Photo by Brent T. Wheat 
A healthy young woodland allows plenty of sunlight to reach the forest floor, making it better habitat for most animals and plants.
Photo by Brent T. Wheat
A healthy young woodland allows plenty of sunlight to reach the forest floor, making it better habitat for most animals and plants.

Several months ago I had a conversation with one of the most vilified men in state government – a talk that changed my overall outlook about our wildest places.

The discussion was with Indiana Division of Forestry Director John Siefert and while sitting deep in Morgan-Monroe State Forest, we talked about the dire need to cut Indiana’s trees.  Cut trees, as in “clear-cut,” that dirtiest of words to conservationists.

However, if you spend a few minutes talking to the candid, down-to-earth Seifert, you’ll begin to understand the other side of the coin.  If you listen, while holding your emotional impulses in check, you’ll finally understand that cutting down trees isn’t an evil or immoral act.  Actually, you’ll realize that it helps, rather than hurts, Indiana forests. 
Pretty radical idea, huh?

Seifert is often cast by “forest advocates” as an evil villain in a great outdoors morality play, the hidden hand behind the scenes of a greedy, money-grubbing Republican administration that seeks to rape the land for tiny profits that are funneled into the hands of corporate puppet masters.  As with most things, if you actually listen to facts, you’ll have your eyes opened.  I did.

Seifert is fighting an uphill battle to make the public understand that mature, picturesque forests might be good for a few animal species and the occasional naturalistic poet but they are pretty poor wildlife habitat. “As forests age, you tend to get less species diversity,” Siefert noted.  “Data has shown that after a site is completely cut over, habitat quality increases for about 10 years then steadily declines,” he said.

If you take some time to go beyond social media “slacktivism” and actually step into a clear-cut plot a few years after the timbering operations ceased, you will be immediately impressed by the boiler-plate-thick undergrowth, the array of tree species and the sheer volume of life, particularly that life known as “bugs.”  I know, because we walked around the 10-acre Hardwood Ecosystem Experiment (HEE) tract in Morgan-Monroe with Seifert and were immediately swarmed by biodiversity, some of it even flying up my nose.

Of course, critters eat bugs so there are lots of other animals present; birds such as grouse, turkey and songbirds are abundant, reptiles such as the box turtle and endangered timber rattlesnake thrive (I’m told) while herbivores such as deer think such areas are simply a vegetable banquet stretching for acres.  In a sense, disturbed areas in the forest are like gardens to the woodland residents.

However, Seifert will admit that timber operations, especially clear-cutting, is ugly and destroys the views people have come to love, at least for several years.  “(Unfortunately) the perception is that (with clear-cutting) we’ve devastated the forest but actually what we’ve done is we’ve renewed it,” he notes.

“Whenever we do that,” Siefert said, “the esthetics change dramatically but we know that in the forest floor there are literally thousands and thousands of seeds waiting to germinate and it’s all about the sunlight. When we renew that forest, we know within two or three growing seasons that forest will have ten to twenty-thousand new stems (of woody vegetation) per acre there. It’s really not an issue of science or biology, it’s the perception of the public,” he noted.

A bigger problem is that Indiana’s forests are maturing and, contrary to the narrative of anti-logging advocates, Indiana’s timber harvest from public lands is insignificant.  “Right now, we’re only cutting about .01% of our tree inventory.  We’re banking far more than we’re cutting,” Seifert pointed out.  The unspoken but clear message is that Indiana really should increase the pace of timber harvest but the public, especially an outspoken minority, will fight tooth and nail against any cutting whatsoever.

If you think that is an understatement, you should see some of the pictures of protesters at various Indiana timber auctions.  The nicest thing that could be said about the group is that most of them spelled Seifert’s name correctly on their placards.  Some of it isn’t fit for a family newspaper.

In the end, Seifert and his staff try to educate people that cutting down trees make biological sense, even if the visuals aren’t pretty. Furthermore, the Division doesn’t want to cut down every tree in the state and the whole thing isn’t a conspiracy to enrich some robber baron.

This column will certainly inspire a few breathless emails and letters to the editor, claiming I’ve been hoodwink or, even better, work as a stooge of the timber industry.  I’m certainly a stooge but before getting your undergarments in a wad I challenge you to check out an HEE tract, hiking a little and a draw a deep breath of the clean air around you.

Then, after you finish coughing up all the bugs you swallowed, you might see that fact should override the fiction.

You can watch our interview with Seifert at: http://wildindiana.com/everything-know-timber-harvest-probably-wrong/.