“Two hundred years ago,” said Jordan Marshall, a plant ecology and biogeography specialist at IPFW, “85 to 95 percent of the state was forest.”
To get an idea of what that was like, you could go to Bicentennial Woods or Fogwell Nature Preserve. “That's probably what a lot of the area looked like,” said Marshall, associate professor of biology. “Classic flatland, dominated by really big maples and oaks.”
Many of those forests in northeast Indiana's rich soil were inevitably cleared for farms, and aggressive timber-harvesting practices at the end of the 19th century changed the landscape as well, Marshall said.
“Now, the vast majority of forests are primarily owned by small landowners,” he said. “All those different owners have different priorities, multiple management strategies.”
The exception is in southern Indiana, where rougher terrain made taking forests down less viable. Over the decades, a string of state and national forests and preserves has been established to protect a diversity of plants and animals. Properly caring for those natural areas is essential.
Marshall was one of 228 Indiana scientists who last week signed a letter to Gov. Eric Holcomb asking him to consider making more of the state's forests off-limits to timber harvesting. Distributed by the Indiana Forest Alliance, the letter was spurred by an auction this week for logging rights within the Yellowwood State Forest in Brown County. The letter said there has been a substantial increase in the amount of timber harvesting allowed in state-protected forests, and called on Holcomb “to turn this trend around.”
Achieving the proper balance between forest management, including logging, and hands-off respect for nature is tricky. Like most experts, Marshall believes forests that used to be thinned more regularly by flooding and fires now may need some timber harvesting to thrive. The dangers of overcutting are obvious. But “if you have no change at all,” he said, “you have very few species ... plants, animals, bacteria in the soil.
“In between those extremes,” Marshall said, “there's benefit.”
Asked about Holcomb's response to the letter in an email Monday, the governor's press secretary, Stephanie Wilson, wrote, “Indiana's Department of Natural Resources has a well-researched and thoughtful plan for this and all healthy forestry management practices, and the governor supports their plan for Yellowwood Forest.”
Marshall believes the DNR's foresters are knowledgeable and conscientious, but he wants to ensure those decisions are made without political influence. He hopes the letter from him and his fellow scientists will be “the start of the conversation” about best practices for the forests.
“We're not going to get back what's lost,” Marshall said. “So it is really important to preserve what exists now.”