The Battle for Buffalo Springs

A well-respected environmental activist calls BS on a Forest Service plan to “restore” (read: log) a place it calls Buffalo Springs, a made-up name for a place locals call home.

By Andy Mahler

There is something that doesn’t sit right about the Forest Service’s plan to punch logging roads into the heart of the  hardwood forested hills of Orange County, Indiana, in order to log the most magical and historical area in the entire Hoosier National Forest, a place called Buffalo Springs.


The most remarkable thing about Buffalo Springs is you can’t find it on any map, because it does not exist on any map, or at least it didn’t until now.

Let me explain.

Environmental activist Andy Mahler (Courtesy Photo.)

It began for us in October, 2021, with the arrival of an innocuous seeming 5×7 manila envelope from the Forest Service, that turned our world upside down. Because it turns out we live very close to the heart of an area of the Hoosier National Forest to which the Forest Service has given the name Buffalo Springs. Buffalo because it includes the historic Buffalo Trace used by migrating herds of bison and later the early Euro-American settlers; and Springs because it features the numerous mineral rich springs frequented by the buffalo and others that led to establishment of the resort towns of French Lick and West Baden, known as Springs Valley.

Included in the envelope was a Forest Service proposal to “restore” Buffalo Springs and a remarkably confusing,  complex and inadequate multicolored 8 ½ x 11 map representing the nearly 30,000 acre area they were now calling Buffalo Springs. Their proposal includes

  • more than five thousand acres of logging including more than twelve hundred acres of clearcuts;
  • nineteen miles of road construction, including turning eight miles of the thirteen mile horse trail that runs past our home into a gravel log road;
  • burning more than fifteen thousand acres of Buffalo Springs multiple times;
  • spraying nearly eight hundred acres with herbicide

All in the name of “restoration.”

There are actually many things that don’t sit right about the Forest Service’s BS proposal to log and burn Buffalo Springs. Here are a few:

The area the U.S. Forest Service has creatively named, “Buffalo Springs.” (Courtesy photo.)

A Sierra Club hike through the Hoosier National Forest. (Photo Courtesy of Steven Higgs.)

1. The Oaks

The scoping letter for the BS proposal states that the primary purpose for the project is to “improve the sustainability of the oak-hickory ecosystem.”

Oaks are among the most magnificent and majestic of the towering trees in an older hardwood forest. The Forest Service expresses deep concern for the declining proportion of oaks in the forest. And yet the primary focus of their solution to this problem is to cut down hundreds of oak trees.

The table on page 2 of the Scoping Letter for the Buffalo Springs project that lists the forest types that will be subject to logging discloses that 59% of the cutting will be among oak-hickory, with oak-pine contributing another 8%, meaning more than two thirds of all logging will be in oak stands.

The Forest Service attributes the predominance of oaks in what is now the Hoosier National Forest to Euro-American settlers whose clearing of the original forest; grazing by hogs and cattle; repeated burning; and other forms of abuse and degradation favored oaks in the recovering forest. Paradoxically, when they talk about “restoring” the forest, it is not the towering oaks of the original forest they would restore, but the conditions of degradation and abuse that produced the unnatural representation of oaks they seek to perpetuate (so they can cut them down again).

2.  Logging and Road-Building

The other priority identified in the statement of need for their BS proposal is to, “regenerate native hardwood communities by removing non-native pines, while also improving overall forest health and wildlife habitat,” also known as logging and road building.

What the Forest Service fails to mention is that hardwoods are naturally replacing the pines they propose to clearcut throughout the forest, naturally. This is happening at no cost to tax-payers and without causing additional harm to the highly erosible sites where the pines were planted to stabilize soils and stop erosion.

The Forest Service would instead convert horse trails to logging roads covered with gravel and bring in monstrous, highly mechanized equipment to clearcut the sites. The Forest Service would remove the beautiful old pines which hold enormous volumes of moisture while providing shelter to a great variety of species, including endangered Indiana bats, and then repeatedly burn the sites and spray herbicide to kill competing vegetation.

This level of disturbance would dramatically increase forest fragmentation harming those bird and other species that require closed canopy forest for nesting and breeding; it would provide access for the scourge of non-native species, like Japanese stilt grass that are replacing native flora, right into the heart of the forest; and it would dramatically dry out the sites and again expose fragile and vulnerable soils to the erosive effects of sun, rain and wind.

The Buffalo Springs area of the Hoosier National Forest contains truly remarkable cultural, historical and archaeological sites. It contains four very popular recreation trails and two recreational lakes; it features a world class karst systems of caves, rock shelters, sinkholes, cliffs and springs; it includes a significant portion of the watershed of Patoka Lake, the cleanest municipal water supply in the State of Indiana, and yet, paradoxically the Forest Service sees only trees to cut and roads to build, all of which will degrade the recreational, heritage, karst and water features that make this area so unique and so special in the first place.

3. Early Successional Habitat

The Forest Service claims that, “the project area is currently dominated by mature forest,” and therefore they need to cut down the old forest in order to provide young forest, what they call “early successional habitat” for the species that require those conditions to thrive. This claim is false.

Not only is the existing forest far from true maturity, there is already far more young forest than the Forest Service will admit, so intent are they on cutting down trees and building roads into the forest to get to them. The Forest Service doesn’t differentiate between a tree that is 140 years old or 200 or 360 or 500 years old, grouping them all together as one age class, all of which cumulatively represent less than 1% of the forest in the Buffalo Springs area; hardly a mature forest.

At the same time they grossly undercount the earliest age class because they ignore what is happening on adjacent privately owned land which makes up 12,000 acres or 41% of the Buffalo Springs project area. They also fail to include utility and road right-of-ways; the openings created when large trees falls; tornado damage and other windfalls; and other natural disturbances, all of which represent abundant early successional habitat.

4. illegal Plan

The Forest Service claims they are required to do all this logging and road-building because it is, “an implementation of the 2006 Hoosier National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan (Forest Plan), with the goal of moving the Forest toward its identified desired future condition.” What they neglect to mention is that the Forest Plan is grossly out of date and out of compliance with the National Forest Management Act of 1976 that requires that the Forest Service come up with a new plan for the Hoosier National Forest (and every other national forest) no later than every fifteen years or whenever there is new information, changing circumstances, or changes in public attitudes regarding how the Hoosier National Forest should be managed.

Changing conditions and new information since 2006 that dictate the development of a new forest plan include the following:

  • the hottest annual temperatures in recorded history
  • an unprecedented number of climate related billion dollar loss weather events, including December tornadoes in Kentucky that caused catastrophic loss of life and horrific property damage (and created tens of thousands of acres of early successional habitat)
  • Emerald ash borer and the almost total loss of mature ash trees throughout the forest
  • white nose syndrome and plummeting bat populations
  • proliferation of Japanese stilt-grass and other invasive species following disturbance to the forest
  • overwhelming public support for comprehensive long-term protection and precautionary management for publicly owned forests.
  • a global pandemic that has disrupted many aspects of our lives but that has also resulted in increased interest in outdoor recreational opportunities and resulted in increased interest in rural real estate, especially next to protected public lands.

Any one of these major changes since the current Forest Plan was issued in 2006 should mandate an assessment of changing conditions and the preparation for a new round of forest planning, or at the very least, the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement for the Buffalo Springs project.

5. $$$

In the entire scoping document there is almost no mention of timber sales or other financial considerations, though they are proposing to remove thousands of commercially valuable oaks and other trees.

Otherwise inexplicable choices made by large bureaucracies like the Forest Service can often be explained by something called budget maximization, in which, other things being equal, the agency will choose the option with the highest likelihood of increasing their budget. Those FS employees whose training or philosophical approach are most closely aligned with the activities that enhance the Forest Service budget are those most likley to wind up in positions of responsibility and decision-making authority. Performance targets for Forest Supervisors and performance reviews for Forest Service employees also skew towards those activities that tend to maximize agency budgets.

Congress provides the Forest Service with money for operating expenses through the appropriations process each year, but they have also given the Forest Service a set of six separate incentives that reward the Forest Service for cutting down trees in the national forests by allowing them to keep a significant portion of the money they receive from selling the trees. 

When trees were cut for timber back in the 1980s there was an expectation that the sales would be profitable and that most if not all of the money received from selling the trees from the national forests would be returned to the treasury. With the discovery that the Forest Service was losing millions of dollars each year on timber sales from the national forests, and with growing public outrage at the degradation of the public forests resulting from the logging, the timber sale program was scaled back; but the cutting and selling of trees continued under different guises and the rationales for the the retention of receipts became more creative.

The Forest Service has continued to sell trees as “salvage,” “sanitation,” “stewardship,” and most recently, “restoration.” The beauty of the use of the term restoration, from the Forest Service perspective is that most people support the idea of restoration, most people don’t realize it is a euphemism for logging, and best of all, the Forest Service gets to keep all the money because there is no expectation that work conducted for forest restoration should make money. There is not nearly as much environmental scrutiny of projects conducted for restoration as there is for timber sales.

And it is not just the Forest Service that exploits these perverse incentives. For example, more than half of the entire operating budget of the Indiana Division of Forestry comes from cutting and selling trees in the state forests.

6. Fire

Speaking of perverse incentives, more than half of the Forest Service’s budget is now dedicated to fire. In response to the horrific and unprecedented mega-fires out West with their catastrophic loss of lives and destruction of property, Congress has given the Forest Service a virtual blank check to address fire risk in western national forests

Those funds however, can be used anywhere in the national forest system to reduce fire risk, even in wet Midwestern hardwood forests like the Hoosier where the fire risk is negligible. The Forest Service now, in the name of fire risk reduction wants to change the Hoosier National Forest from a fire resistant forest to a fire adapted forest by burning it repeatedly and thereby favoring those species, most notably some of the oaks, that can withstand repeated burning. They are so flush with fire money from Congress that they are actually proposing to burn up to five thousand acres of private land (with landowner permission of course) in addition to the up to ten thousand acres of national forest lands as part of the BS proposal.

7. Restoration

The two main things that will be restored by the BS proposal are the Forest Service budget and the degraded conditions that favored the oaks at the time land was acquired for the establishment of the Hoosier National Forest. Their idea of restoration involves bulldozers, logging roads, skidders and other heavy logging equipment, chainsaws, drip torches, log trucks and burning lots of fossil fuels; drying out the forest soils and exposing them to sun, wind and rain.

8. Climate

A growing body of research is suggesting that the single most important step humans can take to mitigate climate change is to leave as much mature forest standing as possible in the temperate forested regions of the planet, including the Buffalo Springs area of the Hoosier National Forest. Instead, everything the Forest Service has proposed in their BS project would exacerbate the warming of the planet and consume fossil fuels in the process.

To restore the forest, let it grow.

Protect Buffalo Springs.


Author Andy Mahler is a lifelong environmental activist and founder of Heartwood, a regional network that protects forests and supports community activism in the eastern United States through education, advocacy, and citizen empowerment.

This piece previously appeared in CounterPunch, whose editor, Jeffrey St. Clair, is a native Hoosier, formerly with the Brown County group, ForestWatch. 🐝

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