Project to Help Restore Indiana Forests, Habitat gets $1M Grant
By Carol Kugler
Just more than $1 million in federal funds has been awarded for a program to help restore forests, reduce wildfire threats, protect water supplies and improve wildlife habitats in 18 southern Indiana counties.
The Hoosier National Forest and the Indiana Natural Resources Conservation Service were awarded funds through the Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership. The Indiana project, known as the Hoosier Hills and Highlands Oak Community Restoration Partnership, received the third-highest dollar amount in the country for 2016 projects.
In all, about $7 million will be given to 11 new projects, and $33 million will continue to fund 28 existing projects. All the money is given through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“We were the only one in the Northeast and Midwest that was selected,” said Mike Chaveas, forest supervisor for the Hoosier National Forest. “It’s one of the larger (projects) in terms of dollar amounts. That’s a pretty big deal for Indiana.”
He explained that the joint chiefs of the U.S. Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service work together to fund and administer the partnership project.
“We just learned we got the funding,” Chaveas said. “Now, we will prioritize the funding and what we will do.”
The Indiana project will deal mainly with restoring oak forests and protecting the state’s waters on both public and private lands. The project will be funded for the next three years. “There’s a need for oak restorations across southern Indiana,” Chaveas said.
The Hoosier National Forest will mainly work on public lands, while the Natural Resources Conservation Service will focus on privately owned land. “A lot of their funds will go to help with invasive species management, help get more sunlight to the ground for oak species and oak regeneration,” he said.
The national forest work will include efforts to eradicate non-native invasive plant species and work on adding more oak trees to the forest. It will also include removing small dams or barriers that inhibit the movement of fish and
other aquatic species. Some of the funds could be transferred to help with erosion control on state forest lands, Chaveas said.
Chaveas said having the Forest Service and NRCS work together makes sense since both are sister agencies within the Department of Agriculture. Both agencies also will be working with a number of other groups and agencies, including the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Defense, soil and water conservation districts, the Nature Conservancy, the State Department of Agriculture, Sycamore Land Trust, the National Wild Turkey Federation and the National Audubon Society.
“A lot of those groups are working more on the private forest lands,” said Shannon Zezula, state resource conservationist with the Indiana Natural Resources Conservation Service. Zezula said educating landowners about how to help young oak trees thrive and establish proper conditions for oak seedlings to grow will be a large part of what his agency does.
“There’s a whole host of reasons that oaks are on the decline,” he said, adding that his agency plans to work with its partners to spread the message about oak restoration in Hoosier woodlands. “We’re kind of seeing small oak trees declining across the landscape,” Zezula said. There have to be areas of open canopy to allow sunlight to make its way to the forest floor for oak seedlings to survive.
“To complicate that, we have a whole host of invasive species out there,” Zezula said. Those invasive plants compete with oaks and other trees for sunlight and space.
Zezula said some people want to take a hands-off approach to forested land in Indiana.
“The public often wants a park, not scrub and shrub,” he said, adding that a parklike setting is not a healthy forest. What is needed is selective cutting of trees, he said. “It is OK to cut some trees down, because that’s what’s needed to get those oaks regenerated. We’re talking three or four trees together to let sunlight into the forest.”
Zezula said his agency also will work with landowners on controlling soil erosion and water quality. Erosion can then affect wooded areas as well as wildlife, including cave fish and other endangered creatures that live in habitats that are threatened.
Since the project funding was only recently announced, Zezula echoed Chaveas, saying that the logistics of the project are still being worked out. Even so, any landowner who is interested in learning more can contact the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in his or her county. Information on the local centers is at www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/in/contact/local.
In addition to still having to determine what this year’s efforts will actually be, Chaveas said it will be difficult to determine what will be done in the next two years because the level of funding has yet to be set. “We don’t know and won’t know what funding we will get for the next two years until Congress approves the budget,” he said.
Carol Kugler is a writer for the Bloomington Herald-Times, (812) 331-4359, firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was originally published on February 28, 2016 by the Bloomington Herald-Times and was reprinted with permission.