I-Team 8 finds big growth in logging in Indiana public forests

NASHVILLE, Ind. (WISH) – Private logging companies cut down more than 35,000 publicly-owned trees in Indiana in 2013, an increase of more than 1,000 percent in the last decade, an I-Team 8 investigation found. It has some people wondering whether Indiana should continue logging in state forests to make money.

All the trees being cut in state forests have been legally sold. Commercial logging has been permitted on public property for decades. But, it’s a practice that’s seen a massive rise in recent years.

Sales are marked in what’s known as Doyle board feet, a unit of volume measured as 1 foot long, 1 foot wide and 1 inch thick. According to figures compiled by I-Team 8, Indiana consistently sold less than 2 million board feet of publicly owned timber per year until 2003. Last year, timber sales eclipsed 14 million board feet.

timber-sales-chart

Indiana State Forest Timber Sales

  • FY 2002: 1.4M Board Feet
  • FY 2003: 2.6M Board Feet
  • FY 2004: 2.5M Board Feet
  • FY 2005: 3.4M Board Feet
  • FY 2006: 7.8M Board Feet
  • FY 2007: 10.3M Board Feet
  • FY 2008: 11.2M Board Feet
  • FY 2009: 12.1M Board Feet
  • FY 2010: 10.2M Board Feet
  • FY 2011: 14M Board Feet
  • FY 2012: 14.4M Board Feet
  • FY 2013: 14.5M Board Feet

Timber sales now net the state in excess of $3 million in new revenue every year. Some call it good fiscal management. Others worry it’s pushing public forests down a dangerous path.

UP FOR AUCTION

On a chilly, sunny late March morning on the grounds of Yellowwood State Forest in rural Brown County, the timber clock was ticking. Foresters from Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources workers began opening envelopes as the clock struck 9.

With a small crowd of loggers looking on in anticipation, more than 1 million board feet of timber inside both Yellowwood and Morgan-Monroe State Forests was put up for sale in two separate auctions. The sealed bids varied wildly — from a low of $38,652 to a high of $176,444.

In the end, two local logging companies walked away with the rights to cut down approximately 3,580 trees, representing more timber than the state sold all year in 2002.

It was all over in under five minutes.

It’s a cycle now on shuffle inside nearly every part of Indiana’s state forests. Foresters identify tracts of land they deem ready to be harvested, mark the trees and put the rights to log them up for auction. The DNR has conducted more than 1,400 such timber sales over the last 45 years.

But, the recent rapid acceleration of the sales isn’t sitting well with some who worry the state is cutting into a dwindling resource.

ALTERED LANDSCAPE?

“Sustainable logging is a good deal for the state of Indiana.”—  Jim Allen, Yellowwood State Forest Property Manager

“What they’re doing is they’re altering the entire landscape of the state forest system,” said Hoosier Forest Watch Coordinator Myke Luurtsema, as he traversed through an old logging trail in Yellowwood State Forest. “There used to be areas [in Indiana state forests] where you’d have to look really hard to see any sign of human disturbance. There’s very few areas left in the state where that’s the case. And, if it’s up to the Division of Forestry, there won’t be any areas like this left in the state forest system.”

To understand why, Hoosier Forest Watch points to the DNR’s most recent “timber management plan,” adopted in 2005. It outlines a new cycle allowing up to 12 million board feet — 50 percent of all new public forest growth — to be logged each year. Hoosier Forest Watch says that would allow virtually every one of the state’s 150,000 acres of public forest to be logged on a rotating basis within the next 15-20 years.

Except, the DNR eclipsed its own boundaries set under that plan more than three years ago.

“What that means is that they’re taking out these mostly large diameter trees and that new growth is young, small saplings or seedling trees,” Luurtsema said. “It’s not [the same forest it was before they cut it].”

“What they’re doing is they’re altering the entire landscape of the state forest system.”—  Myke Luurtsema, Hoosier Forest Watch

The DNR’s Division of Forestry disputes the claim, however, calling its timber sales “good forest management.”

“A lot of people equate harvesting with removing the forest. But, that’s not what we do here at the property. We manage the forest so it will always be here. And we can continue to harvest forever and ever into eternity,” Yellowwood State Forest Property Manager Jim Allen told I-Team 8.

While some stumps and remnants of large tree tops are clearly visible along popular walking and hiking trails, very few areas appear fully “clear cut” from the ground. Allen says that’s intentional, and due to a process called “selective harvesting.”

“Probably about 90 percent of it is just individual tree removal,” he said. “In some areas we’ll make small openings so we can grow a new stand of trees. But, that’s management. If we were not to do any management, you would pretty much have only one age class, and it would only benefit a few species.”

Luurtsema argues that areas just off the beaten path prove otherwise.

STACK AND SHIP

Chopper 8 saw a number of examples of commercial logging in state forests. Click here to see the raw video from Chopper 8.
Chopper 8 saw a number of examples of commercial logging in state forests. Click here to see the raw video from Chopper 8.

From 1,500 feet above the forest floor, I-Team 8 found a much different view.

On one late March day inside Chopper 8, several active logging operations were visible at the Morgan-Monroe State Forest, just minutes outside Bloomington. Chopper 8 found large trees being cut down by chainsaw, dragged along new man-made “skidder trails” by loaders, stacked into piles 40 feet high, then loaded onto trucks to be shipped to nearby sawmills.

Several wide areas were clear cut to make room for large-scale makeshift lumber yards.

Dozens more similar sites exist on a rotating basis in public forests across the southern part of the state.

Allen, Yellowwood’s Property Manager, admitted they are not images the DNR is fond of.

“I can’t disagree that immediately following a harvest that the area doesn’t look good,” he said. “But, that quickly goes away. And, there’s just so many benefits with the dollars that come to the state, money that plugs into the local economy, the benefits to wildlife, and the diversity you get. Sustainable logging is a good deal for the state of Indiana.”

“I think the idea that a forest needs to be managed or else it’s going to die makes a lot of sense if your goal is to maximize commercial timber production,” responded Luurtsema. “What did the forest do before the DNR was here to log it? To me this comes down to money.”

TRADING GREEN FOR GREEN

“The reality is, we’re still only cutting 60 percent of what we’re growing.”—  John Seifert, Indiana DNR

“That’s how they’re running their budget now,” Indiana Forest Alliance Executive Director Jeff Stant told I-Team 8. “They’re paying for it by cutting trees down. To us, that begs the question of: why do we have public forests, if all we’re doing is hiring foresters?”

DNR’s Division of Forestry argues the answer is reinvestment.

Fifteen percent of the revenue from timber sales is funneled back to the counties where the trees are harvested, a figure that totaled around $380,000 last year. Much of that money is spent on fire control inside state forests. The rest of the revenue from logging helps support Division of Forestry operations.

Indiana Forest Alliance believes that’s not enough reason for the recent rapid increase in the amount of timber being taken.

“This is about balance,” Stant said. “Timbering should not drive the whole program with all other purposes of the state forests being secondary to it. In 12 more years, there won’t be any area of the state forests that hasn’t been heavily either selectively logged or clear cut at the rate they’re going.”

IFA also argues that state-sold timber routinely sells well below private market prices, benefiting commercial loggers while shortchanging the state. Timber at the state’s last sale sold for about 30 cents per board foot.

The state’s top forester says he doesn’t buy that argument.

“There won’t be any area of the state forests that hasn’t been heavily either selectively logged or clear cut at the rate they’re going.”—   Jeff Stant, Indiana Forest Alliance

“When you see this many people show up for a timber sale, you know you’re getting good market value,” said Indiana DNR Division of Forestry Director John Seifert, pointing to a board showing nearly a dozen logging companies bidding on the state’s most recent sale.

Seifert says proper forest management is the bigger driving force behind the increase in timber sales.

“One of the things we’ve done since the 2005 strategic plan was look at where the forest is at in terms of age, condition and health,” Seifert said. “Most of the feedback coming from the guys in the field is [that] we need to look at harvesting a little more aggressively than we have in the past. The reality is, we’re still only cutting 60 percent of what we’re growing. So, yeah, it’s an increase. But, you look at this forest here today and any place you go in 20 years these stands will be back to where they are today.”

FOLLOWING THE MONEY

Some aren’t sold on that being the best use of resources.

House Bill 1179, filed by Rep. Matt Pierce (D-Bloomington) proposed that timber sales be prevented in traditionally undisturbed areas of State Forest — known as back-country areas. Senate Bill 398, filed by Sen. Mark Stoops (D-Bloomington) went a step further, seeking to allow citizens to nominate new sections of state forest as back-country wilderness areas, where commercial logging would be prohibited. Both bills were referred to committees, but neither was ever called for a hearing.

Campaign contributions obtained by I-Team 8 may help explain part of the reason why.

An analysis by I-Team 8 found 12 of the 13 members of the House Natural Resources Committee and all 10 members of the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee reported accepting at least $18,647 in contributions from organizations and political action committees representing Indiana logging companies over the last five years.

One of those PACs — Indiana’s Hardwood Lumbermen’s Association, known as IHLA — reported receiving $12,090 in donations in 2013, almost exclusively from local logging companies and sawmills. Nearly half of those contributions were passed on to legislators who sat on the two committees at the time of the donation.

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Two-thirds of the committees’ members also received a total of $41,025 in campaign donations during that time from union labor groups like carpenters and millwrights who depend on the logging trade, I-Team 8’s analysis found.

Records show Rep. Pierce also received regular contributions from IHLA through 2012. Those contributions disappeared after HB 1179 was filed in 2013.

REVENUE QUESTIONS

Commercial logging inside Yellowwood State Forest
Commercial logging inside Yellowwood State Forest. Credit: Indiana Forest Alliance/Hoosier Forest Watch. Click here for more photos.

Indiana Forest Alliance argues there is another reason behind the lack of action on the bills: a Legislative Services Agency fiscal impact statement built using DNR data shows restrictions on logging proposed under the the bills would cut off access to $13 million in potential revenue.

Seifert, DNR’s Forestry Director, says the data proves why no new restrictions are needed.

“I would have reservations about [scaling state logging back], because I think we’re doing a pretty good job,” he told I-Team 8.

But, at least one senator believes Indiana needs more information before making that call.

“I’ve had literally hundreds of people there asking that this be studied,” said Sen. Brent Steele (R-Bedford), whose district includes part of nearly a half-dozen different state forests. “I’ve heard concerns. I don’t know if I know enough about it to be concerned. That’s why I want a summer study committee. I don’t think the average citizen really realizes what’s out there and how it’s being managed.”

Sen. Steele filed Senate Resolution 61 during the final days of the 2013 legislative session, urging the state to form an interim study committee to investigate the recent increase in logging inside state forests.

“I just want to slow down a little bit, take a serious look at it and let the community get involved, at least to have their opinions heard,” he said.

The Senate agreed to consider the idea, though there is no guarantee the issue will actually be heard. Summer study committee schedules are expected to be formed within the next two months. Until that happens, state logging contracts will continue to be sold with no sign of slowing down.

“What are our public forests for? That’s the bottom line question,” said Stant, of the IFA. “For most Hoosiers, we believe this process isn’t sustainable. We need to have that discussion now, before it’s too late.”

What do you think of what I-Team 8’s investigation found? Tell us what you think, then watch for the results on 24-Hour News 8 Wednesday at 5:30pm.

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