Walking the Back Country with Jeff Stant

As Jeff Stant and I walked and talked on the Tecumseh Trail in the Morgan-Monroe State Forest Back Country Area on June 13, I was reminded of the old cliché the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I met Jeff in 1981, after following my wife's suggestion that I get out of the apartment and go to a Sierra Club meeting or something. Clad in an olive green army jacket and armed with a piercing glare, Jeff stood onstage at the Monroe County Public Library Auditorium and scanned every pair of eyes in the place, including mine, for organizing potential. This was the old library, when a back-row seat essentially was front-row.

That night Jeff advanced a passionate case for a protected wilderness area in the Hoosier National Forest. One meeting later, I assumed the job of newsletter editor for the Uplands Group Sierra Club, my first attempt at environmental journalism. It was pretty ill-fated, as I recall. But later that year I entered the IU School of Journalism graduate program with, as my first reporting instructor told the class, a "long list of environmental stories" I wanted to write.

The 13,000-acre Charles Deam Wilderness Area was established on the southern shore of Lake Monroe in 1982, just as Jeff finished his undergraduate work at IU. After a brief stint with the National Taxpayers Union in Washington, he became the first executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council two years later.

In 1985, the U.S. Forest Service offered a plan to clearcut 80-plus percent the Hoosier over the next century and to open most of it up for oil and gas development. Working with other grassroots groups like Protect Our Woods and ForestWatch, Jeff, HEC and Hoosier citizens forced the Forest Service to withdraw its clearcutting plan and, in 1991, to adopt the Conservationists Alternative, which was written by Jeffrey St. Clair under a grant from HEC.

Walking through the back country off Low Gap Road about 15 miles northwest of the Bloomington Square, Jeff reminisced about those days, which I  covered as an environmental writer at the Herald-Times. Even though the Hoosier was the nation's smallest national forest, its 1991 management plan served as a model for ecologically sensitive forest management around the nation.

Officials at the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Jeff noted, were the good guys in the 1980s and '90s. Their approach to managing Indiana State Forests was much more attuned to ecological balance and public opinion than the Forest Service's.

After several years working as a consultant on coal combustion waste with the Citizens Coal Council and Clean Air Task Force, Jeff is focusing his still-abundant energies on Indiana's natural resources again. In January he assumed the position as executive director of the Indiana Forest Alliance.

And as we walked, frequently stopping to observe fearless little warblers and towering black cherry trees, or to vent our frustrations and despair over the tragic states of our environment and democracy, Jeff noted the complete role reversal of the DNR and Forest Service today. While he sees the feds' revised 2006 Land and Resource Management Plan for the Hoosier as a drift back toward its bad old days, the DNR harkens back to the Forest Service of old.

When Republican Mitch Daniels became governor in 2005, he vowed to increase timber harvesting on state forests by 400 percent. By the time he left office this year, the DNR's Division of Forestry had exceeded that goal by 250 percent. In 2002, under state Democrats, the DNR sold 1.4 million board feet. In 2012, the agency sold 14.2 million board feet.

"Trees are being cut down in the state forests somewhere on every major ridge, in every watershed and virtually every valley," Jeff wrote in the Spring 2013 IFA newsletter The Forest Defender. "Logging is opening up the deepest reaches of these forests with extensive networks of gravel roads and skidder trails."

So shameless has the DNR's assault on the state forests been that, had we kept walking on the Tecumseh that perfect June day last week, we would have found it closed for one of two logging operations in the Back Country Area, which was established in July 1981 under Republican Gov. Robert D. Orr, as a state version of the Deam Wilderness.

"Governor Orr has personally urged me to move ahead in establishing Back Country Areas in Indiana," DNR Director James Ridenour said in a news release at the time. "… We’re extremely pleased to provide this new area for persons who enjoy the rugged, primitive areas remaining in Indiana."

In the December 1981-January 1982 issue of its class-act magazine Outdoor Indiana, the DNR advised: "Users of the area should enter with the philosophy that they will disturb as little as possible of the natural woodland ecosystem, and that it will offer an experience of visiting a forested area looking much the same as it may have appeared a century and a half ago."

Ridenour also vowed in that release to establish more Back Country in state forests, which never happened. And the state never forbade logging in the state forest system, like federal wilderness designation did with the Deam.

In an article titled "A Note on the Morgan-Monroe Back Country Area," Jeff summed up how fully the DNR has reneged on that commitment to Hoosier citizens: "There is no pretense of compatibility with any wild forest or natural woodland ecosystem here."


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