop a management plan for the watershed. We are working to reduce nutrient and sediments in the streams and the lake. We are asking all of the land managers and residents in the watershed to play their part. Harvesting timber on 4,000 acres risks an increase in soil erosion, which is moving in the opposite direction.
The watershed is large—more than 270,000 acres. The Forest Service manages 50,870 of those acres, or almost 20%. Not only are management decisions made by the Forest Service crucial to water quality in the lake and watershed; they are also the example that is set for the rest of those who live in the watershed. Small sediment and nutrient contributions throughout the watershed lead to large impacts on the lake. Each year harmful algae blooms appear on the lake, fueled by sediment and nutrients that come from the watershed and the lake itself.
In southern Indiana in the 1800s and early 1900s, homesteaders denuded areas with steep slopes by logging and failed agricultural efforts, then abandoned them. Waterways were choked with eroded soil. The national and state forests were established to restore these lands, abating the erosion that had left many bare or gullied hillsides. Over the years the mission of the Forest Service has expanded beyond soil and water protection to include outdoor recreation, range, timber, wildlife and fish, threatened and endangered species, and wilderness as resources to manage. As stewards of public lands, it is the responsibility of the Forest Service to manage these public lands for the public good. So, what does the public think? Polls conducted in various regions across the nation over the past 30 years clearly show that the overwhelming majority of the public opposes logging in national forests.
According to Michael Chaveas, H.N.F. supervisor, the forests of Indiana and the H.N.F. need more old forest and more young forest. During a meeting with H.N.F staff, we were told the forest of Houston South is currently 66% oak and hickory, 22% beech and maple, 4% non-native pine planted to prevent erosion, 2% elm, ash, and sycamore in bottomlands and 1% shortleaf pine and eastern red cedar. The Forest Service contends that it is necessary to intervene in the natural succession of these lands in order to provide more young forest, indicating that short-term disturbance is necessary to achieve long-term goals of maintaining oak and hickory dominated forests.
Shelterwood harvest would occur in three stages over a ten-year period. First the understory (dogwoods, redbuds, and others) would be removed entirely by prescribed burning, manual harvest, or herbicides. Next, half of the overstory (oaks, hickory, beech, maple) would be removed. Finally, the rest of the overstory would be removed. Some have called this slow-motion clearcutting. So, we need to remove an overstory that is two-thirds oak and hickory so that we can have more oak and hickory in the future? How about letting those oaks and hickories mature and provide much needed old forest while protecting the Lake Monroe watershed?
If the Buffalo Pike project area is indicative of the adjacent Houston South project, the endangered Indiana Bat and threatened northern long-eared bat may suffer long-term adverse effects as a result of timber operations. Birds like the Louisiana water thrush, and the Acadian flycatcher could thrive in these forests. Biological surveys of an older, unmanaged forest that is now part of the Morgan-Monroe State Forest showed that the mature forest hosted mink, coyote, red fox, bobcats, deer, flying squirrels, shrews, 48 bee species, 68 bird species (including nesting cerulean warblers) and 108 different lichen species.
While the species composition may differ at Houston South, it is likely to host a multitude of species that will thrive and evolve as time goes by. Is it really necessary to disrupt this thriving oak-hickory forest? Does the desire to actively manage the national forest outweigh our need to protect our lake and our drinking water? We at Friends of Lake Monroe suggest that there are better alternatives.
As of now, the plan is open for public comment through Wednesday, December 26. Friends of Lake Monroe and others have asked that this period be extended due to the holidays and insufficient public notification and engagement to date. If you concur, contact H.N.F. District Ranger Michelle Paduani to politely request the extension: firstname.lastname@example.org.
TO COMMENT NOW:
The Forest Service is taking public comment on the proposal from now until December 26. Written comments may be submitted by letter, email, or fax. The forest service asks anyone who leaves a comment to include their names, addresses, telephone, and email, if available. The Forest Service asks that you include “Houston South Vegetation Management and Restoration Project” in your comment as well.
Hoosier National Forest, ATTN: Houston South Vegetation Management and Restoration Project;
811 Constitution Ave.
Bedford, IN 47421
ATTN: Houston South Vegetation Management and Restoration Project
Electronic comments must be submitted in a format such as an email message, plain text (.txt), rich text (.rtf), Word (.doc or .docx) or Portable Document Format (.pdf) to email@example.com. Comments must have an identifiable name attached or verification of identity will be required. A scanned signature may serve as verification on electronic comments.
They can be left with the Hoosier National Forest Office in Bedford, or by telephone at (812)-275-5987.
Dr. Sherry Mitchell-Bruker is a former watershed manager for the Lassen National Forest, Research Hydrologist for Everglades National Park and President of the Friends of Lake Monroe.