One day in late December, Cliff Chapman, executive director of the Central Indiana Land Trust, was putting together a piece of furniture in his garage when a copy of a private email from Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb popped into his cellphone. Punctuated with several exclamation points, the message conveyed the governor's deep interest in partnering with the Land Trust to plant trees.
Chapman knew an overture had been made to the governor by a member of his board of directors, but he didn't know Holcomb loved the idea.
“My jaw dropped,” Chapman said. “Even in an email, which is generally pretty flat, you could tell the governor was excited.”
In truth, the Land Trust's plan to plant a million trees was still pretty vague. No announcement had been made, and no timetable had been set. But after the governor offered to try to match that effort, Chapman's group began meeting with state officials to plan the rollout. The Land Trust set a 10-year goal for its plantings; Holcomb's team decided the state's trees could be planted within five years.
On Jan. 14, Chapman was in the audience as Holcomb announced the plans in his state-of-the-state address.
Details are still being worked out, Chapman said, but the Land Trust strongly supports the DNR and is anxious to partner with the state, perhaps by supplying equipment to develop sites for some of the state's plantings.
The effort to expand Indiana's forests would “sequester carbon, helping to mitigate the effects of climate change,” the Land Trust said in a posting about the plan. “Planting trees also helps solve multiple issues, from habitat fragmentation to downstream flooding. All while making sure that tomorrow's children have lovely forested areas to explore.”
Marty Benson, assistant director of the Department of Natural Resources, said the state's plantings could begin in late March, with the goal of planting 200,000 oak trees yet this spring.
“The trees will be planted on DNR owned property, focusing on old fields and crop land,” he wrote in an email. Initial sites for planting, he wrote, will include Salamonie River State Forest near Wabash, as well as Greene-Sullivan State Forest, Jackson-Washington State Forest, Morgan-Monroe State Forest and Yellowwood State Forest.
The effort, Benson said, is being paid for through a combination of department funds and private contributions. He estimated the cost of 2020 planting will be between $100,000 and $150,000.
Other environmental advocates have reacted to the governor's announcement cautiously. “Planting trees is always a good idea,” Tim Maloney, a specialist on forestry policy with the Hoosier Environmental Council, said in an interview. “It's positive, but how strategic it is ... I think is unknown at this point.”
“Overall, the level of timber-harvesting in state forests is still a controversy,” Maloney said, though he acknowledged the harvest rate seems to have declined.
Executive Director Brad Bumgardner of the Indiana Audubon Society was similarly restrained. “The simple act of planting a tree cannot be argued against,” he emailed in response to questions. But he wanted to know more about where the new trees would be going. “If the plantings are coming as part of increased logging efforts in the state forests,” Bumgardner wrote, “then the verbiage may not be providing an additional commitment to our natural resources than they are already obligated to perform.”
“Reforestation is great,” Rae Schnapp, conservation director for the Indiana Forest Alliance, said in an interview, “but they should also pay attention to our existing tree canopy. ... Our message is that we also want to protect existing trees.”
Chapman said the 2 million-tree project “has nothing to do with any logging controversies.” The plan is about adding new trees and extending and connecting existing forest lands, he said. “It's going to be a hell of an undertaking on (the state's) part.”
John Seifert, head of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources' Division of Forestry, agreed. The plantings, soon to be detailed on the department's website, will mean an increase in trees, not replacements, he said in an interview. “The trees that are being harvested are being replaced naturally.”
“We don't cut very many trees,” Seifert said. “We're still cutting less than 1% of the trees in the woods. These are always being replaced by new ones. It is a natural system.”
Once, much of Indiana was forested. But farms, settlements and careless timbering took their toll. “By the early 1900s, the majority of Indiana forests had been cleared for agriculture or cut to provide raw materials for a growing nation,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service. “By that time, forests comprised approximately 1.5 million acres ... about 7% of the original amount of forest land in the state.”
Conservation efforts and more responsible development practices have paid off, though. Abandoned farmland has been reclaimed, and land conservation organizations such as the Central Indiana Land Trust and northeast Indiana's ACRES Land Trust have secured and sheltered more natural areas.
The state has been “adding (trees) since the 1900s,” Seifert said. Both timberland – cuttable trees – and total forested areas have increased steadily since the 1960s. A 1985 congressional farm bill included federal support for reforesting, and that support has continued.
Today, more than a fifth of Indiana is forest – almost 5 million acres, much of it on private land.
Holcomb's plan, though, “is the biggest effort to plant new forests in a generation,” Seifert said.
Schnapp and other environmentalists acknowledge the progress in reforesting Indiana. But Schnapp argues even the selective timbering the DNR allows in state forests involves clearing roadways and moving in heavy equipment that can be disruptive to delicate ecosystems and prove disastrous for some species. Environmentalists say old forests shielded from loggers' saws offer ecological benefits young tree stands can't match.
Some look to the legislature to help set policy priorities for Indiana's natural areas. This year, the Forest Alliance supported a measure to designate 10% of public forests as protected wild areas. Senate Bill 104, introduced by Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, did not receive a hearing. Another forest-related measure, Senate Bill 368, has passed the Senate and awaits House action during the second half of this year's legislative session.
It would create a study focusing on the role trees and soil can play in reducing climate change.
Senate Bill 63, written by Sen. John Ruckelshaus, R-Indianapolis, would attempt to resolve the differing philosophies of the Department of Natural Resources and its critics by establishing a state forest commission and a 100-year management plan. That bill, too, did not receive a hearing.
Such policy initiatives should continue. Though progress has been made, conservationists contend the state could do far more to preserve Indiana's natural areas for future generations. They point out that other states are far ahead of Indiana in programs to set aside public lands.
“What Indiana greatly needs ... is the kind of commitment to habitat protection that we see in Georgia, Missouri, and Texas – which have dedicated funding mechanisms that substantially increase the amount of woodlands, wetlands, and grasslands in these states,” Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, wrote in an email. “Just 5% of our land in Indiana is publicly owned. It's 18% in Wisconsin and it's 28% in Michigan.” Adding more public lands, Kharbanda contends, would increase jobs in outdoor recreation, mitigate flooding and save endangered wildlife.
Tim Harmon is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette.
To learn more
Wild & Scenic Film Festival
A benefit for the Indiana Forest Alliance
6 p.m. March 22
Rhinehart Recital Hall, Purdue Fort Wayne
General admission: $25
Student (with ID): $15
To reserve tickets, go to: