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  • Photos by Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette Jason Kissel, executive director of ACRES Land Trust, shows the 200-year old oak tree, from which the group took a bore sample, at the Blue Cast Springs Nature Preserve near Woodburn. The tree has lived longer than Indiana has been a state, Kissel said.

  • ACRES’ acquisition of the 80-acre Blue Cast Springs Nature Preserve near Woodburn was facilitated by the Indiana Bicentennial Nature Trust.

  • Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette Blue Cast Springs Nature Preserve gives hikers on the property a chance to see a blue heron rookery on the bluffs overlooking the Maumee River.

Sunday, December 11, 2016 3:01 pm

Bicentennial trust has eye toward future

Rosa Salter Rodriguez | The Journal Gazette

Jason Kissel, in hiking boots and dressed for the December cold, points to a small hole near the bottom of the trunk of a giant white oak tree.

With large, wide-spreading branches and a trunk about five feet across at its base, the tree obviously has stood for generations. But the hole – from a bore sample made earlier this year – determined its age much more precisely.

The bore showed the tree had survived 213 years – making it 13 years older than the state of Indiana itself.

Today, as Hoosiers mark Statehood Day in this Bicentennial year, the tree outside Woodburn stands as a testament to one ­bicentennial-related effort that Kissel hopes will still be in evidence 200 years from now.

As special events celebrated Indiana’s 200-year history during 2016, a public-private partnership called the Bicentennial Nature Trust has been quietly helping buy land with significant natural features so it can be preserved in perpetuity. 

The trust helped the Huntertown-based ACRES Land Trust buy what is now Blue Cast Springs Nature Preserve – an approximately 80-acre former health sanitarium site along the Maumee River where the tree stands, Kissel said.

"When you’re celebrating 200 years, it’s nice to have something that will last even longer than that," he said.

Mark Becker, program director for the bicentennial trust, said statewide it is spending $30 million on acquisitions, with the state contributing $20 million and the Lilly Endowment putting in $10 million.

The idea, he said, came from recognition that Indiana’s state park system was created in 1916, as part of the state’s centennial. The current effort, he added, tries to replicate that impact – but by working with local governments, nonprofit conservation groups and community foundations so that land would not necessarily be added to state ownership and require maintenance with state funds.

"The idea also was to take every dollar from that fund and match it one to one locally, with locally raised dollars, so you would have a $60 million impact," Becker said.

To put that figure into perspective, the money in just one year has allowed for acquisitions that would have taken at least a decade if the state had to raise the money using traditional means, Becker said. 

So far in 2016, the trust has helped preserve 11,096 acres in 129 already-acquired sites.

Sixty-two more have been approved but not yet purchased, Becker said.

The sites are located throughout the state, but many are in northeastern Indiana. And although they all may not have the immediate cachet of some of the areas acquired 100 years ago, they do have significant natural features, Becker said.

One that stands out is Meltzer’s Woods, a 60-acre site in Shelby County with a majestic stand of old-growth trees that survived while most of the rest of the county’s woods were cut down for farmland. The woods survived because they were on the homestead of a sawmill owner who, ironically, wanted them preserved, Becker said.

"It’s like a cathedral when you walk through," he said. "It’s amazing when you think the rest of the county once looked like that."

Besides helping with the Blue Cast preserve, Kissel said, the trust has contributed nearly $3 million for ACRES acquisitions. "It really facilitated a lot of projects that we were not able to close on because of funding issues," he said.

Some were projects ACRES worked on for 20 or 30 years. While ACRES often relies on property donations, having the trust’s money available meant ACRES could also buy property, many times at bargain prices, he said.

"They were properties that people wanted to get preserved, but there were owners who needed to get some money from selling the property," Kissel said.

The Bicentennial Nature Trust has been particularly helpful, he said, in providing a special $1 million grant for acquiring land along the Cedar Creek corridor as one of a four so-called signature projects statewide. They consisted of acquisitions that built onto existing conserved lands.

For ACRES, the five or six Cedar Creek properties will fill in gaps near the Dustin Nature Preserve where the ACRES office is located and helping build a continuous corridor of preserved land along the creek.

Used by American Indians and early settlers as part of a transportation system, Cedar Creek is one of three scenic riverways in Indiana, with about 1,300 acres preserved, Kissel said. In Allen County, the entire creekway is canopied with trees.

"If you look on Google maps and look for green (space), it’s the largest area that shows up in Allen County," he said.

Another ACRES acquisition in Allen County aided by the bicentennial trust is the Mengerson Spring Lake Woods and Bog near Lake Everett. Nine additional projects are in DeKalb, LaGrange, Miami, Steuben and Whitley counties.

Fort Wayne Trails also got assistance from the trust for acquisition of right-of-way for the Pufferbelly Trail from Payton County Park to Gump Road, said Kent Castleman, executive director.

Joe Tutterow, director of protection for the nonprofit Nature Conservancy in Indianapolis, said acquisitions helped by the trust are strategic. Organizations competed for funds, and local governments and community foundations as well as the state Department of Natural Resources cooperated in identifying worthy projects.

"The trust has been tremendously helpful to us," Tutterow said. "Our primary strategy is to leverage other resources to allow ours to go further."

Indeed, Becker said, while the trust had the goal of matching local funding 1:1, the actual ratio was closer to 1:1.4.

The state money contributed was not appropriated in the state budget but came from special-purpose fund, such as a tire-recycling fee that had garnered more money than was needed to clean up tire dumps around the state, Becker said. Matching funds came from more than 100 local entities, he added.

"Everybody in the state now is probably within 20 to 30 miles of one of these projects," Becker said.

Earlier this year, at Blue Cast Springs, ACRES hosted an event that Kissel said underscored the impact of the trust.

In the preserve’s former farmland, volunteers planted 200 trees – now just two-foot-high twigs, some topped by a handful of leaves. The trees were the first of 20,000 trees now planted at the preserve, whose large trees house a blue heron rookery on one of the site’s bluffs overlooking the Maumee River.

In conservation circles, there’s a saying, often attributed to Nelson Henderson – "The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit."

At Blue Cast Springs, it’s happened, Kissel said.

"In 200 years," he said, "those big trees may be gone. But these little trees will look just like those trees do now." 

rsalter@jg.net