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Program goals to diversify Indiana forests

For thousands of years, southern Indiana was home to vast stretches of open-canopy oak-hickory forests. That was great for birds like the Prairie Warbler and Red-headed Woodpecker. But starting about 100 years ago, humans began to suppress the fires that clear the way for oak trees to grow. Since then, few oak saplings have been able to reach maturity, and species such as beech and maple — historically kept in check by the same fires that benefit oaks — have proliferated instead.

Beech- and maple-dominated forests are far less welcoming to many bird species due to their closed canopies, which result in denser and less-diverse forest floors. Oak canopies, in contrast, allow light to shine through, nourishing a wide variety of shrubs and grasses. The extra foliage in oak-dominated forests provides hiding and nesting places for birds, as well as housing a wide variety of invertebrates for them to eat. Oaks themselves are considered keystone species, treasure troves of resources for birds and insects. If they can’t grow, even more life disappears.

Luckily, conservationists have a plan to bring oak-dominated forests back to southern Indiana. This fall, American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and more than a dozen public and private partners came together to launch a new initiative called “Let the Sun Shine In — Indiana.” It will use science-based tools to allow light to reach the forest floor, which in turn should help young oaks and other plants grow. The effort is modeled after a similar initiative, “Let the Sun Shine In – Illinois,” which pioneered the approach.

Partner organizations will work together to conduct tree harvests to open the canopy, enabling oak saplings and groundcover to flourish. Then, the team will use carefully applied prescribed fire to enhance and maintain the treatment. The process will take several years.

The partnership will also help educate the public about the importance of active management in these forests. Cutting down trees and using fire can seem like counterintuitive stepping stones on the path to a healthier forest. Demonstration areas will help illustrate how these tools work, showcasing restoration techniques and the resulting phases of regeneration. If all goes according to plan, southern Indiana forests will, in time, be flooded with life-giving sunlight and a chorus of birdsong once again.

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