Fall color on the Hoosier National’s Oriole Trail East

Digitally capturing fall color was way down the mission list for last Sunday’s hike on the Hoosier National Forest’s Oriole Trail East. After all, Southern Indiana’s world-famous fall palette migrates from north to south, and the 6.5-mile spur-and-loop trail in northern Perry County is 70 miles south of Bloomington, where the annual autumn display had barely begun.

The primary goal was to explore a series of clearcuts, which the U.S. Forest Service refers to as “Restoring Balance” on an information signs, along the “trail.” I knew from YouTube research that the route followed a logging road, much of which was blanketed with discomforting rocks. Distance hiking therefore was not a priority, as well.

But I was maybe a hundred yards east of the State Road 66 parking lot when a brilliant blue sky conspired with a fiercely clear sun to illuminate a series of iridescent, trailside red hues. Together with deciduous greens transitioning to yellow and the few pines left retaining their evergreen hue, the Oriole East autumn exhibition surprisingly paled before none.

The scene was enhanced by a rabble of Common Buckeye butterflies I stalked along the trail for awhile, which I'm sure were as focused on me as intently as I was focused on them..

But even though I chose the more-level, more-worn-down of the two rocky forks at loop's end, the five-mile trek generated another unexpected result – a swollen and sore knee for two days, the first such joint fail since a partial knee replacement circa 2005.

Hopefully, the discomfort was caused the rocks and not an aging, overly worn prosthetic on the inside of my right knee.

On the trail, the Oriole East was indeed flanked by clearcuts on both sides for the roughly 2.5 miles I hiked in and back out again Sunday. The extensive pine stands that had taken root there over the past eight decades have been slashed and removed to make room for native oak species to mount a comeback.

The pines were planted as early as the 1930s to restore a badly eroded hill-country landscape – from the Salt Creek to the Ohio River – that had been devastated by nearly a century of unsustainable private logging.

Indeed, the Hoosier and most Southern Indiana state forests were established to heal the land from all that abuse. Because they were fast-growing and readily available at the time, the pines were planted by the Roosevelt-era Civilian Conservation Corps to stabilize the desperately eroded land.

According to Forest Service data, logging in the Hoosier National has tripled over 2007 levels under Forest Supervisor Mike Chaveas, who assumed control of the 204,000 acres of federal land in 2014. In 2007, 2.2 million board feet of timber was harvested; it will top 7 million in 2018.

More than three-quarters of the 2018 logging is pines, according to information provided to Natural Bloomington by the Forest Service.

Another argument the government puts forward for clearcutting is that a “healthy” forest needs a mix of young and old vegetation. The unsightly tangle that is produced by a clearcut, it says, is good for a land that evolved and developed from flowing ice water to climax forest conditions for 10,000 years before white men intervened.

"The goal of this harvest was to transform the pine stands that helped heal the land back to a diverse, native hardwood forest," the sign says.

Hoosier National Forest photographs: Oriole Trail East.


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