Environmental thinking, years ahead of its time


“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” — Greek Proverb

On Sunday, January 28, 1968, the Indianapolis Star published an article detailing a vision for the future of southern Indiana’s environment and inhabitants. The article used language around conservation and environmentalism that was uncommon for the time, but we hear frequently today. The vision proposed collaboration between people in government, academics, and private corporations to create a conservation project that would benefit the natural ecosystems, communities, and economic activity of this area.
The author of the article was Robert H. (Bob) Menke. At the time, Bob ran Styline Industries (which would later become OFS Brands), and was an Indiana University trustee and former state representative. His unique experience in these different domains equipped him to lead a new effort to revitalize the region’s forests.
Bob wrote fervently and often about the immediate need to introduce forest conservation programs in the region: “Time is running out. Forestry conservation is needed to save the land and the prosperity of its people in Indiana.”
At this time, agricultural lands (originally created by clear cutting native forests) were beginning to be depleted of their nutrient bearing soils. Poor soil results in poor crop production, which in turn leads to poor farmers, poor economic growth, poor communities, and continued deterioration of the environment.
Bob saw a solution but needed help to achieve it. So he reached out to his broad network, formed new relationships, and called on multi-disciplinary partnerships to create a proposal for associating natural land with a dollar value through new zoning policies, increasing conservation education, and implementing basic changes in Federal agricultural policy to protect natural resources, reduce waste, and avoid over-farming.
In 1985, the first farm bill was introduced and the modern day Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was established. The new CRP included incentives for landowners to plant trees for long-term vegetative cover, wildlife habitat, and native plant habitats. The program addressed not only erosion control but water quality and environmentally sensitive areas. Much of the bill’s language was very similar to what Bob had written 17 years earlier.
As we celebrate Earth Day this year, it’s amazing to see how environmental sustainability and human health and well-being have become central focuses for organizations today. Most have even integrated these priorities into their mission statements and business practices.
Five decades ago, Bob was labelled a “conservationist” for these views—not necessarily a title many people admired at the time. But Bob pushed on despite the naysayers. Maybe because he saw that the status quo was causing severe damage. Maybe because he could feel the impending departure of something he cherished and felt responsibility for. Whatever his reason, he felt time was running out. So, Bob put pen to paper and proposed a set of priorities that were years ahead of their time.
From helping to develop the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs to playing a key role in establishing the Indiana Forest and Woodland Owners Association and Indiana Forest Education Foundation, Bob and his colleagues’ efforts both figuratively and literally planted the seeds of conservation for this region. Today, in this small corner of the state, we can delight in the shade they knew they would never sit in.
– by Jarod Brames, Director of Sustainability

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