State nature preserves program proves there’s more than cornfields in Indiana
By Kevin Kilbane | News-Sentinel
When many people think of Indiana — Hoosiers included — they think of miles and miles of flat land and lots of corn fields.
But the state harbors 61 unique natural communities, and the 50-year partnership between the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Division of Nature Preserves and local land trusts and other owners has preserved examples of 60 of those natural areas, said John Bacone, nature preserves division director.
And Bacone has had conversations with property owners about protecting the 61st natural community — sinkhole ponds and swamps in Harrison and Lawrence counties in southern Indiana.As he looks to the future, there is cause for both concern and optimism, Bacone said last week during a visit to ACRES Land Trust's office in the Dustin Nature Preserve off Chapman Road in northern Allen County.
The Indiana Division of Nature Preserves works to protect high-quality examples of natural communities that existed in Indiana at the time people began settling this area in the late 1700s and early 1800s, he said.
Property owners must apply to have land accepted as a state-dedicated nature preserve, Bacone said. Along with the DNR, current nature preserve owners include local land trusts, such as ACRES, local governments, colleges, nonprofits and private landowners. They protect more than 270 nature preserves containing a combined total of about 51,000 acres.
The state declines to accept a lot of nature preserve applications, however, because conserving the highest-quality areas makes it more difficult for a developer or road project to challenge the need for a site's protection, he said. Indiana's nature preserves law says land in a state-dedicated nature preserve can be taken for another use only if that use is an "imperative and unavoidable public necessity" and is approved by the governor."
If there is a weak link, it could damage the whole," Bacone said.
Indiana's nature preserves law is deeply rooted in Allen County.
ACRES Land Trust was the first local, nonprofit land trust created in the state when it formed in March 1960. The organization now preserves more than 6,350 acres of important natural areas in northeast Indiana, northwest Ohio and southern Michigan.
ACRES founders, who included the late Tom and Jane Dustin, quickly realized a state law regarding nature preserves and a state Division of Nature Preserves would add weight and credibility to their work, said Jason Kissel, ACRES' current executive director.
ACRES leaders proposed and helped write Indiana's nature preserves law, which state legislators approved in 1967, said Bacone, who started in the division in 1977 as assistant director and who has served as director since 1980.
At the time the law was passed, ACRES and The Nature Conservancy were the only land trusts preserving unique natural areas in Indiana, Bacone said. Now, 26 land trusts carry on that work statewide.
Indiana's law also allowed for a diversity of property owners. That has been a strength over the years, Bacone said, because it spreads out the land management duties and the ownership. In the latter case, it means one owner doesn't have to bear the full loss of tax funds or pressure from developers seeking land.
Some people who are thinking of donating or selling natural areas also are more comfortable dealing with a local entity, such as ACRES, rather than a state or federal department, Kissel said.
In addition, the state nature preserves law also allows the state to assist state-dedicated nature preserves with removal of invasive species and with law enforcement on the properties, Kissel and Bacone said.
Even after 50 years, Indiana still has a lot of natural areas out there worth designating as nature preserves, Kissel and Bacone said. Some of the sites are rare natural areas or home to endangered species. Other sites would add to existing nature preserves or complete the protected land around a lake or fen.
Challenges ahead include funding, Bacone said. The proposed federal budget announced last week would cut funding at several federal agencies with land conservation programs, including eliminating the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's money for a coastal management program assisting Indiana and more than 30 other states, he said.
Other challenges include cities' development growth, the possibility climate change could damage some natural areas and that species living in isolated nature preserves could become inbred, he said.
But Bacone is excited by the large number of local land trusts in the state and the increased citizen awareness and support for conserving important natural areas and endangered species. Governmental agencies and business also seem more willing to coordinate development or projects to avoid negative impacts on the environment.
The interest in nature preserves is similar to public support for DNR projects that restored eagles, ospreys, otters and wild turkeys in the wild in Indiana, Bacone said.
"There was a (public) will to bring them back," he said.