Some of the trees in Salamonie River State Forest in Huntington and Wabash counties have stood more than 100 years.
But the way Aaron Goulet of Fort Wayne sees it, they're under siege.
About four years ago, the state Division of Forestry, part of the Department of Natural Resources, announced a plan to log selected trees on about 120 acres of the forest.
Forestry officials explained the logging as a management technique to clear out dead and dying pines planted about 90 years ago for flood control – a measure they said would allow old hardwood trees more room to regenerate.
But Goulet and others in conservation are skeptical. They say the plan amounts to detrimentally altering rare ecosystems they want to see preserved.
And, some suspect there's more afoot than an environmental motive.
“Northern Indiana has very little natural state forest ... and very little mature hardwood in general,” said Goulet, 42, calling himself a lifelong recreational user of Salamonie.
“This (logging) will open up the canopy, and allow invasive species to get a stronger foothold than they already have, and (state officials) have no long-term plan to deal with that.”
A state DNR spokeswoman, Tara Wolf, disputed that last week, saying the plan results from a careful planning process. “It's holistic,” she said.
Goulet said the plan could spell a path to ruin for the forest. He said that's why he is helping form a new conservation group to gain more say regarding the state's forest policy.
Friends of Salamonie River State Forest has about 30 members and plans an inaugural meeting open to the public at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 17 at the Huntington Public Library, 225 W. Park Drive.
Friends of Salamonie is an offshoot of the statewide Indiana Forest Alliance. The alliance's executive director, Jeff Stant, said the group favors preserving public forest lands for all kinds of users. But it doesn't oppose all logging, he said.
Still, the scope and design of the Salamonie plan – and a similar plan recently developed for the 500-acre Frances Slocum State Forest outside Peru in Miami County – are “almost unprecedented,” he said.
In the case of Salamonie, logging took place twice in the 1980s, with each plan involving about 50,000 board feet of timber. But the new plan would harvest 260,000 board feet, Stant said – about 30 percent of the forest's total estimated wood stock.
In addition, he points out, the trees to be cut are only 29 percent pine – the non-native species described as problematic. Most of the rest to be cut down are native hardwoods – including oaks, maples, sycamores and nearly all the examples of Kentucky coffeetree, a species rarely seen in Indiana.
The trees – which were recently marked with slashes of blue paint to indicate their removal – will be taken out of areas particularly scenic or ecologically important in a park with unusual natural features, Stant said.
Salamonie includes forested bluffs, ravines along streams that flow to the river, limestone canyons and waterfalls. Its 1,000 acres make it one of the larger contiguous forest tracts in northern Indiana and it represents a collection of diverse ecosystems, he said.
“This (logging) includes high-canopy trees on top of ridges, along two major ravines and along 30 percent of the (park's) frontage on the river,” Stant said.
Some areas, he added, will be small-patch clear cuts. That, aided by torn-up soil from logging equipment, will likely encourage brushy areas seeded with troublesome invasives – Japanese honeysuckle, tree-of heaven and autumn olive – that could outcompete native species.
The state's plan does include initial removal of invasive species. But state officials don't have the time or budget to manage and maintain those areas, inasmuch as species removal is labor-intensive, Stant said.
However, Jessica Harshbarger, who runs Huston Timber Marketing in Andrews with her brother and father, has a different view of Salamonie's forest.
She said a logging plan for the forest “is long overdue.”
So many trees are dead or dying, she said, and the tree canopy in some areas is so thick that little sunlight gets through. That leads to disease and pests and keeps fallen trees from decaying as they should.
“People get upset when you cut the trees out, but it's something you've got to do every once in a while. It's like trimming your hair,” Harshbarger said.
She said her family's company, which is state-licensed for timbering but hasn't worked on state jobs before, might bid on the logging when it comes to auction, likely in the spring.
Harshbarger and Stant, however, do agree on one thing. One of the state's motives for logging is likely money for the agency's budget when the timber rights and the wood itself is sold.
“It would definitely be a possibility,” she said, calling the division chronically underfunded. “There's a lot of parts of Salamonie that are in disrepair. It needs a lot of work.”
Stant said statistics show an increase in the percentage of the forestry's division budget that rises in tandem with the amount of logging proposed.
He said logging in state forests has had a four-fold increase the last 13 years, making up about 40 percent of the budget today, compared to about 30 percent in 2005.
The root of the situation is the elimination of an income stream from a tax eliminated in 2007 as part of a tax-reform package, he said.
Wolf, of the DNR, said Friday the state's plans “are not just random.” But she said she did not have immediate access to technical details.
“We have 20-year plans for the health of all the state forests,” she said. The plans cover topography, geology, hydrology, health of the soil and wildlife, she said.
“As you can imagine, (each plan is) a well-thought out plan,” she said, adding plans are subject to a 30-day public comment period. “It's not a logging plan, it's a management plan.”
Goulet said a broader, active and visible constituency for the forests is needed.
“What we can do is start contacting the government – the (forestry) division, the governor and the legislators – and let them know that people in this part of the state are concerned about the logging,” he said.
Ultimately, the alliance is advocating a change in the state's philosophy of managing forests – seeing them less as an income-producing resource and more as an ecological one, Stant said.
About 240 regional university scientists signed a recent letter to Gov. Eric Holcomb asking for more state forest areas be set aside from logging, he said.
In Salamonie, “We think there are some really important and beautiful ecological areas,” Stant said.
“It's an unusual (place) when you come from other parts of Indiana, and it changes your whole impression of northern Indiana,” he added. “We think it's worth preserving.”