Without a sound, Bill Tipton unclasped his hands to reach down and trace the rings of a stump where a tree long loomed in Shawnee State Forest — at least 80 years, by his quick count.
This winter, loggers stripped the trees from this forest patch for timber. In their place, piles of fallen trees and the occasional trash now litter a mostly-bald hill streaked by paths for logging equipment and 18-wheeler semi-trucks.
Tipton, a local forest advocate, gave one word for how he felt surveying the site.
"Sick," he said. "Will something grow back? Absolutely. But it will be different."
In Ohio and across the country, political clashes have renewed debate over whether industry and conservation can co-exist on public lands — from national treasures such as Bears Ears National Monument in Utah to swaths of Ohio’s Shawnee State Forest.
In the past few years, plans to log and frack in Ohio’s state and national forests have drawn the ire of environmentalists who are calling on officials to prioritize biodiversity, recreation and carbon sequestration in public wild spaces.
Ohio ranks 14th among the states for private forestland, according to state and federal data, with some 88 percent of its woodlands owned privately. Ohio lands in the bottom third nationally for both its total acreage of forestland and its share of public forests.
State officials are mandated by law to manage the 200,000 acres spawned by Ohio state forests for a range of uses such as recreation, wildlife habitat, soil and water protection and sustainable timber production.
Rampant ecological threats — climate change and invasive species chief among them — have only exacerbated the pressure.
"There’s so little public land in Ohio and so much demand for it. Everyone’s guarding their piece of it," said Bill Stanley, director of conservation for the Nature Conservancy in Ohio and a member of ODNR’s Forest Advisory Council.
Division of Forestry Deputy Chief Greg Guess said Ohio’s 21 state forests are managed to suit a range of uses.
"They’re not just for recreation. They’re not just for timber management. They’re not for one use over the other," Guess said.
In the past decade, the General Revenue Fund has appropriated less and less money to the forestry division — down a third from $7,169,125 in 2008 to $4,755,587 in 2017. Yet in 2017, the division raked in more revenue, about $5,080,000, from its timber harvest.
ODNR spokeswoman Stephanie Leis said that even as the state’s management plans have called for smaller harvests, current lumber markets have helped logging revenues almost double in the past 10 years. The state cleared about 2,600 acres in 2014 and only 1,600 last year.
"They spend more time on those activities (like timber sales) that will keep their budget balanced," Stanley said. "It’s always been somewhat of an issue but it’s become more pronounced."
While 35 percent of the money from timber sales returns to the forestry department, the remainder is divided among programs, schools and local governments in the counties where logging takes place.
Guess said timber harvest in state forests is primarily guided by forest health. The state avoids certain areas for wildlife, water quality or recreation concerns and requires contracted loggers have certain forestry training and, in some cases, use specialized equipment to minimize impact.
"We don’t set out to create X amount of dollars. We set out to do the right thing for the forest," Guess said.
That hasn’t warded off controversy.
Since 2016, the Bureau of Land Management has auctioned off more than 2,300 acres of Wayne National Forest for oil and gas fracking leases — leading to protests and an ongoing lawsuit filed by a consortium of conservation groups.
The state’s forestry division also faced public pushback last year when it proposed commercial logging in the Mohican-Memorial State Forest and plans to peel back old growth protections in the forest’s southern half.
And in various pockets of Shawnee State Forest, grassroots groups are conducting one-day bioblitzes — dispatching experts and volunteers to audit and document an area’s rare and threatened biodiversity — in order to build cases against logging proposals.
Tipton and other Save Our Shawnee Forest members are still holding their breath to see whether their work is enough to undo the state’s postponed plan for an 84-acre timber sale in the upper portion of the forest’s Rock Run watershed. In that case, the state has indefinitely delayed logging, but has yet to finalize an independent botanist’s report and make a final decision about the area’s future.
Some, like Dave Ackerman, chairman of the Ohio Sierra Club’s forest and lands committee, has some reservations about the effectiveness of public outcry against harvesting in state forests.
"They need to increase their logging activity to make up for lost revenue," Ackerman said. "Things like biodiversity tend to get in the way of that."
Ohio has a storied past with its forests.
In the early 1800s, upwards of 95 percent of the state was forested. Within a century, early settlers stripped the state bald, leaving it with a mere 10 percent forest cover. Today, less than 0.4 percent of forest stands in the state are older than 140 years, according to ODNR.
Debate over how to handle Ohio’s forests is nothing new, Stanley said. But those discussions have heated up as the Trump cabinet continues to make symbolic and controversial changes to federal environmental stewardship.
In the year since his swearing-in, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has prioritized mineral and energy production on public lands. Among other steps, he has proposed rolling back protections on national monuments and opened portions of the U.S. coast to offshore drilling — parts of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"The Department of the Interior is the steward and manager of America’s natural resources, which in addition to national parks and grazing lands also includes oil, gas, clean coal, hydro, solar and other renewable energy sources. Being a good steward of our land and resources does not mean locking it up," Zinke wrote in an editorial in the Washington Times last May.
Ackerman said he worries that Ohio — with its prolific Utica Shale natural gas wells and central geographical position — has emerged as the new, hurricane-free gulf coast.
"(Industry) sees the gates are open and they see everything there for the taking, and they’re going to get every bit they can," he said.
In a few weeks, a fresh curtain of buds and leaves will hide Shawnee State Forest’s bald spots from the public — many of whom don’t realize logging is a legal and common practice there, Tipton said.
But wherever he goes in the forest, Tipton said, he can always spot a nearby section that’s stripped by harvesting.
"I try to stay positive because this is a beautiful place," he said. "If I was going to be cynical, I would say our public lands aren’t really public land anymore."