From left, Lora Kemp, Jeff Marks and Kurt Kemp refer to themselves as the “Tree Amigos,” advocating for the preservation of recreational areas in the Owen-Putnam State Forest. Photo by Whitney Downard | CNHI Statehouse Bureau
From left, Lora Kemp, Jeff Marks and Kurt Kemp refer to themselves as the “Tree Amigos,” advocating for the preservation of recreational areas in the Owen-Putnam State Forest. Photo by Whitney Downard | CNHI Statehouse Bureau
OWEN-PUTNAM STATE FOREST — Kurt and Lora Kemp, husband and wife, spend much of their time hiking the trails of the Owen-Putnam State Forest, exploring the natural rock formations and foraging for mushrooms.

“When we’re at home, we want to be here,” Kurt Kemp, 60, said. “And when we’re here, we don’t want to be anywhere else.”

The Kemps, along with friend Jeff Marks, whose property borders the forest, spearhead efforts to preserve the forest’s recreational opportunities and biodiversity as “Friends of the Forest.” But on one of their hikes in February, they noticed telltale red spray paint marking trees to be sold as part of a lumber harvest.

With more than 7,000 acres of forest, the Kemps emphasized that logging happens, especially since the Division of Forestry and its parent agency, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, rely on the sale of timber for funding. On Wednesday, the department closed the fourth and final Owen-Putnam State Forest sale listed for this fiscal year.

Rather, it’s the location of the marked trees along popular trails and near Rattlesnake Campground, which they say diminishes the recreational value of the area. They’ve been told the timber could be listed for sale in the next fiscal year, which starts in July.

“Why not let it just be a campground and recreation space?” Lora Kemp, 57, said. “Every single inch of the forest doesn’t have to be a logging operation… You’re changing the makeup of this recreational area forever.”

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) said that research drives its management program for all of the state’s forest, including the 3,000 acres set aside as nature preserves, out of 823,258 total government-managed acres, that will never be harvested.

RATTLESNAKE CAMPGROUND AND BRIDLE TRAIL

The Rattlesnake Campground sits in a 77-acre area, known as Compartment 4 Tract 12. Public comment for management in the area closed in November 2013, nearly a decade before the state marked any trees for harvesting.

The Resource Management Guide, in effect until 2033, advocated for a timber harvest within two years of publication, assessing the tree stock to be 109% of capacity, with a focus on harvesting maple, beech and sassafras trees.

Between 2014 and 2030, the next scheduled timber inventory, the guide advised no action in the forest.

DNR said that it believes a 20-year cycle “best fits with the natural progress of the forest,” hence why the management plan spans two decades.

“Trees marked are done so to maintain overall forest health by thinning and to remove potential hazard trees,” DNR said in response to an emailed list of questions.

All tracts have their own 20-year management plan and the Division of Forestry hosts a virtual “Open House” where it says the public can openly discuss management guides and plans.

The department didn’t confirm whether or not DNR had a buffer zone for recreational areas or private properties that abut the forest.

Less than 200 yards from the campground, red marks denote which trees will be harvested — rings around merchantable, or profitable, trees, and dots on trees that can be used for firewood. The guide notes the site has good access on the one-lane, pockmarked Fish Creek Road but doesn’t clarify how the equipment will avoid the pre-existing campsite between the road and marked trees.

Surrounding the Rattlesnake Campground is the Blue Bridle Trail, a 9.8-mile multi-use trail which makes up the vast majority of the forest’s official trails and crosses several tracts. Nearly every time the Kemps hike the area, they note newly marked trees for harvesting.

“We don’t know how much they’re planning on taking out of here,” Kurt Kemp said.

Marks, seeing the extent of the marked trees for the first time on Wednesday, lamented the loss of the trees, many of which served as trail markers.

“I don’t know what’ll be left. It’ll be the Owen-Putnam State field,” Marks said.

The trio expressed frustration with their communication with DNR, saying they only received vague answers to their detailed questions. Asking whether a tree marked “ST” denoted a skid trail, or access road for heavy equipment used in logging, didn’t even get a response.

“We get replies but we don’t get answers,” Kurt Kemp said. “We can’t get more answers about what’s going on. They keep referring us to a nineyear- old guide… they treat us like the enemy.”

HOW TO MANAGE A FOREST

Environmentalists disagree about how to manage natural resources such as forests, which are a key solution for trapping carbon and easing rapid climate change.

DNR says on its website that “periodic timber removal assists in maintaining the overall health of the forest” and has steadily increased the amount of trees it sells to loggers since 2001.

Marks advocated for a more hands-off approach when it came to forest management, noting natural processes in decaying trees that mimicked human management methods such as “girdling,” where the exterior of a tree is stripped to slowly kill the tree and provide an animal habitat.

“I know the trees will grow back but nature will do it — nature doesn’t need our intervention,” Marks said.

The trio called the current rate of logging unsustainable and pushed DNR to consider other areas for timber harvests. Marks even claims that the state undersells the forest, “giving away” the state forest for pennies, as detailed in an Indiana Forest Alliance analysis.

DNR emphasized that each sale was unique and depended on weather, staffing and location – meaning timelines for sales could vary greatly from tract to tract.

“After all the oversight for compliance with internal reviews and statue requirements are met, then a planned activity – whether it’s a harvest, prescribed burn or other management activity – can move forward,” DNR said.

For the Kemps, the sale process seems to accelerate with every complaint they register.

“We don’t go to movies – we come here and we want future generations to enjoy it too,” Kurt Kemp said.
© 2022 Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.