The Endangered Forest

When they say it’s not about the money, it’s about the money

By James Alexander Thom

Photographer Jeff Danielson says of this photo and the other one in this piece: “This is along the ridge top over the west side of the lake. It always used to be one of the most beautiful spots in the country, I thought. Good-sized trees going down the slope to some really huge and amazing trees along the lake trail. Those huge trees and everything leading down to them are no longer there. It’s now a place interesting only to fans of WWI battlefields. I’ve got shots of the hillside somewhere but was apparently too depressed to tag them at the time.”

A note from the editor: Some background on “The Endangered Forest”:

The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture is moving forward with a massive plan to “improve” the Hoosier National Forest near Bloomington through means including logging, prescribed fires, applying herbicides and repairing “roads” that local residents describe as hiking trails.

The initial project targets what the USDA calls Buffalo Springs, an area almost entirely in Orange County, where residents say they’ve never heard the term, Buffalo Springs. The area appears to encompass 10,000 acres, of which 5,000 acres are targeted for logging and another 700 acres for herbicide application – which forest advocates say will likely run off into the Patoka Lake watershed.

Many area residents say they were never notified of the public comment phase of the project and those who were say they had a month or less to understand, analyze and comment on the vaguely described plan. Landowner Andy Mahler says the USDA only allowed comment on specific details, when the government agency produced an 8 ½ by 11 inch map of a 140 square mile area, making it nearly impossible to comment with specificity.

USDA’s official comments sound good. They say they want to restore the oak and hickory ecosystem and remove non-native species. That, they say, will also benefit wildlife. Critics say non-native pines, for example, also provide wildlife habitat, and promises by governmental agencies to selectively log are almost always broken and clear-cutting forested areas is what tends to happen, creating unsightly areas within forests and enabling the run-off of soil into creeks and springs.

Opponents of the plan have organized into a Facebook group, Friends of the Hoosier National Forest, although the USDA says the public comment period has expired. Opponents of the plan say there’s a lot to be learned by what Congressman Trey Hollingsworth had to say when constituents complained about the proposed USDA action.

Hollingsworth praised the USDA plan and paid lip service to the beauty and recreational benefits of a healthy forest. But he tipped his hand, and the USDA’s, when marveled at the huge amount of board feet in the Hoosier forest. That suggests that the biggest motivator behind the plan is logging and making money off the timber sales. —Mike Leonard

This photo was taken at the same time as the one above, standing in the same spot. The first photo ne looking left, one looking right.

When Europeans in their ships first saw the shores of North America, they thought nobody lived here. All they could see was forest.

Actually, millions of people lived here, and had lived here for thousands of years. They just hadn’t deforested the land.

A few short centuries later, those vast woodlands have been cut down over and over, and any tree now standing on this continent is at risk.

Even old trees in well-settled, well managed forest areas like the Hoosier National Forest in Orange and Crawford Counties can’t rest in peace.                       

What was it about those Europeans that was so hostile to woodlands? And why hadn’t natives deforested this land in all the preceding millenia?

As a thoughtful old historian, I can answer that:

The natives didn’t have any notion of money.

Without monetary profit to be made from exploiting trees, the natives used only as much wood as they needed. 

The same thing happened to all this continent’s other natural resources, too. Anything that could be sold for profit was endangered: ores, animal pelts, foodplants, topsoil, human toil, etc., etc.  

But we’re talking about trees.

A tree is a miraculous Creation, beautiful, intricate, beneficial, an integral part of the life cycles of animals and other plants, including the rich soil in which most plant life grows.  It even makes the oxygen we animals need to breathe.

As the poet Kilmer said, “Only God can make a tree.”

But the real god in America now is Mammon. Wealth. Money. And that god can unmake a tree so quickly.

To Mammon worshippers, a tree is seen as an estimated number of board feet.  Each board foot — 12 by 12 by one inches — is worth so much money, determined by whether the tree is a poplar, oak, walnut, or pine, and by the quality of its grain.

In other words, its worth and beauty are not in its place in the natural world, but in its monetary value.

It shouldn’t be necessary to point out that money is not part of the natural world, because the natural world is the one God created. That does not include money, which was invented by man, and then transformed into a religion.  Seen through the tint of that religion, the worth of anything the Creator made is measured in dollars and cents, yen, pesos, euros and the like.

That is why any respectable tree standing on this continent is at risk. With the help of chainsaws and trucks and lumber mills, it can be transformed quickly into money.

Over the years, as tree huggers and money-huggers struggled to cut or protect trees, elaborate arguments, government agencies, and lobbies have been formed, and developed their peculiar languages, such as “forest management,” “ecosystem restoration,” “canopy density,” and so on, all well-written and convincing. Especially in national and state forests, the relationships between the Forest Service and the people who have made the woods their home can become complicated and baffling. Some people care less than others about the trees around them, and even a tree-hugger can be tempted to sell trees for a few thousand dollars.

It’s complicated, and specific down to the acre.

For these reasons, big forestry projects need to be studied patiently, in detail, by everybody whose way of life will be affected by the projects. Cutting, burning, roadbuilding, and especially herbicide spraying should not be arbitrarily prescribed near the habitat of humans and other animals, or in their watersheds. 

The government is here to serve the citizens. If enough people in an area come to the conclusion that they don’t welcome the  projects, the projects should be changed or stopped.

That would, likely, interfere with the profit calculations of somebody who has been drooling about all those board feet just standing there in the woods doing nothing but creating breathable air and supporting the life of critters.

But they’ve been winning ever since the ships arrived. Money talks, and has been talking for centuries. It’s time to let the forest dwellers have the say-so.

Take time, think, study, listen, and get a better plan.


Author James Alexander Thom loves hardwood and uses it. He has woodsman skills, built his own log house, heats with wood, and is a carver and wood sculptor.  But he uses only as much as he needs, and won’t sell wood off his land. 

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