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“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
So goes the popular 1970s song by Joni Mitchell. But how can we know and appreciate what we’ve “got” when the great expanses of Indiana’s original landscape have been gone for so long?
Left: A summer sunrise filters through black oak savanna onto a prairie opening with dense blazing star and rattlesnake master at Hoosier Prairie Nature Preserve.
Without a time transporter or detailed photographs miraculously taken years before the invention of the camera, we’re mostly left to wonder.
Actually, that’s not entirely true.
There are clues—clues that provide a glimpse of an early Indiana replete with natural beauty and variety. Places of expansive forests, magnificent lakes and wetlands, and endless prairies where no tree existed for as far as the eye could see. It was wild, untamed earth where streams and rivers flowed clearly, and plants and animals no longer here were common.
Those clues have been used in piecing together a string of pearls that represent remnants of the Indiana that once was. We’re talking about state nature preserves.
In 1967, the General Assembly passed the Nature Preserves Act, creating the Division of Nature Preserves within DNR and establishing a way for Indiana’s remaining natural areas to be protected forever. Two years later, the first preserve was dedicated. Forty years later there are 225 nature preserves.
“These preserves protect numerous rare plant and animal species,” said John Bacone, director of the Division of Nature Preserves. “They contain examples of many of Indiana’s interesting plant communities and natural features, such as dunes, prairies, cypress swamps, caves, lakes, and much more.”
The DNR didn’t act alone.
“Individual citizens and conservation groups spearheaded the effort to have this law passed,” Bacone said. “Through the years, partners have been critical to the establishment of the nature preserve system Indiana now has.”
One group in particular was there from the start —ACRES Land Trust, which was formed as Allen County Reserve, or Acres, in 1960, a full seven years before the Nature Preserves Act was passed.
Jim Barrett, a Fort Wayne attorney, was asked to do the legal work by Acres organizers Tom and Jane Dustin. Barrett and his wife Pat accompanied the Dustins to Wisconsin for a presentation by George Fell, who was active in protection of natural areas in Illinois.
“It was very interesting,” Barrett said. “On the way back, we said this is just what Acres needs, a way to permanently protect our natural areas.”
Illinois and Iowa were the only states with nature preserve statutes at the time, but neither allowed for protection of lands owned by private groups. So, Barrett crafted a proposal stipulating “dedicated land would be held in trust for the benefit of the people of Indiana in present and future generations” and that it would be “dedicated to its highest and best use.”
It was a breakthrough that led to the dedication of Pine Hills Nature Preserve in 1969 and the addition of hundreds more.
“Really, really,” Barrett said when informed recently of the number. “It’s great, and I would like to see a lot more.”
Right: Clifty Creek flows between deep sandstonebluffs at Pine Hills Nature Preserve in Montgomery County. Pine Hills was Indiana's first nature preserve, dedicated in 1969.
Sites range from a single acre to 1,608 acres. They are owned by a diverse array of partners, including various DNR divisions, county park systems, and private land trusts like ACRES, Central Indiana Land Trust, Sycamore, Shirley Heinze, NICHES, and The Nature Conservancy, to name a few.
Locating remnant examples of wild Indiana is the starting point for the Division of Nature Preserves, whose small but devoted group of field ecologists uses an assortment of tools to accomplish the task. Topographic maps, aerial photos, soil surveys, geology maps, specimen labels, and historic literature provide the initial clues needed to identify potential sites.
Careful assessment follows to determine if a site qualifies for protection. Knowing the original natural vegetation is helpful, and one of the best sources is the U.S. General Land Office. Notes made in the early 1800s by federal government surveyors provide descriptions of the vegetation before the influx of settlers and the changes they made to the landscape. The notes allow for a comparison of original vegetation with what is present today.
The comparisons are important because native plants occur in communities, and in its natural state, each community type has a collection of expected species. Missing species or unexpected species might reflect past adverse impacts. In addition to altered species composition, other clues to natural community quality may include evidence of intense grazing, timber removal, unnatural soil disturbance, and succession.
Information collected on rare plants, animals and significant natural communities is entered into the Natural Heritage Program database. The database contains more than 14,000 records. The information has many uses, from determining possible environmental impacts to guiding protection efforts.
Once a site is judged worthy of nature preserve status and the landowner is willing to sell, it is presented to the DNR Natural Resources Commission for official dedication.
Left: Fens are often described as having a "hybrid" plant community made up of species from wetlands and prairies, with many having adapted to high lime content in he soil. At Swamp Angel Nature Preserve, the prairie plants dense blazing star and big bluestem grow with tamarack trees and bulrushes.
In the 1980s, Division of Nature Preserves ecologists concluded a systematic, county-by-county natural area survey, identifying remaining natural areas by natural community types. These categories are the compass used to direct protective efforts on the broadest diversity of species and natural communities possible.
That broad diversity can be found in the most unexpected places, such as the Clark and Pine Nature Preserve in Lake County. Wedged between two vast rail yards, the preserve is by no means the most attractive preserve, but it may be the most species-rich patch of land in the state. It includes several state-endangered species.
Presently, 331 of the 401 endangered plant species in Indiana have representative populations on protected lands. The goal is to extend the protective umbrella to the other 70 by continuing to work with partner groups, land owners and the Indiana Heritage Trust.
Protecting a site is not a matter of putting up a fence and throwing away the key. Considerable ongoing care is necessary. Stewardship ecologists work in eight regions to oversee the preserves. Their tasks are many, from managing natural features to providing public access. Just controlling the myriad invasive plants that negatively impact the native flora is never ending.
A special challenge is the careful use of prescribed fire, a tool used to suppress dense growths of trees and shrubs that are the death knell of plants needing full sun, such as in prairies and other fire-dependent natural communities.
While the protection of 32,000 acres is worthwhile, you might wonder what’s in it for you.
Well, anyone with a stock portfolio recently learned the importance of diversification. A variety of investments hedges against the event of one or more failing.
Similarly, biodiversity, or the measure of life-form variety in a particular area, is critical to the future and is the guiding purpose of the Division of Nature Preserves.
Biological diversity acts as a safeguard against the loss of a species on which we depend, or for uses we have yet to conceive. Take the Pacific yew, for example. This unassuming tree went largely unnoticed until 1977 when its bark was used to develop Taxol, a cancer-fighting medication.
With considerable foresight, the Nature Preserves Act mandated the creation of a system of nature preserves for, among other reasons, “scientific research, as reservoirs of natural materials not all of the uses of which are now known.”
In this unknown lies the future.
From the dunes and lakes of the north, across the Wabash River and the fertile central till plain, to the wild spaces of the rugged southern hills and Ohio Valley, Indiana is a rich place filled with interesting and vital ecosystems.
Following is a brief survey of some Division of Nature Preserves projects that illustrate how these ecosystems are restored and protected in all corners of the state.
“The Region”–Sand, Savanna, and Prairie
Northwestern Indiana has a legacy of rare plants, animals and unique natural areas. Many dedicated nature preserves occupy forgotten corners, remnants sculpted by water, wind and sand.
Within Indiana Dunes State Park, more than 1,500 acres are protected as Dunes Nature Preserve. In 2008, the DNR dedicated a rare example of a sand prairie persisting in the shade of sassafras and juniper trees that invaded the site in the absence of fire. Seeing the potential, DNR performed an intricate restoration, opening the site to a renaissance of life that will be carefully maintained with prescribed fire.
Above Right: Beach and foredunes vegetated with marram grass are part of the scenery along Lake Michigan at Dunes Nature Preserve, one of Indiana's largest nature preserves, in Indiana Dunes State Park.
Land of the Lakes
Sparkling lakes and diverse wetlands put northeastern Indiana among the most beautiful and rich areas of the state’s natural history. An entire glacial lake, peat lands and forests are protected here.
Marsh Lake Nature Preserve—immediately east of Pokagon State Park—is a primeval expanse of marshes, swamps and fens. Reed canary grass, a highly aggressive plant, is exerting a “death grip” on the wetlands, smothering native plants, reducing available wildlife habitat, and impairing wetland functions at all levels.
Restoration biologists are implementing the latest techniques to control the weed and establish a diverse array of wetland plants known from other areas of the preserve. Often, seeds are painstakingly hand-harvested from the rare fen wetlands found nearby.
With diligence, this wetland will return critical habitats for such rare and declining wetland species as sedge wrens and massasauga rattlesnakes.
The state’s middle ground not only is a vast, productive agricultural plain but also a place of diverse and healthy ecosystems. This glacial plain is dissected by streams, the largest being the Wabash valley, the preeminent landform. Large, densely forested stream corridors harbor abundant woodland wildlife along the valleys of Big Walnut and Sugar creeks, and the White River. Fens that harbor unique life occur throughout and sustain the streams. Scattered flatwoods remain, full of ephemeral wetlands, swamps and impressive timber.
Left: Bloodroot blooms in early spring on the undisturbed foresed hillsides of Big Walnut Nature Preserve in Putnam County.
Big Walnut Nature Preserve lies 45 miles west of Indianapolis. Dramatic topography provides diverse habitat niches in 3,000 acres of high-quality woodlands and reforestation projects, one of the largest blocks of forest remaining in central Indiana.
An example of the power of partnerships, Big Walnut has benefited from DNR and The Nature Conservancy working shoulder to shoulder. It is a patchwork quilt of “core” areas protected as nature preserves, secondary buffers targeted for reforestation to reduce fragmentation and protect water quality, and conservation easements arranged with local landowners that ensure traditional rural land uses are also protected from development.
Dark, tea-colored waters glisten beneath overhanging branches of bald cypress. The trees and their reddish-brown “knees” emerge from the quiet shallows to evoke images of the Deep South.
But this is Posey County, Ind. Here, near the confluence of the Wabash and Ohio rivers, sits Twin Swamps Nature Preserve, Indiana’s finest remaining cypress slough with almost 600 acres of flatwoods, overcup oak swamp, and cypress swamp. Restoration has included tree plantings, controlled burning in the flatwoods to revitalize ground flora, and the plugging of abandoned oil wells.
A rustic boardwalk leads into the slough’s center and a cathedral of bald cypress and swamp cottonwood trees. State-endangered yellow-crowned night-herons have nested here and golden-yellow prothonotary warblers are easily seen.
Forest and cave country
Vast forests, fern-laden cliffs, dry barrens, and underground streams and caves are plentiful in southern Indiana, where Spring Mill State Park is home to three nature preserves—Donaldson’s Woods, Donaldson Cave, and Mitchell Sinkhole Plain.
Right: Moss-covered limestone boulder with wildflowers and ferns at Mitchell Sinkhole Plain Nature Preserve, Spring Mill State Park.
Donaldson’s Woods contains one of the few and perhaps finest old-growth forests remaining in Indiana. The 67-acre National Natural Landmark boasts centuries old white oaks and massive tulip poplars that tower above an understory of sugar maple and pawpaw, and a rich forest floor of wildflowers. This unique forest preserve has been the subject of ongoing research by Indiana scientists for decades.
Donaldson Cave includes the mouth of the cave, a steep slope above the cave, and adjacent dry oak woods, which are burned periodically to encourage the growth of the prairie flora. Mitchell Sinkhole Plain is a relatively recent dedication that encompasses most of the remaining state park and features extensive forests, limestone sinks and cave.
Indiana nature preserves are home to some rare species. Here’s a Top 10 list of native endangered plants that are known to occur now and historically at only one site in the state: