Crown Hill: A Successional Forest

Entrance to the proposed Veterans Administration Columbarium will be on the south side of the intersection of 42nd Street and Fairview Terrace.

Much of the controversy over the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration’s acquisition of 14.75 acres from Crown Hill for a columbarium development has centered on the age of the wooded tract. Opponents have claimed the project would clear-cut an ancient forest that predates Indiana statehood.

To gain some clarity, IMM reached out to Indiana Department of Natural Resources State Forester John Seifert, who toured the site in late-September.

The terms “virgin” or “old-growth” forest are labels being used to describe this area at Crown Hill.

For IDNR, the term “virgin forest” can be used synonymously with “old-growth.” It means it has never been touched since Europeans arrived. It’s largely a question of time: Is it 100 years old or 300 years? It’s a moving target, even on the science side. An old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest is different from one in the Midwest.

 We’re celebrating the state’s bicentennial this year and the centennial anniversary of the establishment of the state park system. Clearly, large amounts of the original tree canopy have been lost in the past 200 years.

There’s no question we’ve lost tree canopy. Most of Indiana was denuded of trees 100 years ago. That’s one of the reasons the state park system was established. In fact, only a very few spots remain in Indiana that could be quantified as old-growth forest in the state. [PDF] I don’t think this one would qualify.

As an arborist, you’ve toured the site. What did you see?

I walked the site to look at the forest condition. That particular woods has two large old trees in it—one Burr Oak in the bottomland or wet area and one White Oak on the upland side. The rest of the trees are second- and third-growth trees. My guess is those two trees were pasture trees. It was pretty much all grassland at the time Crown Hill acquired it. It came back through natural succession. It’s a natural process in Indiana. If you leave land alone, it’s going to come back to trees.

What about the tree health on the site?

Trees are like you and me—some live longer than others. Some trees on the site have substantial rot. It’s a safety issue if they don’t remove them. It’s part of the natural evolution of forests—trees grow old and die. The Burr Oak and White Oak are substantial trees, but to say the whole area is an old-growth forest is stretching it. The only way to truly identify the age of trees is to core them, and no one wanted me to do that.

Terms like “raze” or “clear-cut” are being thrown around. How do you, and how does DNR, understand clear-cutting?

Clear-cutting in forestry is removing all of the trees. It makes no sense for the VA folks to clear-cut. They said they’re doing their best to preserve as many trees as possible. They want to make a peaceful setting. I have faith they understand what they’re trying to do.

In 2006, DNR was asked for an assessment of the site as part of an effort by the Central Indiana Land Trust to acquire it as a nature preserve. At the time, DNR described it as having “old-growth” qualities.

CILTI was trying to acquire it, so my colleague was looking at it from a different viewpoint than I did. My job was to give understanding of what the forest looked like. I don’t necessarily disagree with DNR’s assessment. It’s got a few unique characteristics and old forest conditions with those big trees, but it doesn’t change my opinion of the site. The rest is not atypical of other areas in the state we’ve seen with successional forests.