Buffalo Springs restoration project proposal in the analysis stage

BEDFORD– The Buffalo Springs Restoration Project, proposed for National Forest System lands primarily in Orange County, is in the early stages of analysis. 

The Hoosier National Forest has begun considering implementing actions within this area of the Forest that are aimed at improving and diversifying the forest’s conditions to benefit native tree species, other native plants, and the full array of wildlife species that depend on diverse habitats to thrive.  As is the case for each project proposed by the U.S. Forest Service, there are several comment periods throughout the process.

Overstocked non-native pines in declining health in the Buffalo Springs Restoration Project Area

Beginning with general public outreach in January 2021, the Forest Service has invited comments from Hoosiers and all interested individuals regarding the proposed project. Public scoping, a period in which the public considers the proposed actions and offers input on what Forest Service staff should consider during the analysis of the impacts of those actions, concluded on November 15, however, comments will continue to be accepted and considered as the process continues.  

The next stage will be an in-depth analysis of the issues identified by an interdisciplinary team of resource specialists, which will result in a draft environmental assessment. The proposal can change based on the analysis, and alternatives can be considered. 

Once the analysis is complete, the draft environmental assessment will be shared with the public and there will be a 30-day public comment period for any interested individuals prior to making any decisions. The Forest Service also plans to have opportunities for direct public engagement during that time period, which is anticipated to be around April 2022.

The Forest received nearly 300 comments during the scoping period.  Several areas of concern were repeatedly mentioned and our intention is to clarify some confusion and misinformation.  Detailed information on each of these topics, and a variety of others, will be documented in the draft environmental assessment.  The following information is based on information from previously conducted projects of a similar nature, and/or scientific research and data collection.

There is concern about the size of the areas to be treated.  On average, of the 204,000 acres of National Forest System land comprising the Hoosier, approximately 300 acres are harvested for timber annually or 0.15%.  If approved, the intention would be to continue that same pace across the Forest and implement the Buffalo Springs Restoration Project actions incrementally over 10 years or more.  Conducting analyses at larger scales allows us to consider the effects of planned actions over a larger landscape, gives the public a clearer picture of long-term implementation plans, and is a more efficient use of staff time, and therefore of taxpayer resources. 

Specifically, if local landowners opt to be included, up to 15,100 acres would be treated with prescribed fire in smaller units on a rotational basis over a period of many years.  Prescribed burning is low-intensity fire applied to our ecosystems to restore balance and allow for fire-adapted species, such as oak, hickory, and native grasses/forbs, to thrive and provide needed wildlife habitat as they did historically. 

707 acres of non-native pine are proposed to be removed to regenerate native hardwoods of many varieties.  The pines would be clearcut in areas no larger than 10 acres over a period of many years.  With less than 1% of the forest in the project area less than 10 years of age, this process would provide much-needed young forest for declining species such as blue-winged and prairie warblers, eastern box turtles, and American woodcock.

516 acres are proposed for shelterwood treatment in numerous stands implemented over many years.  Shelterwood treatment provides the conditions for the oak-hickory ecosystem to thrive as it is dependent on disturbance and plenty of sunlight.

2,689 acres are proposed for either pine or hardwood thinning in numerous smaller stands, to be implemented over many years.  Many stands in the area are overstocked, or too crowded for the water, nutrients, and sunlight available, which leads to greater competition and stress.  This often leads to stagnated growth and trees that are more susceptible to attacks from forest pests and pathogens.  The treatments are proposed to improve forest health and resiliency in a changing climate. 

957 acres are proposed for selection harvests (either single tree or groups of up to 3 acres).  Implemented over time, this treatment reduces density for improved forest health and increases age class diversity to provide habitat for a wider array of wildlife.  Selection harvests are utilized on higher-quality sites where species like American beech and maple thrive.  These species regenerate well with this type of harvest and provide the diversity that will ensure a healthy forest in the future.

255 acres are proposed for mid-story removal over time to allow more sun to reach the forest floor to encourage species diversity.

Herbicide spot treatments are proposed to be used in the shelterwood treatment areas to allow oaks and hickories to grow into the canopy and in the mid-story removal areas.  Herbicides would not be applied across the whole area identified but would be only spotted treatments within that acreage.

Some have expressed concern about herbicides and timber harvest activity contaminating Patoka Lake or other water sources.  A primary goal of National Forests is to protect watersheds so they provide clean water for wildlife and people.  When any activity occurs on the ground we follow all applicable laws, standards, and guidelines from our Forest Plan, the Clean Water Act, and Best Management Practices recommended by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.  Herbicide use for stand improvement activities usually requires a single application to attain the desired effects. Herbicide would be applied specifically to a stump or a cut on the trunk of targeted woody vegetation resulting in a relatively small area of application with little to no herbicide contacting the soil. All employees or contractors that apply herbicides are either licensed by the Office of Indiana State Chemist or under the direct supervision of someone who is. The Forest uses only EPA-approved non-restricted herbicides and follows all EPA and label directions. We do not expect this project to have negative effects on Patoka Lake or other water sources.

In addition, we identify areas within the project area, such as trail and road-stream crossings, where improvements can be made to reduce erosion and sedimentation, enhance fish passage, and improve water quality.  Timber sale receipts are often used to fund these improvements.

Orange County is rich in cultural history and there is concern that cultural sites would be negatively impacted by activities such as timber harvest and prescribed fire.  There are many federal laws that guide the protection of the cultural history of public lands. Prior to any ground-disturbing actions taking place on the forest, we must ensure compliance with these laws which includes extensive surveying to identify cultural sites. Once identified, significant sites are most often protected from ground-disturbing activities, or else project effects must be mitigated in other ways such as data recovery. Prior to any actions we also consult with all tribal governments who have indicated an interest in the land and resources of this part of Indiana.  Our heritage program is an essential component of forest management.

Some concerns have been voiced that recreation and tourism may be negatively impacted by the proposed activities.  Portions of some trails would be temporarily closed during operations for public safety.  The forest has over 260 miles of trails, so there are many alternatives.  Funding from timber sales would be used for trail restoration or improvement.  The proposed forest management activities would provide for a more diverse habitat for recreationists, including wildlife diversity for hunters and birders.

Some have expressed concern that the incentive for forest management is of a financial nature. The Forest must comply with the 2012 Planning Rule, an amendment to the 1976 National Forest Management Act, which provides a collaborative and science-based framework for creating land management plans which must support ecological sustainability and contribute to rural economies.  The Forest’s 2006 Land and Forest Resource Management Plan has been adapted accordingly.  Therefore, forest management decisions are not made with a profit motive in mind. Rather, actions are taken to have a long-term benefit for the ecosystem and its wildlife, which can also simultaneously contribute to the local economy and jobs with the sale of sustainable levels of timber which are converted to wood products we all rely on. 

The funds generated from timber sales are strictly regulated. Forest Service policy states that a minimum of $0.25 per hundred cubic feet (CCF), except for qualifying salvage or stewardship sales, must be deposited into the National Forest Fund (Forest Service Manual 2431.31).  Above this minimum deposit to the Treasury, Congress has authorized several methods for the Forest Service to retain and spend revenue from federal timber sales.  The Knutson-Vandenberg Act of 1930, and amendments, allow funds from timber sales to be held in trust by the Forest Service for activities such as planting, prescribed fire, treatment of invasive species, aquatic organism passage construction, improving visual quality along trails and roads, stabilization of pre-existing erosion along trails, streambank stabilization, and protecting and improving future productivity of renewable resources on the forest land in the timber sale area.  These funds must first be utilized within the timber sale area from which they were derived.  Once all required reforestation and other restoration activities are funded, funds can then be used for restoration activities elsewhere on the Forest. 

Lastly, there is concern that sufficient older forest ecosystems are not being provided.  According to current statewide data for all forests, over 90% are in the 20 to 99 year age classes, primarily due to the conversion of agricultural and timbered lands back to the forest at the same general time period.  The two forest age classes in the lowest amount are those at the younger and older ends of the spectrum.  In accordance with our Forest Plan, nearly half of the Forest, a total of around 100,000 acres, is being managed to develop into secondary old-growth forests to provide that important habitat.  Data from across the eastern U.S. clearly indicates declines in young forest-dependent wildlife species.  In the limited areas identified in the Forest Plan for forest management that includes timber harvest, we strive to seek balance in species, age-class and structural diversity. The Buffalo Springs area currently has less than 1% of forest less than 10 years of age, whereas the Forest Plan calls for the area to have 4-12% of the forest in that age class.

“I want to assure citizens that our goal is to provide healthy, diverse, resilient forests that will be sustainable to provide habitat for a diversity of wildlife, provide ecosystem services such as water quality and carbon sequestration and storage, supply wood for products that we all rely on, and support the rural economy.  As stewards of federal public lands, we have a wide variety of stakeholders – from those desiring no management to those who would like us to do more extensive management.  Our job is to listen to them all, incorporate the latest science and the expertise and experience of our team of resource specialists, to find a balance and make the best decisions to provide sustainable forest resources for the long term,” said Forest Supervisor Mike Chaveas.

More information about this project can be found on the forest’s website:  https://go.usa.gov/xAn24.