Morton Marcus: Indiana’s forests are well worth protecting

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marcus-morton-viewpoint.png“Concealed Costs and Hidden Values” is the appropriately named new report issued by the Indiana Forest Alliance. It uncovers important questions about state forest timber sales.

Before we go any further, be aware that I had a role in the development of the report. However, the final document goes beyond my contribution in both detail and quality of exposition.

Few Americans know about Indiana’s forests. We are, to the outsider, a flat land of corn and soybeans through which cars and trucks race to get somewhere else. Likewise, millions of Hoosiers, mostly living north of Interstate 70, are unaware of our beautiful and historically significant forests.

To create farmland, settlers cut down the trees. Later, our abundant forests became the raw material for a booming furniture industry, parts of which survive despite globalization. Nonetheless, woodlands still account for 22 percent of Indiana’s land area, an asset of unmeasured value.

Yet state forests account for only 3 percent of our forested area (0.7 percent of Indiana’s total land area). The vast majority (85 percent) of our forests are privately owned and three-quarters of those are in tracts of less than 25 acres.

Why do we have state forests at all? We don’t have state corn or soybean fields. State government does not raise hogs or cows, alfalfa or tulips. Why? Because our state forests are more than commercial enterprises existing to sell timber.

State forests do not exist to commemorate the past, although they are excellent reminders of what used to be. They were established to protect the future—to protect the land from erosion and the waterways from pollution, and to sustain a natural environment for plants and animals, including humans.

Although they have a recreational purpose, state forests are distinct from state parks, which are sculptured for visitors. State parks have inns and restaurants, conference facilities, picnic areas, and a variety of hiking trails. State forests, by comparison, are bare-bones nature.

Why then has Indiana increased timber cutting in its state forests over the past decade? To make money, to bring in less than $5 million annually for a state with a $2 billion surplus.

The IFA report shows that, as a commercial enterprise, our timber selling “business” fails to disclose its costs, thereby claiming questionable profitability. As an institution, the Division of Forestry in the Department of Natural Resources discloses little about the full cost of the timbering program. For example, forest road construction for timbering is not counted as a cost. Nor is the damage to county and state roads and bridges recognized as a cost of logging.

Interestingly, the Division of Forestry will not allow anyone, including legislators, to view the cut-over land or take pictures of the activity. If this is good stewardship of our land, what does the state have to hide?•


Marcus is an economist and former director of Indiana University’s Business Research Center.

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