Save Owen Putnam State Forest

Working To Save Special Places

March 5, 2023

As I stood on the stump, where a once magnificent tree had stood, I gulped as I tried to catch my breath. To realize in such a short time, so much damage can be done, and so much of nature can be changed forever. In less than a year’s time, this piece of public land was marked, sold, and harvested. A beloved recreation area to the locals for years, the iconic Rattlesnake Campground Area has been home to campers, hikers, horseback riders, mushroom hunters, and much more importantly, it has been a home for nature; an ecological “treasure trove.” Deep woods creatures like beaver, badgers, woodcocks, and bobcats venture here and as I stood on that old decaying stump, I could not help but feel a haunting emptiness. It was not just the emptiness of looking across the holler and seeing the large Tulip Poplar (a tree we dubbed the Matriarch) we fought to save, decreased to a stump; it was the feeling that everything has a right to be. There is a lot to be said for the rights of nature, and I am willing to speak up for them.

For three years, in the Owen-Putnam State Forest in Indiana, we surveyed the Compartment 4 Area for a High Conservation Value Forest Area. The flora and fauna in the Owen County hills, along with the water features and unique geological features, create this forest’s unique beauty. The Area also represents the conditions desirable for the best foraging and recreation opportunities - from pawpaws to persimmons, walnuts and berries: from horseback riding, to hunting, hiking and nature observation, this area had it all. Threatened and endangered species both flora and fauna exist here. The historical and cultural resources in the area range from Abner Fraziers tombstone (1799-1864) to remnants of old homesteads and the Cooksie Sawmill from the 1800 still exist in the area. The very same week we turned our High Conservation Value Forest Proposal into the Indiana Division of Forestry, they put Compartment 4, Tract 12, up for sale, the very tract the campground was in.

In Indiana, in 2005, the Indiana Division of Forestry burdened our PUBLIC LAND-Indiana’s State Forests, with a near 400% increase in logging, under the guise of giving our state forests a “Silviculture Prescription” (notice how they make it sound medical, even scientific). Now it is 2023, and that 400% increase is bringing industrial logging into areas that used to be “too steep to log,” “too vulnerable,” “too close to historical sights,” “Endangered species could be present,” what the IN DoF consider (and US Forest Service if you are talking about federal land) BMPs (Best Management Practices) took a distinct change, and not for the better, if you are nature. Now with a management plan with continuous harvests, proposed controlled burns, chemicals, and timber stand improvement, the very nature of this unique area will be changed.

Of Indiana’s 158,000 acres of State Forest Land, 60,000 acres used to be set aside for NO LOGGING; recreation, and nature, and to protect water resources, perhaps enough of an area for natural evolution to occur. Currently, in 2023, only 4,000 acres of Indiana’s State Forest Land is set aside for NO LOGGING: 97% of our state forest land has been turned into “Commercial Forest.” Here in Indiana, we are seeing our valued recreation areas turned into industrial timber harvest log yards; our once beautiful public lands have been placed under a transformation with the “Stewards” of our public lands pandering to a timber industry and leaving the public out of the equation of OUR public lands.

The Owen-Putnam Friends of the Forest received almost 3,000 signature’s on a petition we took to the Indiana DNR, DoF, and to the Governor. Realize, this is a campground area, a family recreation area, full of historical and cultural sites, telling the story of Indiana’s pioneers who helped settle this state, not to mention all of the indigenous peoples that came before “us.” The Rattlesnake Campground Tract makes up 74 acres, and only 55 of them were harvested. The OPSF has 84 tracts, containing 6,589 acres, so why was it necessary to harvest this 55 acres in the middle of the most prized recreation area in OUR state forest? (Some people say they did it to shut us up, but they should have realized, it is only going to make us yell louder.)

The Owen-Putnam SF makes up only 4% of Indiana’s State Forests, yet produces 14% of the net yield of timber in the state of Indiana. Since 2018, over 2,104,624 board feet have been hauled out of this state forest aecting our water quality, our roads, and our quality of life.

Now, one year and one day since the first sign of “graffiti” in the forest at Rattlesnake Campgrounds appeared, it’s gone; a sale rushed through on lies and ill intentions. And now, the Division of Forestry is going into Compartment 4, Tract 8 with a prescribed burn in just a few short weeks (spring 2022); an area where walnuts, box turtles, woodcocks abandoned rare frogs abound. Water spouts from the hillside, and seep springs flow from the forest floor and area that will be ruined by fire. (Funny thing is, I just read where the US Forest Service is dedicated to burning 11 million acres of forest to restore woodcock habitat; they do realize woodcocks are forest floor dwelling birds, and when they come into an area where they do exist, they will most likely kill them off?)

In a time when the effects of Climate Change on the forest are more prevalent than ever, saving forests should be a priority. Forest defense is climate defense. All of our public lands are burdened with the false solutions of a timber industry driven policy that is changing the face of the public forest forever. There are special places worth saving, worth fighting for. Our work is hard, but we are strong. Wendelll Berry wrote “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” I will work to defend mine.

The “health” of the forest should not just be about Merchantable timber, but the health of every living organism in that forest. Nature has a right to be left alone in places, especially on public land. We all have our “special places worth saving.” Take a stand for public land, whether it is National Forests, State Land, county, or city land, public spaces belong to “We the People.” But more importantly, it is the legacy we will leave to our children, their children, and so on down the line.

“Forest Defenders remember, with others, we can be powerful: find your allies, and speak with one voice, and we will make more noise than we ever would have imagine.” Thank you for hearing our voice.

Lora Kemp, Chairperson Owen-Putnam Friends of the Forest

Sierra Club Hoosier Chapter Executive Committee, Conservation Committee


Graffiti in the Forest: The State of YOUR State Forest
by Lora Kemp, Chairperson Owen-Putnam Friends of the Forest, IFA Board Member

August 19, 2022

The Owen-Putnam State Forest is the hidden gem of Owen County, Indiana, often overshadowed by the accessibility of McCormick's Creek State. The Owen-Putnam State Forest (OPSF) offers the ‘wild,’ the real nature experience: the hills, the hollars, the waterways; a geologist's paradise adorned by rock outcroppings, limestone and sandstone bluffs, mountain bike trails, hiking, horseback riding, orienteering, foraging, and hunting. Two Nature Preserves exist inside the Owen-Putnam State Forest
containing aquifers and endangered plants. With more people exploring outdoor adventure opportunities, Indiana's State Forests are a great place to explore. Recreation Areas like Rattlesnake Campground Area, are the perfect place for the maximum outdoor experience. From wildlife, to rocks, to water, to hills, the Rattlesnake Campground Area in the OPSF offers all of these great experiences.

Imagine walking into this beautiful forest area on a cold February morning and seeing *blood red paint sprayed on the very trees surrounding the Campground; an area highly used for recreation in the OPSF. The shock of “Graffiti in the Forest” was horrifying to say the least, unlike a building or a bridge being defaced by art or expression, these red paint marks were a death sentence for these trees that bore the marks. When Kurt Kemp came across this in the Owen-Putnam in February 2022, something did not add up.

The Campground Area, an area purchased by the state of Indiana in the 1960’s, had never been logged since it had been in state control. Much of the area around Rattlesnake Campgrounds had once been a thriving community near the town of Atkinsville, just south of Cataract Village. Traces of early settlers surround the Campground Area with old tombstones, tombs, and the remnants of homesteads, places where early homesteaders (1830’s) came because the fresh water springs flowing from the
hillsides. Due to the wetness and steepness of the area, and the high recreational value, the previous forester and property manager did not target the Rattlesnake Campground Area for a Timber Harvest. But there it was: Rattlesnake Campground Area, February 2022, being marked in red paint, for an Industrial Timber Harvest.

On further investigation, Kurt found the Timber Harvest on Compartment 4, Tract 12, (C4,T12) was not listed for the following fiscal year, nor the next. Seeing the irregularities, and the red paint in the forest, put a red flag up. We took our concerns to the state house. (When I say ‘we,’ I mean Jeff Marks, Kurt Kemp, and Lora Kemp, also known as the “Tree Amigos”) Since the IFA helped the Owen-Putnam Friends of the Forest form in 2017, our group has advocated for State Forest issues concerning the increase in logging implemented by the state and the IN Division of Forestry in the early 2000’s. Having made ourselves familiar with our congressmen, we made the irregularities known to our State Senator and Representatives and continued to advocate through attending our third house meetings, keeping our congressmen apprised of the intention to change this great Hoosier Recreation Area forever.

More irregularities occurred; the RMG comment period had been released in 2013, so the public had not had a chance to comment on the area since then. According to the IN DOF, “There are no old RMGs. RMGs can be used at any time during the management cycle from now until 2042, without any more public notice, inventory, or current data.” The 30 day comment period had been over for years, with no current Public Comment period offered. The Owen-Putnam Friends of the Forest decided to act. We
started a petition, both online and hand-signed signatures (reaching over 2,500 to date). We held meetings at our local library to educate the public. We brought awareness to the Owen-Putnam State Forest, we brought awareness to state forest issues, but we suspected, having dealt with the IN DOF before, ‘they’ were going to rush the sale as soon as the new fiscal year occurred. Our suspicions were correct.

After spending the past three years surveying the Compartment 4 Area to be considered for a High Conservation Value Forest, we believe the Area around Rattlesnake Campground is a special area worth saving for its ecological, its historical, and recreational value to the citizens of Indiana. The HCVF request covers most tracts in the Compartment 4 Area of the OPSF. We knew if there was any hope of saving this area, we had to get a HCV Proposal submitted. An HCV would help protect endemic species to sacred sites in the Area, protecting natural habitats, especially forests, containing high environmental & social values such as watershed protection, archeological sites, and wildlife habitat: all of the reasons we call this a special place worth saving.

Around the same time we submitted the HCV Proposal, in July of 2022, the Division of Forestry put the Rattlesnake Campground Tract (C4, T12) up for a timber sale. Nine days into the new fiscal year, a Tract in the Owen-Putnam State Forest that had not even been previously on the books for the current fiscal year was now slated “For Sale,” only 9 days into the current fiscal year; one of the fastest sales ever recorded in a new fiscal year. Despite the efforts of the Owen-Putnam Friends of the Forest, on August 9, 2022, C4, T12, the Rattlesnake Campground tract was sold for 28 cents a board foot. The Sale Contract states the purchaser has one year to remove the timber. Most State Forest Timber Sales are given two years, but just like in the Salamonie State Forest Sale, the Timber MUST BE REMOVED WITHIN one Year, not normal.

The Owen-Putnam Friends of the Forest ask three questions: Why at all? Why now? What is the rush? (It surely isn't for the money.) We know the recent Salamonie State Forest Sale had only brought six cents a board foot. The Division of Forestry always says “It is for the health of the forest.” but a healthy, thriving forest area exists in Compartment 4, in the Owen-Putnam State Forest. Not only does the area have a diverse tree species population, it also has a wide variety of plants and animals, some
perhaps rare and endangered. In a time when Climate Change continues to have an impact on indiana’s forests, preserving habitat is crucial to preserving species. Not every inch of Public Land needs to be considered "Commercial," as some areas need to be set aside for nature. At one time, of the 158,000 acres of Indiana State Forest Land, 60,000 acres were set aside for no logging, for the preservation of species both flora & fauna; now only 4,000 acres, of Indiana's 158,000 acres, are set aside for no logging. That is only 3 % of OUR PUBLIC LAND set aside for nature & future generations. We can do better than that, for our wildlife, ecology, hydrology, & for our children & grandchildren.

More disturbing than anything is the fact when the Division of Forestry was asked “What rare and endangered species are in ‘this’ forest?” we are always given the answer “Refer to the Natural Data Heritage Base” and in the case of the Owen-Putnam, when we received information from the NDHB , the Natural Data Heritage Base gave the location of the Nine Seeps Nature Preserve in a completely different tract and area than it is located in. On further investigation, we discovered the Natural Datat Heritage
Base had not conducted a study in the Owen-Putnam State Forest since 1985. There has not been an environmental assessment of this area since the 1980’s for rare and endangered species. A helicopter was flown over the Owen-Putnam State Forest in the 1980s and it was deemed at that time the forest was not a Potential Natural Area, because “From an aerial survey, the ravine bottoms were eliminated because the trees were too young and dense. The upland portion required a field check. The field check, conducted in 1985, determined that the woods were good, with some white oaks to 2 feet in diameter at breast height, but that it was not significant from a natural area standpoint.” IN DNR Source

Even the Indiana Division of Nature Preserves and Natural Data Heritage Base do not know what is in this forest right now, and they have not conducted a survey since the 1980s, and even then, part of it was from a helicopter. What about the consideration for rare and endangered species such as bats or ostrich ferns?

The fact remains, on August the 9, 2022, the Division of Forestry sold the timber in Compartment 4, Tract 12 at Rattlesnake Campground. There is more to a forest than trees. Since 2018, the Indiana Division of Forestry has removed 1,623,071 board feet of timber off of less than 7,000 acres of the Owen-Putnam State Forest. Of the 84 Tracts in the OPSF, 34 have been “managed” sor timbered since 2015, 8 more have either been opened for comment, marked, or put up for sale. Over one half of the
Owen-Putnam has been managed for a “Silviculture Prescription.” In the Indiana State Forest System, the Owen-Putnam State Forest only makes up about 7% of the state forest system, yet 14% of the annual harvest total from Indiana’s State Forest comes from the Owen-Putnam State Forest. How is this sustainable?

From the time the Owen-Putnam Friends discovered the “Graffiti in the Forest” until now, it has only been eight months. Now, we visit the forest, knowing her fate, and visit her like a hospice patient, knowing that this time next year, the face of this very special area will have been changed forever. Instead of having graffiti on the trees, we will be left with stumps in the forest, in an area where the value of the forest standing far outweighs the mere .28 cents a board foot, the IN DOF received.

The Owen-Putnam Friends of the Forest continue to work with our partners and environmental leaders in the state, the Indiana Forest Alliance and the Sierra Club, to help educate people on State Forest Issues. The State Forests belong to the citizens of Indiana and the management style of a Division of Forestry has lost sight of what the people of Indiana want for their state forests; healthy wildlife and habitat, quality of life, and a natural outdoor experience, but most regrettable is the fact that this magical Special Place Worth Saving will be lost due to the prideful behavior of the state, and the Indiana Division of Forestry.