When Todd Stewart, a resident of Scottsburg, Indiana, went hiking on the Knobstone Trail in Washington-Jackson State Forest last spring, he expected to find a lush canopy deep in the woods. Instead, he found clear-cut stumps and felled timber stacked up along the trail.

“It was like walking through a field with trees in it,” he said.

Stewart never planned to become an activist, but he grew more and more concerned as he noticed more and more closures along the trail. A Google search led him to the Indiana Forest Alliance (IFA), a group that is working to restore and maintain Indiana’s native hardwood forests.

Since 2002, logging on state forests has increased at least 400 percent, according to the IFA.

Logging on the Knobstone Trail. Source: Todd Stewart/Indiana Forest Alliance.

Indiana’s last two governors, Republicans Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence, cut taxes despite sizable revenue shortfalls. The Department of Natural Resources compensated by funding some of its operations with timber auctions, a move that led to increased logging. Although Indiana’s Division of Forestry is tasked with protecting the forests for multiple uses, the IFA claims they’re prioritizing timber sales.

“They’re using our state tax dollars to have a tree farm,” Stewart said. “It’s just terrible what they’re doing.”

While logging was once forbidden on 40 percent of state forests, less than five percent are now protected.

Now, those in favor of — and those in opposition to — unlimited logging are being put to the test. The state assembly is currently weighing a bill that would protect 10 percent of the state’s forests from timber production. The Indiana Forest Alliance supports the bill.

“The people of southern Indiana are tired of not being able to enjoy our forests,” Anne Laker, an IFA staff member. “We’ve had 25,000 Hoosiers sign a petition to set aside wild areas.”

But the Division of Forestry opposes the bill.

Indiana-based band The Hammer and the Hatchet perform at the pro-forest rally. Source: Martha Fox/Indiana Forest Alliance.

Jack Seifert, director of the Division of Forestry, says protecting 10 percent of state forests would sap his department of much-needed revenue. He argues that forests are losing as many trees to old age as they are to cutting.

Frequent timber harvests improve the health of the forests, in addition to providing jobs, according to representatives of the timber industry. Ray Moistner, Executive Director of the Indiana Hardwood Lumbermen’s Association, has accused the Indiana Forest Alliance and its allies of trying to end all logging on all state land. At a legislative hearing on February 13, Moistner pledged to “defend the Division of Natural Resources from attacks.”

Just a week later, more than 600 people clad in green turned out for a rally outside the state house to support the bill. Speakers at the event included high school students, ecologists, the state poet laureate and politicians from both sides of the aisle. Many attendees were able to speak directly to their legislators.

Republicans enjoy supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature, but the bill, which was authored by a Republican, has bipartisan support.

“We’re going to show that these policies don’t sit well with taxpayers, and that our forests need to be managed in a more balanced way,” Laker said.

Students from Oaklandon Elementary School of Environmental Studies gather in support of forest protection. Source: Martha Fox/Indiana Forest Alliance.

The IFA is also pushing the state to undertake a study to quantify the value of Indiana’s forests, which sequester carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

“Here in Indiana, fewer people are concerned about climate change than in other states,” Laker said. “Climate change is not on the lips of every person in Indiana, but we know we need more trees, not fewer, and that’s the bottom line.”

Laker believes the forests should be preserved as real wilderness, where people can do real backcountry camping.

The maple, oak, hickory, sycamore and other hardwoods are also crucial for all kinds of animal species, including the increasingly rare cerulean warbler, the Indiana bat and the hellbender salamander.

A cerulean warbler. Source: MDF

Experts say the state should aim to preserve more forest, not less. “Ten to 20 percent is not nearly enough,” said Marion Jackson, an ecologist and author of The Natural Heritage of Indiana. “It should be greater than that. The more original forests we can protect, the better off we’ll be.”

Dr. Leslie Bishop, a retired biology professor at Earlham College, explained that forest ecosystems are dynamic. When an old tree dies, for example, it provides a home for woodpeckers and other creatures as it decays. Forests thrive when they host an abundance of species at all stages of life.

“Having a mosaic of different ages and classes of trees increases resilience in a forest,” Bishop said.

The biologist is worried that her grandchildren won’t experience the joys of natural places or the thrill of scientific discovery in their own backyard. At a recent hearing, Bishop told legislators of a new species of spider discovered in the Morgan-Monroe forest.

“Can you imagine — as a biologist — finding a new species right here in Indiana?” she asked them. “Not in the Amazon rainforest — here, in Indiana!”

Others at the hearing echoed her sentiments, speaking of the innate value of Indiana’s forests. The bill was introduced in January and referred to the state senate’s committee on Natural Resources, where it awaits a vote. If it passes, beginning July, 10 percent of each state forest will be designated as “old forest,” where logging will be prohibited.

“We all benefit when we have access to forests,” said John Taylor, a land manager in the northern part of the state. “If we cannot afford to set aside ten percent of our forest area, then we are made poorer as a people.”

Laura A. Shepard writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow her at @LAShepard221.