By Trent Osmon, forestry program manager for Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) Midwest’s Public Works Department (PWD) Crane environmental division
The predawn light reflects an eerie blood-red from the underbellies of the incoming clouds. As the light penetrates the canopy, the last of the nocturnal creatures have returned to their refuge to wait out the coming light. High in the crown of a mighty oak, pacing with anticipation of the coming daylight, a roosted tom turkey shakes the forest awake with his gobble. The incoming weather begins to sway the uppermost branches of the tallest trees, delicately blending with the last calls of the whippoorwill.
Splaying at the feet of a seemingly endless sea of tree trunks are an array of wildflowers, too numerous to count, filling the morning air with the sweet smell of spring. The babbling creek, meandering through the valley, flows as a reminder of the water that formed this landscape over millions of years from an ancient seabed. As the distant thunder rolls, the forest community continues inexorably on, a resilient yet delicate system on which the entire world depends for so much.
Is it any wonder why the stewardship of these natural treasures is a very delicate issue? Forests were often seen as an obstacle to taming the wild lands. Others have seen the forests as a resource meant solely to serve the desires of mankind. Still others have seen the forests as a sacred place, harboring delicate systems that should not be disturbed. Wherever the truth resides, the foresters charged with managing such lands have a difficult task keeping the balance between maintaining a viable ecosystem, providing resources, and balancing public perception.
Naval Support Activity Crane’s more than 50,000 acres of forest have been sustainably managed for more than six decades. This forest provides some of the richest biodiversity in all of Indiana while also providing valuable resources to the local economy. Trees in the Midwest are typically regenerated naturally rather than planted. The forest regenerates much more efficiently than many realize. After all, it wasn’t long after the industrial revolution that most of the forests of the eastern U.S. were cleared to provide material for a growing country and they still made a triumphant return. Railroads, homes, tools, fuel-wood, charcoal, and countless other uses . . .
These seemingly endless forest resources built this young country and took it from a few wayward colonies that declared their independence just a few decades earlier to the most powerful nation the world has ever known. A nation with the most powerful Navy the world has ever known. And even it owes its beginnings to this same wood.
Knowing the young country couldn’t compete with the sheer number of vessels of countries like France or England, Joshua Humphries wanted the most advanced Navy ships on the seas. Capable of battling against the Barbary pirates of North Africa to protect this fledgling nation’s merchant ships while also defending against a possible invasion. Live oak for the internal frame of the ship to ensure strength and longevity. White oak to form the hull planks for the sturdy water-tight seal that would keep the ships afloat. And of these original six wooden frigates that started our great Navy, which even today remains most advanced in the world, one wooden frigate still floats. A commissioned warship that still hosts a crew of approximately 70 Sailors, the USS Constitution still floats in the Charlestown Navy yard across the bay from Boston Massachusetts. Old Ironsides. Gaining the nickname during the war of 1812 while defending the new nation from just such an invasion as the early Navy pioneers had feared.
And while the landscape and available forests surrounding the Boston area has diminished, the Navy is still able to provide much of the material for this world’s-oldest commissioned warship still afloat. The forests of NSA Crane host century-old white oak trees throughout the hills and valleys, providing the logs that are formed into planks for the sturdy hull. Even stands of middle-aged white oak, 70 to 80 years old, are set aside for future restoration efforts of this mighty ship. The management goals of this forest fit perfectly with the ability to provide large white oak trees for this great, heritage rich, cause. Every tree that is harvested from Crane’s forests, whatever the reason, is carefully selected by one of the three foresters on station to ensure the forest is able to maintain its legacy of beauty and productivity. Large areas are set aside to ensure old-growth forests still remain. Wildlife is protected to ensure a healthy, intact, and diverse ecosystem will always remain.
So on Arbor Day think not only of the trees planted in lawns during ceremonies. Think of the ever-resilient forests throughout this great nation and how they not only built a great nation; but how they are also maintaining this great nation.