The U.S. Forest Service has proposed a plan that calls for the thinning and harvesting of trees in an approximately 4,000-acre area within the Hoosier National Forest.
Southern Indiana residents and environmental groups are concerned that the Houston South Vegetation Management and Restoration Project could have a negative effect on the forest environment and surrounding areas.
The proposed project, which has not yet been finalized, would be done in phases, and could take up to 20 years to complete.
The Forest Service says the plan would reduce the density of trees, improve forest and vegetation health and create an ecosystem more resilient to insects, disease and climate change.
Hoosiers living near the project area worry that the Forest Service is overlooking the chance of negative environmental effects in order to get the project accomplished.
Members of the environmental group Friends of Lake Monroe say the Houston South project will result in more sediment and nutrients making their way into Lake Monroe, potentially threatening the health of the water source for more than 100,000 people.
“One of the things that I think the (Forest Service) has not recognized is that when you have a lake like Monroe that is so important for water supply, everything that happens in the watershed is important,” said Friends of Lake Monroe president Sherry Mitchell-Bruker.
Watersheds are land areas that channel rainfall and snowmelt to bodies of water. Almost every activity that happens on a watershed, including watering grass and washing cars, has an effect on the body of water the watershed runs into.
According to the Friends of Lake Monroe, the Forest Service did not consider the effect to Lake Monroe in the Houston South project’s environmental assessment. The project site is about 25 miles east of Lake Monroe and is located on the South Fork watershed, which does not directly drain to the lake.
Mitchell-Bruker says that both watersheds belong to the larger Lake Monroe watershed. What happens in the Houston South project area does eventually affect the health of Lake Monroe.
“So your little piece might not be so significant. When you add your piece onto everyone else’s piece, it becomes significant,” said Mitchell-Bruker.
The draft of the Forest Service’s environmental assessment limits its evaluation of indirect and cumulative impacts to its direct watershed boundaries.
“Cumulative effects, beyond the project site watershed boundaries, are not traceable to the project itself due to other land use activities contributing to the more expansive watershed health,” the assessment states.
Other residents worry that the project’s duration will negatively affect wildlife in the Hoosier National Forest.
“It comes down to, ‘Are we going to have a natural forest that supports habitats for lots of little critters, or are we going to have a plantation that gets harvested and cut every 5, 10, 15 years?’” said Bloomington resident Tom Zeller.
The Hoosier National Forest is home to 141 Regional Forester Sensitive Species, animal or plant species that are declining in population numbers and density and are protected to ensure those species do not become threatened or endangered.
The list includes four mammals, six birds, six fish, two amphibians, a reptile, two mollusks, 47 terrestrial invertebrates, 37 karst invertebrates, two non-vascular plants and 34 vascular plants.
The Forest Service says none of those 141 species were located during a survey of the area. The agency also says the Houston South project would have no detrimental cumulative impacts to those species.
Mitchell-Bruker says that despite the Forest Service’s assurances, environmental and other concerns from citizens may not be addressed.
“We had given them extensive comments and many of those questions that we had asked and comments that we had given were not addressed in the environmental assessment,” said Mitchell-Bruker. “We were especially concerned because there were 115 pages of comments from, I think, 80 individuals and 10 environmental organizations representing over 10,000 people. And with all this concern, (they) come back and say there’s no reason to change anything. They don’t seem to be responding to our concerns.”
Forest Service officials say they are working to ensure the project is carried out conscientiously.
“We are taking mitigation measures and doing monitoring and making sure soil and water resources are protected,” said Hoosier National Forest hydrologist and soil specialist Chad Menke. “All I can say is that we have a lot of people that put a lot of thought into it. A lot of people to monitor and a lot of people who care about the resource. We definitely want to do it in a good way.”
The Forest Service will accept comments about the Houston South Vegetations Management and Restoration Project until Aug. 26. They are accepting comments through mail, email and by fax at (812) 279-3426.