Forest Management at NSWC Crane

By Trent Osman

The story of forestry management at Crane is not so different than many public properties throughout southern Indiana.  The forests of Crane were purchased during the Great Depression era under a federal program within the Farm Securities Administration (FSA).  The FSA was tasked to find land under cultivation that was susceptible to erosion, purchase the land, and return the land back to its proper forest coverage.  From 1935 to 1939, approximately 32,000 acres were purchased.  The original plans were to create multiple reservoirs of a smaller size to provide recreational opportunities to the local towns of Mountain Springs, Blankenship, Owensburg, and Burns City.  Instead, planners decided to create what was at the time the largest manmade lake in the state when they dammed First Creek and created 800-acre Lake Greenwood.  With a marina, arboretum, cabins, campsites and miles of hiking trails it was dedicated on 15-September of 1939 as the White River Land Utilization Project.

A mere 4 months later US Navy surveyors were on site drawing up plans for purchasing additional land to provide for a ordnance storage facility for Navy weaponry.  With the war heating up in Europe, the Navy was in desperate need to store their munitions out of the range of a bombing raid from and squadron of planes launched from an enemy Aircraft Carrier.  An additional 35,000 acres were purchased by the Navy without regard to productivity of the soil and inhabitant to create a contiguous block of land in which the installation could be created.  The towns of Mountain Springs and Blankenship were totally engulfed and are but a gathering of foundation stones today.   On December 1st, 1941, the Installation was dedicated as Naval Ammunitions Depot, Burns City.  The town that would provide the modern name given to the installation would not be constructed until 1944 and bear the name of the first Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, Commodore William Montgomery Crane. 

Forest Management plans were initially created and carried out by the nearby US Forest Service Office in Lawrence County.  The first Navy-employed forester was hired in the mid-1950’s and oversaw a large part of the reforestation effort.  Much of the construction of the installation left the landscape highly eroded and in need of repair.  Thousands of acres of reforestation and erosion control were performed throughout the 1950’s.  In 1957, the first large scale soil and water conservation project was undertaken.  The Boggs Creek Watershed project had plans for the construction of 2 medium sized flood control structures and numerous other smaller flood control ponds.  It also included aspects of forest and wildlife management.  Dedicated in 1961, it was the first Navy generated landscape level natural resources project at Crane.

In September 1960, the Department of Defense created its own, internally funded Forestry and Natural Resources program with the Sikes Act.  By the end of the 1960’s the US Navy funded Crane Foresters were authoring their own long term forest management plans and conducting timber harvests and were on their way to establishing the most profitable Forestry program within the US Navy. 

The 1960s saw mostly improvement and cull cuts throughout the landscape.  With the majority of the land having been under cultivation a mere 25 years prior, the harvests were intended to prepare for the future.  The 1970s saw a slowdown in the amount of harvesting with the exception to a small increase in the mid-1970s to salvage a 3,000 acre area defoliated by the forest-tent caterpillar.  The 1980s was the decade in which a small increase in harvesting occurred but the program itself was still not creating a substantial profit.  Other than paying for the staff foresters and funding the supplies, the forest was just beginning to reach its full potential. 

The plan drafted in 1990, which would run through the year 2000, was the plan that began to reap what had been sown in the past 4 decades of management.  Harvesting levels increased from an annual harvest of approximately 315,000 boardfeet to approximately 2,300,000 boardfeet.  Average harvested acreage went from a 226 acre per year average to nearly 1,350 acres.  During this decade, the Forestry program at Crane skyrocketed past all other Navy installations as the most profitable and productive in the Navy. 

With Crane’s thin, unglaciated soils the production of the highly prized black walnut (Juglans nigra) is very limited.  Black cherry (Prunus serotina) is another highly profitable tree requiring the deep, rich soils found more to the north of the state.  White oak (Quercus alba), Black Oak (Quercus velutina), and hickory (Carya ovata and glabra) make up the species most suited for the poor soils of Crane.  In addition, Tulip Poplar (Liriodendran tulipifera) is making up a larger and larger portion of the landscape in the absence of burning and grazing as time goes on.  While this is certainly a tree of value, it is problematic as it is highly susceptible to drought stress on the soils at Crane as the summers of 2012 and 2013 have shown. Small group selection opening on Crane five years post-harvest.

With the goal focusing on Oak regeneration, the harvesting method employed is a single-tree selection with group selections when applicable.  Typically the group selections are placed on south or west aspects where the oak regeneration is able to better compete with the faster growing tulip poplar.  From time to time, fire is utilized but it is not a viable option to burn on a large scale due to conflicts with the military mission.  Another method that is assisting in maintaining an oak component is through a “weeding and cleaning” style of Crop Tree Release within 10 years of creating an opening.  This work is performed on contract bid upon by local consulting foresters with the goal of selecting the oak within a regeneration opening and releasing them from competition.  Our 30-year harvest rotation will usually allow us to re-enter the stand and release these same oaks again during the next harvest. 

Crane has its share of challenges as well.  The ever growing challenge of invasive species is an ongoing battle.  Each year, approximately $50,000 is spent on fighting the battle in keeping ailanthus, autumn olive and bush honeysuckle at bay.  Kudzu eradication is a seemingly reachable goal and the “next big invasive”, callery pear (Pyrus calleryana), is especially bad at Crane due to an abandoned nursery on station. 

Another challenge is achieving silvicultural goals while being located within the summertime flying range of the Indiana bat.  In order to keep from taking, or killing, one of these endangered bats, Crane has elected to follow the USFWS guidelines set forth to protect the bat and its habitat.  The major guidelines are restricting harvesting to the months of October through March, leaving the shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) uncut, maintaining at least a 60% canopy coverage throughout the stand, and leaving undisturbed riparian buffers along streams.  The greatest of these challenges has been the harvesting during the time of year when the weather is typically less suitable.  The companies are required to perform extra duties to avoid soil compaction and erosion including having a dozer equipped with a 6-way blade on site at all times, shut down skidding operations when damage is likely to occur, and repair all soil damage before performance bond will be released.  While this may slightly impact the value of the timber, the overall cost is low. 

Crane is now well underway with its 3rd decade in the “modern” era since the elevated harvesting began in 1990.  The latest timber inventories are indicating even with the harvesting levels at approximately 3,000,000 board feet per year, we are cutting merely 40% of what we are growing annually.  This fact will ensure that there will be a viable forest resource here for as long as there are hands willing to manage it.


Trent Osman is a forester for the Naval Surface Warfare Center - Crane.