By Sara Stewart
INDIANA — As spring slowly comes to Indiana, a battle is reheating over the fate of White’s Woods Nature Center, the 250-acre wooded tract of land owned by White Township.
For the third time in the past three decades, the township’s supervisors — chairman George E. Lenz, vice chairman Rich Gallo, Gail L. McCauley, A. Eugene Gemmell, and Sandi Gillette — are attempting to enact a forest management plan that includes extensive timbering of White’s Woods, with the new element of removing invasive species, all purportedly to improve forest health.
Also for the third time, the Friends of Whites Woods community group has come together to oppose what they say is greed-fueled overreach, faulty forestry planning and a lack of respect for public opinion.
This time, they say there’s a deliberate attempt by the township’s supervisors to use the Covid-19 stay-at-home order as cover for a plan that would likely meet with widespread disapproval. Again.
“I don’t think any of us is convinced that the supervisors’ main interest is the health of the forest,” FWW board member Jessica Jopp told the HawkEye. “They’ve thrown out the invasive species thing as their defense, but it’s hard to assess that, because their actions have been kind of dubious.”
THE TOWNSHIP is still awaiting feedback from the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources on the first phase of its plan. Supervisors approved Phase 1, the removal of invasive plants including Japanese barberry and stiltgrass,at their April meeting.
“We have not approved the harvesting [lumber] portion,” White Township manager Milt Lady told the HawkEye. “That may be delayed. I don’t know. That’s up to the board.”
Previous White Township logging plans for the woods, in 1995 and 2007, were defeated by public outcry galvanized into legal action. But the current plan raised an alarm when marked trees were spotted in the woods in early April.
Township officials had put the plan in motion with no notice given to the public. With a stay-at-home order still in effect as of early May, little opportunity has been available for opponents of the plan to weigh in at meetings, circulate petitions, hold rallies or otherwise organize the way they could under normal circumstances.
Ironically, White’s Woods has seen a steady stream of visitors during the pandemic, as restless town residents find a welcome recreational outlet in hiking and biking the forest’s miles of wooded trails. Visitors can easily spot the towering trees marked for logging, which are spray-painted with bright green or blue dots, many located along the main trail loop.
(The township maintains that dangerous or diseased trees have been marked, although observers may notice many of the marked trees seem healthy.)
If the township’s plan goes into effect this spring, at least 50 acres of these woods – about 20 percent — will be unavailable to the public for up to two of the warmer months. The tract will be cordoned off for the removal of invasives and logging of 250 mature trees.
According to the township, this is just the beginning: The 50-acre tract is one of five tracts shown on the forester’s maps.
“We’ve only looked at what the cut is going to be for Tract 1, which is 2.3 percent of the timber value in White’s Woods,” Lady said. “That’s the info we’re presenting to the DCNR. It’s only 50 acres. We have not looked at what the plan is [for the rest of the woods]. I think the forester has indicated there’s a couple of those tracts we might not even touch. Other areas, there may be more significant work. We’re not sure, until we see how Tract 1 plays out.”
He said the idea that the supervisors were using the pandemic to dodge public scrutiny was false.
“It’s just unfortunate that the virus hit in March, and we were caught right as we were finishing [forestry work at] the S&T Bank Arena Rec Complex and moving on to White’s Woods,” he said. “Timing is of the essence, to treat the invasives, which is why we’ve pushed this forward. This has been a work in progress for almost two years. I don’t think we tried to hide under the coronavirus situation. It’s just unfortunate timing.”
At their board meeting on April 22, township supervisors approved a $20,000 contract with the three-year-old, Marion Center-based company Millstone Land Management LLC. Its owner, 30-something Indiana native Mike Lawer, has already done the work at the township’s rec complex on East Pike Road.
Before the supervisors approved the contract, the meeting featured a number of heated exchanges with members of the public. Many called in, consistent with the stay-at-home order, though three board members of FWW attended in person, including attorney Robert Lambert.
The supervisors were repeatedly asked to convene a public hearing about the timbering plan. The audio of the webcast meeting was indistinct, but one supervisor was heard to insist that that the supervisors were “the most translucent [sic] group of people you’ll come into contact with.”
Board Chairman George E. Lenz said supervisors already had heard enough from the public in the 2007 controversy over cutting the woods.
“The only way I would support a public hearing at this point is if DCNR requested us to have one,” Lenz said.
FWW’s JOPP said it’s fairly obvious why the supervisors aren’t asking for feedback.
“My best guess is they know there would be overwhelming public backlash,” she said.
In spite of objections to hearing from the public, the supervisors seem to have had little choice in the matter. Lady acknowledged that the office has been receiving a high volume of calls and emails from residents alarmed about the impending logging.
But he said an unseen segment of the population supports the township’s plans.
“A lot of people have said to us that they feel the forest does need managed,” he said. “But they aren’t the vocal people who are going to come to meetings showing their support. The supervisors aren’t sure this vocal group is the majority, based on what people are telling them.”
Lady offered assurances.
“I’m kind of taken aback that people don’t think we have the best interests of the woods at heart here,” he added. “We’re not trying to wreck it or destroy it. We’re trying to improve it.”
Yet forestry professionals and scientists have voiced concern, including about damage from stormwater flooding due to the removal of 250 large trees.
Lady said Lawer selected the first tract specifically in an attempt to avoid harm.
“Tract 1 wasn’t randomly picked,” Lady said. “It’s an upland tract, in the higher elevation of White’s Woods. And because it’s dry at this time of year, it would minimize the damage to the forest floor, versus some of the steeper areas where it’s wet…. “That’s why this was picked, and why it’s such an odd shape on the map.”
It was not clear what research has been done on the subject, or how it would apply to the other tracts of the woods to be targeted in the near future.
A legal hurdle for the township may be the stipulations of Project 70, a 1964 state land acquisition and borrowing statute that FWW critics of the logging plan say requires the woods to be used for recreation, conservation and historical purposes only. Previous plans were rejected as their logging volume was deemed excessive.
“They keep using Project 70 against us,” Lady said. “I find that confusing. All the money we make, if any, would be put back into recreation.”
THE FORESTER HAS VALUED the trees in Tract 1 at $40,000. After costs, the township would make only about $13,000, Lady said.
“It’s going to be used to make new trails,” he said. “Obviously the signage in White’s Woods is terrible. We’d like to do some educational signage, maybe identifying trees or invasive plants. Possibly an educational amphitheater.”
Also, parking lots.
“There’s not enough parking,” Lady said. “Maybe if we do a landing zone for the timber operation, we would then further develop that into a parking area off Fulton Run Road. Maybe develop parking areas so people can more utilize it for recreational purposes.”
The township may spend some of the logging revenue at the rec complex on East Pike, Lady added.
Supervisors also have taken tentative steps to put a cell tower in the woods. The minutes of a February meeting include an executive session in which “George Lenz made a motion authorizing Milt Lady to proceed with the preliminary development of a cell tower on White’s Woods property. Rich Gallo seconded. The motion carried on a 4 to 1 vote.” (Supervisor Gene Gemmell cast the lone vote against the motion.)
But when supervisors were asked about it at the April 22 webcast meeting, they denied it had been in consideration.
Lady clarified and described conversations with the cell-tower representatives:
“I had a phone call, and they asked if we would be receptive to the possible location of a cell tower on that property,” Lady said. “But they haven’t been back to me since, so I don’t know if they’ve decided not to pursue it. It’s a long process. The only site we would consider would utilize the power line right of way. It would not go into the woods. We wouldn’t allow it to further develop any right of way.”
The overall plan is not a done deal. Friends of White’s Woods has already raised over $5,000 for legal funds in a little over a week. Members say they are optimistic about their chances.
“I’m confident we will be able to stop them,” said Jopp. “In the last plan, they proposed taking about 550,000 board feet, or 20 percent of the total volume of the park. And the DCNR said that was excessive. In this plan, if I’m reading it correctly, it would involve taking half of the total volume of 2.7 million board feet. The numbers are shocking to me.”
Next: The HawkEye interviews science and forestry experts about the township forest-management plan. Said one out-of-state lumber-valuation specialist: “This park will literally never be the same. There will be a lot of tears.”
Sara Stewart is a freelance journalist who writes for the New York Post, CNN.com and other publications. For The HawkEye, she has covered domestic violence during the Covid-19 pandemic and White’s Woods. She lives in Indiana and is a member of the Indiana Borough Council.
Sidebar: For more information/To get involved
For more information about this story or to engage in the issues addressed, contact the following sources:
White Township Board of Supervisors
George E. Lenz, chairman
Rich Gallo, vice chairman
Gail L. McCauley, supervisor
A. Eugene Gemmell, supervisor
Sandi Gillette, supervisor
Milton “Milt” Lady, township manager
950 Indian Springs Rd
Indiana, PA 15701
Forest management plans, April 2020: https://www.friendsofwhiteswoods.org/mgmt-plans
Michael S. Delaney
936 Philadelphia Street
Indiana, PA 15701-3939
Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Rachel Carson State Office Building
400 Market Street
Harrisburg, Pa. 17105
State Bureau of Forestry
Rachel Carson State Office
Building, 6th Floor
P.O. Box 8552
Harrisburg, PA 17105-8552