Environmental groups file second suit in opposition to Hoosier National Forest project

This oak-hickory forest is the main type of woods found in the Hoosier National Forest, which is included in the Central Hardwoods region that covers the southern portions of Indiana, Illinois and Missouri.

Four agencies — Indiana Forest Alliance, Monroe County Board of Commissioners, Hoosier Environmental Council and Friends of Lake Monroe — filed a second lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana on Jan. 25. The suit may delay or halt the start of a controversial logging and vegetation management project that was set to begin soon in the Hoosier National Forest.

The plaintiffs believe the Houston South Vegetation Management and Restoration Project will harm the water quality of Lake Monroe, which is the source of drinking water for more than 145,000 people.

The first three plaintiffs were part another lawsuit, filed in May 2020, to stop the Houston South project, which covers an area of more than 15,000 acres south of Lake Monroe. That first lawsuit is now being considered in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, where both the plaintiffs and defendants appealed the original court decision.

About the first lawsuit:Both sides win, lose in lawsuit over Hoosier National Forest Houston South project

The project, expected to take 10-15 years, includes commercial logging and controlled burns on land in Jackson and Lawrence counties.

The first lawsuit halted the Houston South project after the U.S. District Court ruled the Forest Service failed to "fully evaluate the environmental effects to Lake Monroe." In December, the Forest Service issued a 43-page Supplemental Information Report to comply with the court ruling. The Forest Service found no corrections or revisions to the initial environmental assessment were necessary.

As part of the project, trees would be cut on about 4,300 acres while controlled burns would happen on another 13,500 acres over more than a decade.  Though the project area includes more than 17,000 acres, that doesn't mean all of it will be logged or burned. Also, only portions of the logging and controlled burning would happen at one time, said Forest Supervisor Mike Chaveas, one of the defendants in both suits.

Houston South project map.

According to Chaveas, the project's long timeline allows the forest to recover before other areas are touched, providing a better mix of older and younger forest that will be more resilient and better able to handle changes in climate. Imbedded in the Houston South plan are efforts to provide better water quality, such as improving culverts and drainage along roads to lessen erosion.

Plaintiffs' reasons for second lawsuit

But the co-plaintiffs in the new lawsuit do not agree the Forest Service has adequately addressed how it would prevent negative impacts to Lake Monroe. They insist the Forest Service remains in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of proposed major projects before they begin.

These pine stands in the trail loop west of Thompson Cemetery in the Hoosier National Forest are in the area that is proposed for logging as part of the Houston South project.

"They did zero new analysis," said Tim Maloney, senior policy director at the Hoosier Environmental Council.

"We have chosen to take legal action as a last resort," said Sherry Mitchell-Bruker, president of Friends of Lake Monroe, in an email. "We much prefer that HNF work with local government to put appropriate safeguards in place that protect the municipal watershed."

Jeff Stant, executive director of the Indiana Forest Alliance, said the plaintiffs believe the Forest Service has not demonstrated how it will lessen the impact this project will have on erosion, sedimentation and algal blooms that will impact Lake Monroe.

Costs with first lawsuit:Monroe County's legal fees are rising in a suit over the U.S. Forest Service's logging plans

"They did not take the hard look that the court said they should take. Right now there is a problem with the South Fork (of Salt Creek) polluting Lake Monroe," Stant said, adding there is no monitoring planned for about one-fourth of the area, closest to Lake Monroe, that will be affected by the project. "No matter what happens there, they are not going to detect it. To us that's a serious problem in the monitoring program."

Hoosier National Forest shares reasons for project

Forest Service staff with the Hoosier National Forest have said they spend thousands of hours collecting data, conducting environmental analysis and do on-the-ground monitoring before, during and for decades after such projects are implemented.

"The Houston South project is absolutely critical for the long-term health and resilience of our forest ecosystems and the habitat they provide for all wildlife," said Chaveas, who lives with his family in Bloomington. "Use of a full suite of Best Management Practices, which are proven to be highly effective, along with stringent monitoring during and long after the project, the gradual pace of implementation, and the significant distance of the project from Lake Monroe assures protection of our water quality.

"Meanwhile, for the last three years litigation has prevented us from addressing problems that are causing erosion to the lake right now, such as fixing or relocating degrading roads and trails, and restoring stream flow due to poorly sized culverts under roads."

If the Forest Service moves forward with the Houston South project, HEC's Maloney said the plaintiffs will have to decide if they want to get an injunction to stop it, adding, "but we have not done that yet."

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: Second lawsuit opposes Houston South plan for Hoosier National Forest