Walking through the swaying old-growth forests of America’s countryside, sometimes it’s easy to forget that you’re in the presence of living history. There are living trees in the U.S. that saw the Emancipation of Slaves, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and even the first European settlers. Without this incredible natural resource the Transcontinental Railroad never would have connected the coasts, the Wright brothers never would have flown at Kitty Hawk, and Old Ironsides never would have left port to win the War of 1812. American history is rooted in the forests, and it is the mission of the United States Navy to protect this precious natural resource.
In an effort to preserve history, the U.S. Navy is sustainably managing a 50,000-acre forest in Indiana. Naval Support Activity Crane (NSA Crane) has managed this area for over 60 years, and the forest provides some of the richest biodiversity in all of Indiana. White oak trees grow next to poplars, birds of all colors twitter in the treetops, and even turkeys splash through the babbling brooks that wind through the forest floor. The forest is so healthy that an 80-year-old white oak is still considered middle-aged. So why is the Navy managing a forest in Indiana that’s 40% larger than Washington D.C.? The main goal of NSA Crane’s forestry work is oak regeneration, but using single-selection harvesting methods, the white oak from NSA Crane goes to re-timber historic vessels like the 223-year-old USS Constitution.
A History of Conservation
The Navy first purchased the land in 1940 as a safe place to store munitions. With World War 2 booming in Europe, the Navy considered the NSA Crane site to be safe from possible bombings or bombardments. After constructing the necessary buildings on location, the land suffered from erosion and needed repair. “The first Navy-employed forester was hired in the mid-1950s and oversaw a large part of the reforestation effort,” writes Trent Osman, Forester for the Naval Surface Warfare Center – Crane. “In September 1960, the Department of Defense created its own, internally funded Forestry and Natural Resources program with the Sikes Act. By the end of the 1960s the U.S. Navy-funded Crane Foresters were authoring their own long term forest management plans and conducting timber harvests and were on their way to establishing the most profitable Forestry program within the U.S. Navy.”
According to Osman, the forest began to reach its full potential in the 1980s. By the 1990s it was the highest producing and most profitable forest that the Navy managed, and the main purpose of the forest is still oak regeneration. To this day, the Navy only harvests 40% of what has grown annually. Every tree they cut is individually chosen for a specific forest, many of which are set aside for decades. “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,” according to The Sextant.
Keeping a 223-year-old warship afloat isn’t easy, but the U.S. Navy is dedicated to preserving the heritage, history, and beauty of some of the world’s oldest remaining ships like the USS Constitution. Finding the suitable materials for repairing these vessels from the sea’s wear and tear is a large concern since the world’s forests look far different than they did in the late 1700s. The USS Constitution Museum shares, “Since 1797, when the USS Constitution was launched, “the best white oak” (as stated by Secretary of War Knox) of sufficient size and clarity has been a paramount concern for the survival of the ship. With each 20th century restoration, obtaining solid wood hull planks and ships’ knees has become increasingly challenging.”
Luckily, the Navy owns and manages several forests throughout the country, and the most profitable and sustainable forest at NSA Crane just happened to have the right trees for the job. The USS Constitution Museum states, “Tyrone G. Martin, Constitution’s commanding officer, and H. Robert Freneau, Secretary of the Navy Special Assistant, dedicated the ceremonial “Constitution Grove” at Naval Support Activity (NSA) Crane, Indiana. One hundred and fifty white oak trees spread over the 64,000-acre base were designated for Constitution.” Mature white oaks are cut at specific times of the year to ensure they are suitable for the historic vessel, and they are stored and seasoned in Boston until they are needed. Growing in the Constitution Grove are plenty more middle-aged 70-80-year-old trees that will mature over time and provide more lumber and keep a large part of America’s naval history sea-worthy.