A recent lawsuit filed by several Indiana environmental groups accuses the U.S. Forest Service of proposing a project violating multiple environmental acts, endangering a reservoir that provides clean water to over 140,000 people and unlawfully imperiling endangered species.
The project plans to selectively log 4,375 acres and burn 13,500 acres of forest over a time span of around 20 years to promote the growth of trees such as oak and hickory and treat forest health.
The lawsuit accuses the U.S. Forest Service of violating the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Regulations in line with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It also alleges that the Forest Service violates the goals and objectives of the Indiana Forest Plan, stating that certain practices that were supposed to be analyzed for suitability weren’t discussed, violating the National Forest Management Act.
“Our lawyers have been talking to the Justice Department about putting the project on hold while we see if we can work out our differences,” said Jeff Stant, an executive director for the Indiana Forest Alliance. No changes to the project have yet been made, but a contract for shelterwood cutting has been delayed. Environmentalists have also proposed many alternatives, including moving the project to a different area outside of the Monroe Reservoir and reducing the volume of logging and burning.
The Bloomington mayor and Monroe County officials say that the largest concern of the project is how it could affect the Lake Monroe Reservoir. The lake provides drinking water to over 140,000 people in South Central Indiana, and the project could increase sediment levels in a reservoir that already suffers from flooding, erosion and high levels of algae.
“By logging the slopes in the Houston South Area…there’s no question that there will be an increase in sediment levels,” said Stant.
The Lake Monroe Reservoir has suffered from contamination concerns for many years. Logging and farming lead to erosion in the area that increases nutrients in the lake which feeds toxic algae. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management has listed the lake as an impaired water body, meaning it doesn’t meet water quality standards assigned by the Clean Water Act.
The U.S. Forest Service has responded to these concerns, stating that the project would have no significant impact on the sedimentation levels of Lake Monroe. Michelle Paduani, a district ranger for the Hoosier National Forest, emailed a statement saying that “the mitigation measures [the Forest Service] apply are highly effective in protecting water while meeting other objectives of improving wildlife habitat and forest resilience.”
However, many in Monroe County aren’t willing to take the risk and worry that the studies cited by the U.S. Forest Service don’t apply to Lake Monroe. Scientists with concerns about increased erosion in the Monroe Reservoir have proposed setting up monitoring stations for sedimentation in the lake itself.
Environmental activists have also brought up concerns about the health of the forest, which is currently classified as mature and contains many oak and hickory trees. The project plans on fulfilling goals outlined in the Indiana Forest Plan, a strategic outline set up to approve funding for forest conservation and desired future conditions on public land. This project would be the largest management project to ever take place in the Hoosier National Forest, affecting about 20,000 acres.
Dr. Jane Fitzgerald, a coordinator for the Central Hardwoods Joint Venture (CHJV), stated that the project was essential to improving habitat conditions for bird species of conservation concern. “A couple of examples are the Cerulean Warbler, and the Wood Thrush, and probably the Prairie Warbler,” Fitzgerald said. “Those are the top three that come to mind.”
In a letter of endorsement from the CHJV, Fitzgerald writes that the plan would encourage the growth of white oak trees, which forest birds use for foraging and nesting. According to a research article on bird populations and selective cutting, the thinning of branches would increase shrubby growth that provides better habitat structures for juvenile forest-breeding birds and improves population numbers. Another study completed by the Woodland Steward Institute showed that oak trees and canopy gaps were important to nesting success in Cerulean Warblers.
However, some studies have shown that opening the closed canopy forest could have an unfavorable effect on forest songbirds. According to a research report on forest fragmentation, the act of breaking large forested areas into smaller pieces, the nesting success of songbirds can decrease in response to selective cutting. Environmental activists also fear that the prescribed burning could have detrimental effects on vulnerable species of bats, birds, amphibians and reptiles.
The Houston South project area currently supports many species of bats that are federally threatened or endangered. The IFA argues that the planned burning and thinning could result in harm to maternity roosting trees, killing mothers and pups. Stant said that while the project may intend to provide a better habitat for these endangered animals, they may not recover from the prescribed burning.
The burning could also lead to increased air pollution. Studies have shown that forests sequester more carbon as they mature, and the burning could release an unknown amount of carbon into the atmosphere. The Indiana Forest Alliance worries that the burning could affect recreational activities that normally take place in a public forest, from hiking and jogging to horseback riding.
Another point of contention is that burning was not used by the Native Americans of Indiana to promote the growth of oak trees. According to an article by Cheryl Munson, a research scientist at Indiana University, “no indication exists that intentionally set fire was a key factor in determining the natural composition of the forest in the Houston South area.”
The U.S. Forest Service has responded that burning is an essential factor in encouraging oak growth and that careful measures will be taken. “For the most part,” said Fitzgerald, “fire is what helps to regenerate the oaks… And in terms of the harvest, the new growth is going to sequester carbon too, so it’s not like you’re cutting the trees and paving it and there’s not ever going to be more carbon sequestration, there will be.”
The Hoosier National Forest has struggled with a lack of age diversity for many years. The majority of the trees in the forest are classified in the 20 to 99 year age range. While promoting oak-hickory growth is the goal of the project, opponents believe that it would be best to let the forest naturally regrow and increase the diversity of the trees, without solely focusing on oak and hickory.
It is still not known whether any changes have been made to the Houston South project. Hopefully, a suitable compromise can be reached that will help maintain Lake Monroe’s water quality and protect endangered species’ while still achieving the important goals of the project.