HEE field supervisor Jeff Riegel and student assembling a moth trap.

Forest Stewards

~by Jim Eagleman

These forested hills of ours are quite the attraction. Year ’round, visitors come to Brown County to enjoy their time in a variety of ways. The ever-present woodland views take center stage. The forest—its colors, vastness and its wildlife—is part of what is known as the Central Hardwoods Region.
Are you a forest steward?
The forests of the eastern US face many challenges. Forest management, specific to Brown County, is handled by private land and camp owners, state and federal land managers, and land trust organizations. These individuals are periodically brought together by the Nature Conservancy’s Brown County Hills (BCH) project manager, Dan Shaver, to discuss issues important to their land: forest diseases, invasive species, management options, research, etc. Sustainable forest management, while maintaining a contiguous forest for conservation purposes, is the main BCH goal. Land parcels are represented in seven southern Indiana counties and comprise more than 350,000 acres.
Of course, the BCH is also a place we residents call home. We live and work here, play host to our visitors, create, and rest. It’s fair to say this place, our forest, is a magnet to both wildlife and humans.
The professional forester has a responsibility to help others understand forest management. They possess an innovative set of management options for the maintenance of healthy forest ecosystems. Some options raise public objections when applied to public lands, for example, types of timber harvest and prescribed fire. The effects on forests and their native inhabitants are often poorly understood.
Since the forest is home to many kinds of birds and animals, forest managers must take their needs and requirements into account.
As populations for some forest organisms decline, restrictions to landowners may increase because species become classified as endangered or threatened. An example is the Indiana Bat. Increasing populations of other species like white-tailed deer, and invasive species create economic and ecologic challenges. Compounding the problem is the lack of scientifically rigorous research on the overall impacts for forest management of the effected ecosystem and its components.
To address these issues, the Hoosier Ecosystem Experiment (HEE) was initiated in 2006. It is a long-term (100 years), and large-scale study of forest management and its impacts.

HEE students attending plant I.D. class

HEE students attending plant I.D. class.

Researchers from Purdue University, Ball State University, Indiana State University, Drake University, and the University of Indianapolis are involved with the HEE and provide students and faculty. Support also comes from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
Academics from these and other schools agree the oak and hickory forests are in peril in Indiana, as they review historic accounts. Changes in disturbances such as fire, grazing, and timber harvesting—common when the land was first occupied by Native Americans and early settlers—have resulted in changing forest composition. Mature oaks and hickories now dominate the forest canopy, but they are not regenerating naturally. HEE researchers are studying what types of forest management can help maintain oak and hickory trees in our forests and what effects different types of tree harvesting have on the forest ecosystem. Tree harvesting types, or treatments, include clearcuts, patch cuts, single tree removal, shelterwood, or no harvest. Recently prescribed fire on some sites has been added to the protocol.
Baseline data is collected by teams of students on a plot before any manipulation is conducted. Animals inventoried by HEE students include bats, beetles, birds, moths, salamanders, small mammals, spiders, shrubs, herbaceous species, and fungi. Once data from these taxa are collected, different types of harvest treatments are conducted on a variety of management units, including even and uneven aged stands in Morgan-Monroe and Yellowwood State Forests. Following a cut, another assessment is conducted to document what species are still present and what have changed.
Now in its 14th year, incredible volumes of data have already been collected, assimilated, and reviewed. “The more we look, the more we need to look further”, says Jeff Riegel, HEE field supervisor. Trends may develop but it’s too early to tell what impact treatments have on certain species of birds and animals. “There’s a lot to look at,” says Jeff.
Forest stewardship can mean we watch for accidental wildfires, remove alien plant species harmful to native vegetation, or conduct periodic harvests of mature trees. It can also mean we watch the current research that delves into what were mere mysteries a few years ago. We can learn what species may benefit from a cut, and what needs protection. Some species need sun-basking areas a single tree cut can provide, while neo-tropic songbirds that nest here may need larger openings for foraging. The oaks, a prime player and major food producer, can benefit from forest openings as sunlight bathes the forest floor allowing acorns to flourish.
Forest stewardship can also mean I wish to do nothing and let my woods mature while I live with them.
As research continues to reveal the necessities of a healthy forest and its inhabitants, we can feel assured that sound science will provide many answers for good decision-making.