Federal legislation known as the Benjamin Harrison National Recreation Area and Wilderness Establishment Act (S. 2990) has been introduced by Senator Mike Braun (R-IN) to create a wilderness designation comprising approximately 15,300 acres of disconnected sections of the Hoosier NF that will prevent necessary management activities and further imperil native species and their habitat. The Indiana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers opposes this bill.
In 2018, the management plan known as the “USFS Houston South Vegetation Management and Restoration Project” was released. As part of this plan, the USFS proposed vegetation management projects to improve the health of the oak-hickory ecosystems and wildlife habitat in 13,533 acres of the Hoosier NF along with 9,830 acres of non-Forest Service lands.
The projects will bolster forest regeneration and creating critically important young successional habitat and improving the quality and diversity of age classes in oak-hickory stands, which are the most beneficial to wildlife. Oaks provide cover for numerous insects and pollinators and are one of the most ecologically important tree species in the US. Acorns from oaks are critically important to building fat reserves in wild turkeys and other wildlife species in the harsh fall and winter months. As browsers, whitetail deer benefit from acorn mast, oak leaves, and new buds. Hickory is an essential food source and serves as important habitat to the endangered Indiana Brown Bat. Several critically threatened and/or endangered species such as songbirds and reptiles require young forest habitats, including the ruffed grouse, which was listed as state-endangered in December of 2020. Young successional habitats are also capable of sequestering carbon.
The Houston South Project area is currently dominated by mature forest, including vast non-native white pine plantations and native beech-maple stands. These mature and non-native forests create a “habitat desert” and imperil native wildlife. Currently, young forest class comprises 0% of the Houston South Project area. Indiana has an estimated 4,809,110 acres of forested land. Only 16% of that, 770,000 acres, is publicly owned. Since 60% of Indiana’s public lands forests are precluded from timber harvests, projects such as Houston South are essential to wildlife, especially those species designated as state-endangered or of greatest conservation need.
Senator Braun’s legislation would expand the Charles C. Deam Wilderness in Monroe and Brown counties to about 28,000 acres and designate another roughly 30,000 acres of adjacent land for a proposed National Recreation Area. However, these acres are not contiguous and the designation is a poorly disguised attempt to stop the USFS Houston South management plan in its tracks. Oak-hickory forests, native to Indiana, are fire- and disturbance-dependent, which means age-class diversity in these forests was once created by wildfires, tornadoes, and insect infestations. Habitat fragmentation and loss means natural disturbance events no longer act with the same frequency and intensity as they once did. The expansion of the wilderness designation and the creation of the national recreation area will make management activities, even in emergency situations, nearly impossible or extremely cost prohibitive. In short, S. 2990 further imperils Indiana’s native wildlife.
Hunting, fishing, and many outdoor recreation opportunities largely depend on diverse forest ecosystems, in turn providing millions of dollars of revenue to state, regional, and local economies. Often healthy forests require active management to create and maintain biodiversity. A wilderness designation is intended to protect landscape-scale habitat and restricts active land management. Considering the prevalence of non-native trees and plants that have created a habitat desert in the Hoosier NF, this particular designation would prove detrimental to the Ruffed Grouse, numerous songbirds, bat species, and large game animals including wild turkey and whitetail deer. Such a designation is ideal for areas that are already biologically diverse and in which native trees and plants are firmly established, and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers often supports them. However, in this case, such a move dismisses well-established science and would do far more harm than good for Indiana’s wildlife. We support science-based forest management that supports biodiverse ecosystems and benefits wildlife.