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Many people probably equate frequent land-buyers with frequent land-developers. That’s not always the case.
Distinctive license plates all around Indiana attest otherwise.
These light blue eagle-and-sun tags represent those who have made donations to Indiana Heritage Trust, which is not only the state’s foremost purchaser of natural areas, but also its foremost protector of such real estate. Since its creation in 1992, IHT has protected more than 51,000 acres of Indiana’s most outstanding natural resources and habitats.
Left to right: A sassafras tree in Yellowwood State Forest. A geode on the floor of Yellowwood State Forest. The 296-acre Gehlhausen Parcel in Parke County.
This proud record of success is only the most recent chapter in the long story of Indiana’s wilderness.
Since around 1800, when settlers began to significantly alter the Hoosier landscape, the story of Indiana’s forests, prairies, swamps and waterways has been a rollercoaster of change, from the peak of pristine landscape to a sharp decline to near disaster. More recently, efforts such as IHT have brought about ever-ascending improvements in the protection and care of Indiana’s endangered natural areas.
Before counting successes, it’s worth looking where the state started.
Left to right: The sunset reflects in the calm of Lake Manitou. A blue heron lifts off from Lake Manitou.
An oft-spoken adage says that in the early days of Indiana, a squirrel could cross from one side of the state to the other without touching the ground. Today, that notion seems preposterous, but at one time it may have been close to true.
The size of Indiana’s pre-settlement wilderness is hard to imagine. According to The Natural Heritage of Indiana, in 1790 the area that would become the state was covered in 20 million acres of forest, with 2.2 billion trees. The remainder comprised prairies, swamps, marshes, lakes, streams and the like.
(Left) Bright red winerberry adorns a marsh while fall settles in the marsh at Lake Manitou (center). (Right) Pine trees at Fisher Oak.
With today’s increasing eco-awareness, a growing number of Hoosiers may wish to turn back the clock a couple hundred years to capture the supposed bliss of living among practically endless, unspoiled forests.
But in an ironic twist, that experience apparently was not entirely positive. In the early days, Heritage says, the area that is now Shades State Park was called “shades of death,” presumably because the thickness of the forest canopy let in precious little light.
Both left and right: Adams Mill, on Wildcat Creek in Carroll County.
In retrospect, it’s easy to understand why the idea of sometime running out of forest seemed unlikely. During these formative years, thoughts of conserving wild land were rare; taming it was more in fashion.
The modern era, bent on progress and dragging civilization closely behind, swept through the state. Vast tracts of wilderness fell to cities and farms. By 1870, more than two-thirds of Indiana’s trees had been cut down.
To save the remaining forests, marshes, prairies and waterways, early conservationists stepped in and began to preserve, restore and protect Indiana’s natural resources.
Both left and right at Pine Knob County Park in Lagrange County; A meadwhawk dragonfly. Meteer Lake.
Seminal events, such as Col. Richard Lieber’s success in starting our state parks system in 1916, the creation of the Department of Conservation in 1919, and the U.S. Forest Service’s purchases of huge sections of southern Indiana in 1935, served as harbingers of further efforts to come.
In 1965, the DNR replaced the Department of Conservation, which morphed into today’s well-known agency. Although DNR didn’t create IHT until almost 30 years later, the department still purchased land for preservation, even though there was no specific program for doing so. Sometimes money was available for land purchases; sometimes it wasn’t. The result was that important land could easily slip through DNR fingers. The department, and conservation-minded citizens, needed a better funding system, thus IHT.
Both left and right at Fisher Oak Savanna Nature Preserve. A mushroom, grows at the base of a tree. Sassafrass and prairie grass line a trail
When a nature-friendly driver purchases the cornerstone of that system, an IHT plate (instead of the standard tag), the cost is $40. Of that total, $15 stays with the state’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles; the remaining $25 goes directly to IHT.
According to Nick Heinzelman, IHT executive director, Hoosiers had purchased a total of 1,066,488 plates from the program’s inception to the end of August of last year.
Using these funds, the trust purchases properties for a wide variety of reasons and uses. These include nature preserves and additions to state parks, Fish and Wildlife Areas, and State Historic Sites. The trust also works with counties to create local parks.
Left: New England aster adorns the prairie grass at Fisher Oak Savanna NP. Center: Wildman Woods Nature Preserve. Right: Black Rock NP features rare sandstone/siltstone barrens.
In 2008, IHT purchased 17 properties, ranging in size from almost 700 acres to just 20. The variety of acquisitions includes the usual diversity.
Two properties that Heinzelman and Tom Laycock, assistant director of the DNR division of land acquisition, are especially glad to have landed are the 72-acre Hathaway Preserve (aka Ross Run) in Wabash County, and the 296-acre Gehlhausen parcel in Parke County.
Hathaway features portions of Ross Run stream, a Wabash tributary, and significant geological features. Waterfalls, flumes, pillars, reef fossils, 75 feet of exposed bedrock cliffs, a bedrock-floored stream and a few big oak trees grace the property.
Left: Herons, egrets and ducks feed from and roost around a Wabash River National Road Wetland Reservation marsh. Right: Life and movement along a stream in Hathaway Preserve.
Gehlhausen lies about 3 miles downstream from Turkey Run State Park on Sugar Creek, with frontage along the creek. Its acquisition works toward creating a consolidated base of forestland to buffer the creek.
The land is a mixture of pasture, upland forest, and a remnant population of Eastern hemlock, and features a pond. Gehlhausen is a working, managed forest that, Heinzelman said, will likely end up as a forestry property that allows horseback riding and camping.
Two notable purchases were added to Yellowwood State Forest in Brown County. The two parcels make up almost 346 acres along Bean Blossom Creek, between Helmsburg and Trevlac.
Left: Wild columbine blooms in May along a Ross Run stream in Wabash County. Center: Mark Sutton and his dog Annie fish the Wabash River from Fairbanks Park in Terre Haute. Right: A leaf from a black gum tree caught on fungus growing on a tree at Fisher Oak Savanna Nature Preserve in Jasper County.
The purchased area straddles the creek for more than a mile, more than half of it in lowland floodplain. The remainder is upland forest. Along the western half of the property a tall, steep bluff rises almost vertically from the creek and supports an extensive community of Eastern hemlock. The eastern half, also dominated by forested uplands and lowlands, meets the northern boundary of Yellowwood.
This addition is valuable for its attributes and proximity to existing state forest and beauty, but there’s more. It’s located in the Brown County Hills region, which covers portions of Bartholomew, Brown, Jackson, Johnson, Lawrence, Monroe and Morgan counties. This region is the largest continuous forestland in the state, totaling more than 300,000 acres even before last year’s purchase.
Left: A marbled orb-weavr spider stays busy near Adams Mill along Wildcat Creek in Carroll County. Center: A flower fly feeds from a field chickweed bloom at Hathaway Preserve. Right: Chicory grows in Wildman Woods, near Richmond.
If you ever use Google Maps, check the satellite view and look at the whole state. The huge green mass stretching from Bedford to Martinsville and Bloomington to Columbus is the Brown County Hills Region. The region is virtually the only in-state choice for Hoosiers who like their wilderness square miles at a time.
In preparation for this article, I hiked the bluff above Bean Blossom Creek in the Yellowwood addition. Looking over the creek at the hills rolling off into the distance I couldn’t help but think how much undeveloped land surrounded me, especially to the south.
It was nice to know that, had I wanted, I could have turned around and gotten lost for a long, long time … maybe I could even get to feel, just for a while, like Indiana’s first settlers did—that this forest might just go on forever.
Left: A leopard frog hides in duckweed in a Pine Knob County Park Marsh. Center: A red-tailed tailed hawk hunts over Pine Knob County Park. Right: A turkey feather caught in the weeds newar Black Rock NP in Warren County.
Without conservation programs like IHT, it’s hard to say what the Brown County Hills region, and other natural areas around the state would look like, but they almost certainly wouldn’t be left like this, in this quantity, for the enjoyment of those of us who appreciate unspoiled outdoors.
Next time you enjoy getting lost, or are just happy to know there are places where you still can, think about showing your appreciation during your next trip to the BMV. Purchase an IHT plate, or send a donation to Executive Director, IHT, 402 W. Washington St., Room 256, Indianapolis 46204.
Ben Shadley is managing editor of OI.
Note: Acreage is rounded off to nearest whole number.
Adams Mill, Carroll County, 49 acres: This tract is adjacent to historic tourist attractions Adams Mill, the Adams Mill covered bridge and the Adams Mill dam. The location is central to regional trails and the greenways system in the surrounding six counties. Most of the land is forested riparian buffer.
Black Rock Nature Preserve, Warren County, 45 acres: This nature preserve features upland and floodplain forest, as well as a sandstone outcrop with exposed cliff.
Brock Sampson Nature Preserve, Floyd County, 20 acres: This is two parcels that add to the existing 549-acre preserve. Located in the knobs of Floyd County, the parcel includes xeric, dry, dry-mesic and mesic upland forest, as well as siltstone glades. The newly acquired land also will provide important access that improves capabilities to manage the preserve.
Clark State Forest, Scott County, 50 acres: This purchase includes two properties. The 40-acre Dudgeon parcel consists of open field, pasture and upland hardwood forest with a Virginia pine component. Clark State Forest surrounds three sides.
Eagle Marsh, Allen County, 22 acres: This mature forested wetland addition to the Little River Wetland Project’s 683-acre Eagle Marsh increases its size and habitat diversity and further connects it with the 605-acre Fox Island County Park. The forested wetland supports a population of mature red maple, silver maple, green ash, American elm, box elder, cottonwood, American elder, Japanese honeysuckle, spicebush and black cherry. Ground flora present includes false mermaid, anise root and Canada wild rye, among others. The ephemeral wetland supports a similar canopy. Work is needed to eliminate invasive species.
Fisher Oak Savanna Nature Preserve, Jasper County, 20 acres: Adjacent to the present preserve, this tract is 12 acres of low ground with buttonbush, silver maple, cottonwood, pin oak and sedge. The remainder is upland sandy forest with white and black oak ridges.
Gehlhausen Parcel, Parke County, 296 acres: Located 3 miles downstream from Turkey Run State Park, the property has frontage on Sugar Creek and is part of an effort to build a forest buffer along the river. For the last 20 years, the land has been used as a campground and horseback riding area. The parcel includes 20 acres of pasture with a pond, plus upland forest with remnant populations of Eastern hemlock.
Hathaway Preserve, Wabash County, 72 acres: This parcel is composed of upland riparian forest, an agricultural field and a reforested area. It includes portions of Ross Run Stream (a Wabash River tributary), and contains significant geological features, including 75 feet of exposed bedrock cliffs. Large-diameter oak trees, the largest a 59-inch black oak, are scattered throughout the property.
Jackson-Washington State Forest (1), Jackson County, 76 acres: The purchase includes three parcels near the forest that will help consolidate forest holdings in the few remaining undeveloped ownerships in the area. All three properties are fully wooded with upland oak-hickory forests.
Jackson-Washington State Forest (2), Washington County, 284 acres: The two parcels included in this purchase help toward consolidating state forest holdings, eliminating more than 2 miles of forest property line. This land includes upland oak-hickory hardwood forest and an old field that has reverted to mesic mixed hardwoods, including yellow poplar, sycamore and maple.
Lake Manitou, Fulton County, 80 acres: This acquisition includes two properties that feature 40 acres of wetlands, 10 acres of developable upland and 30 acres of forest.
Oak Savannah Trail, Lake County, 85 acres: This purchase is a major addition to the Oak Savannah Trail corridor and preserves a natural area that ecologically resembles nearby Oak Ridge Prairie County Park and Hoosier Prairie State Nature Preserve. In the mid 1990s the property scored high on a botanical assessment.
Pine Knob Park, LaGrange County, 40 acres: Adjacent to Pine Knob County Park, this property includes mature oak dominated wooded uplands, buttonbush swamp and small agricultural fields.
Sugar Creek public access site, Montgomery County, 28 acres: This purchase is the balance of a larger tract that the Division of Fish and Wildlife is working on to acquire public access for Sugar Creek. It consists of mostly tillable farmland in the floodplain of Sugar Creek at the mouth of Rattlesnake Creek.
Wabash River National Road Wetland Reservation, Vigo County, 786 acres: Located in the floodplain of the Wabash River, this tract contains a combination of marginal farmland, forested wetlands, riparian areas, intermittent streams, ponds and borrow pits. The property is surrounded by levees of different ages developed to protect agricultural property and the town of West Terre Haute. Currently, 716 acres are being enrolled in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wetland Reserve Program. The Vigo County Park and Recreation Department will restore the wetlands and maintain the property.
Wildman Woods Nature Preserve, Wayne County, 93 acres: This site has approximately 35 acres of relic forest along a small tributary to Lick Creek, and 58 acres of reforested farmland maturing into a diverse stand. It will be included in the Lick Creek Hills Macrosite project developed by the Division of Nature Preserves and the Whitewater Valley Land Trust.
Yellowwood State Forest (1), Brown County, 218 acres: This purchase, located in the Nature Conservancy’s Brown County Hills Project area, provides access to a 440-acre block of the state forest that previously had none. The majority of the land is upland forest.
Yellowwood State Forest (2), Brown County, 346 acres: Entirely forested and not logged since 1963, this Brown County Hills region purchase is a combination of two adjacent parcels that straddle Bean Blossom Creek for more than a mile with the eastern parcel adjoining the border of the state forest. More than half of the land is lowland floodplain with rugged, heavily drained upland forest dominating the rest of the property.