A conservation-minded group, led by Fort Wayne attorney James Barrett and ACRES Land Trust founders Tom and Jane Dustin, got something accomplished on March 13, 1967, they hoped would affect Indiana forever – the passage of the Nature Preserves Act.
“It was a bold act at a time when society was kind of in turmoil. It was the ’60s,” said Jason Kissell, the director of the Huntertown-based ACRES Land Trust. “ACRES was proud that we were a big part of that, it was this area of the state that kind of led the charge. We wrote the act, we helped get it pushed through and then the state took it on and it expanded statewide and now we have this beautiful system.”
By 1967, much of Indiana’s landscape had been altered since the first settlers had arrived in the state, Division of Nature Preserves Director John Bacone said.
“(People realized) if we don’t act soon we’re not going to have hardly anything left that looks like our natural legacy,” he said.
How it works
“What’s special about (the Nature Preserve Act) is it actually gives a piece of land in Indiana the highest level of protection of any land in the state,” higher even than that of state parks, Bacone said.
Once a tract of land is dedicated as a nature preserve, it is intended to stay that way forever. In fact, under the act, the land takes the “existence of an imperative and unavoidable public necessity” and the approval of the governor is required to remove the designation.
Because of this level of protection, not every piece of land can qualify as a nature preserve, Bacone said.
“We definitely do not want to put things in the nature preserve system that really aren’t deserving because we know it might need to be defended someday and it’s a lot easier to defend an old-growth forest than it is a woods that looks just like the woods on the other side of the street,” he said.
The state is looking for “high quality natural areas” that don’t show a history of disturbance, Bacone said. Other criteria include being the last known example of a type of habitat or the home of a threatened plant or animal species.
The land itself
Nature preserve properties can be acquired via donation or purchase, either at full or reduced prices.
Entities cannot condemn properties in order to make nature preserves, Bacone said.
The first step in creating nature preserves is to have property owners appreciate the land and build relationships that may not yield a preserve for decades, Kissell said.
“We started talking to (the owners of Hanging Rock Nature Preserve in Wabash County) in 1959, even before ACRES was ACRES. … We didn’t close on that until about six years ago,” he said. “So, it’s developing these relationships, reminding people how interesting and unique their property is, because it makes them respect it. Then they start to gain trust in the organization, and then over time we’re able to acquire these properties.”
Conversations often begin with letting landowners know what they have is significant statewide and bringing in scientists to help explain why the space is so special, Kissell said.
“So, they become attached to their land and they want to see it protected in some way,” he said.
However, some know they have something special from the start.
Gretel Smith’s family bought the land that is now the Five Points Nature Preserve in 1920. Her grandfather, who later helped found Creek Chub Bait Company, hunted in the woods there. Her father took the Interurban Railroad that ran through the property to catch and sell furs at the local hardware store. Her family hosted church picnics there, and she remembers members of her family playing in those woods.
In 2005, after both her parents passed away, Smith and her family were looking to make sure the land remained a natural space. In 2014, they were able to work with ACRES to make that come true.
“I was very pleased when it finally happened, very gratified that we could finally get it to come about,” she said. “My brothers are happy to have it saved. They have always expressed the desire to keep it as a public area.”
Smith echoed Kissell’s sentiments that landowners learn to love their space and want to see it enjoyed by future generations.
“From what I’ve learned from other people (who) have given properties and they think it should be saved,” she said. “I feel very strongly about a city spreading out to the country, so it’s very important to me to have space that is kept as natural as possible for people to use.”
The results of the Nature Preserve Act
Fifty years later, both Bacone and ACRES Land Trust Executive Director Jason Kissell agree the Nature Preserve Act has been successful.
“Of all the natural community types…that occur in the state, we have (at least) one example protected in the nature preserve system except for one type,” Bacone said. The remaining system is limestone sinkhole ponds in south central Indiana.
ACRES has protected about 93 percent of the 420 land species considered rare or endangered in the state, he said.
For ACRES itself, the act gives landowners and donors assurance, Kissell said.
“In 1967, ACRES was telling everyone our commitment was to defend and keep this land forever,” he said. “Then to have the Nature Preserve Act created and implemented that added another layer of protection that we couldn’t do as private owners, so it gave the state’s authority to say this highest and best use is as a nature preserve.”
Across the state, there are 277 nature preserves owned by 46 different owners, Bacone said.
“The Nature Preserves Act itself was a great program for partnership as well. … Indiana law was written so that includes any owner,” not just the state, Bacone said.
“There’s no competition between DNR, local land trust, parks. We all are pursuing the same thing and figure out who’s the best person to own it, the best person to manage it and how can we help each other do it.” Kissell said.
Looking ahead to the next 50 years
Looking forward, the goal of the Nature Preserve Act continues to expand.
“Fifty years is such a short time in the history of nature, so that’s why we’re so excited. It’s in perpetuity, so we’re just starting. So our hope is it continues to grow,” Kissell said.
In the early years of the act, the state and land trusts were interested in preserving the gems of natural spaces, Bacone said.
As time has passed, the focus has been on expanding those areas to create more viable ecosystems.
“For Cedar Creek Corridor, because it’s not just a 200-acre forest but a 3,000- or 4,000-acre forest that is owned by ACRES, partners and private individuals, we see the bald eagles, we see the river otters, we see the bobcats, we see the pileated woodpeckers. They can’t be sustained on a 50-acre woodlot,” Kissell said.
The other goal moving forward is to get locals to realize what they have right in their own backyards.
“The hope is we can keep making the neighborhood aware of these special places so they can get to appreciate them and use them and take ownership of them and help us be protective of them,” Bacone said.
“We live in a really exciting place,” Kissell said. “There’s a lot of really cool natural areas from waterfalls to jellyfish to 8-foot sturgeon going down the river system to the badgers we have here to the river otters. … And this system of nature preserves provides that nearby nature.”
While society has generally moved away from the connection to the land the earliest settlers felt, Kissell believes it will always be drawn back.
“People have this longing for what was or what should be. Nature preserves give examples of that,” he said. “There’s always this human desire to be in nature in some way.”