Protect old-growth forests the right way

Pat Boy

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources has pledged to save a percentage of the state’s old-growth forests, but this must be done in the proper way to get the true benefit. At present, the strategic plan includes protecting 10 percent of state forests to allow them to become old-growth forest.

I toured the Morgan-Monroe State Forest with DNR and Purdue University forestry specialists. I have a basic understanding of management: clear-cuts, fire/burn areas, and selective cutting to promote the growth of oaks, hickories and other trees that support wildlife. I have a basic understanding of the difference between old and new forest areas. I support this plan when followed as intended.

However, that 10 percent allowing for old-growth forest must be set aside – in compact, contiguous areas disturbed only by hikers, and not managed by timber harvest or other human-controlled means. Without this provision, that 10 percent will never become old-growth forest. We need undisturbed areas to be set aside.

There is frequently disagreement between DNR and conservationists based on differing values. Old-growth forest set-asides are not “unutilized” forest. DNR’s website states:

“Of Indiana’s original 20 million acres of forest, fewer than 2,000 acres of old-growth forests remain intact. Most ... are now protected as nature preserves, and many have been selected as National Natural Landmarks.

“The first thing you notice when you enter an old-growth woods is the sheer size of the trees. Giant hardwoods 3 and 4 feet across at the base soar more than 100 feet to the canopy above. The oldest trees are more than 250 years in age ... producing acorns long before the American Revolution.

“Beneath the canopy, multiple layers of vegetation mark the descent to the forest floor. At 50 feet, younger trees wait in the shade of their parents for the openings that will allow them to attain canopy stature. Understory species such as dogwood, redbud and ironwood form a third layer of green at 20 to 30 feet. Lower still are the shrubs and herbs which occupy the forest floor.

“Hollow trunks and tree holes in these woods provide habitat for squirrels, raccoons, bats, wood ducks, woodpeckers and a myriad of other birds and mammals. Dead trees and snags remain standing until a windstorm or other disturbance sends them crashing to the ground.

“Far from being a waste of wood, however, these fallen trunks now enter a new stage of the natural cycle. Each log becomes its own mini-ecosystem, complete with a teeming array of termites, ants, beetles, centipedes, millipedes and other invertebrates.These in turn become food for salamanders, shrews, mice and other denizens of the forest floor. The rotting wood is further broken down by fungi and bacteria. The wood is gradually converted to humus, replenishing the soil and completing the natural nutrient cycle.

“These old-growth forests are precious in ways that cannot be measured.”

If the DNR, in its own words, promotes this strategy, they must follow it. While forests can greatly benefit from management, old-growth forests provide other services: unique, undisturbed wildlife habitat; healthy soil; protection of drinking water; and carbon sinks. They serve as scientific controls to assess the ecological consequences of active management of the remaining 90 percent of forests. The old-growth forests should not be managed like the other 90 percent.

There are a number of state nature preserves: Bendix Woods in St. Joseph County; Donaldson’s Woods in Lawrence County; McClue (Charles) in Steuben County; Pine Hills in Montgomery County; Rocky Hollow-Falls Canyon in Parke County; Shrader-Weaver in Fayette County; and Wesselman Woods in Vanderburgh County.

These old-growth forests are precious in ways that cannot be measured. Setting aside 10 percent of state forests from active management as contiguous areas for future old-growth forest is prudent. We live in uncertain times. Multi-aged forests that include these undisturbed areas may have greater resilience and offer more pathways to recovery from unpredictable events.

The key words are 10 percent, compact, contiguous and undisturbed. I hope DNR will consider protecting this resource, both in study and in future determinations.

State Rep. Pat Boy, D-Michigan CIty, is a member of the Indiana General Assembly, and former member of the Michigan City Common Council.

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