Skip to main content

The Journal Gazette

  • Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette Passed in 1967, the Indiana Nature Preserves Act protects wilderness regions across the state, including Hathaway Preserve near Wabash.

  • Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette Ross Run at Hathaway Preserve is protected “forever,” based on the Indiana Nature Preserves Act.

  • Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette Ross Run at Acres' Hathaway Preserve. Hathaway Preerve at RossRun is a gorge with waterfalls, reef fossils, exposed bedrock and verical cliffs as high as 75 feet.

  • David Van Gilder

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 3:14 am

Protecting nature, forever

David Van Gilder

One of Indiana’s fascinating cultural and natural preserves is Mounds State Park near Anderson. You have seen the sign for it as you drive back and forth from Fort Wayne to Indianapolis, but you probably have not heard of the scheme to build a dam on the West Fork White River to create a massive reservoir that would permanently alter Mounds State Park and, within it, a natural area protected forever under the Indiana Nature Preserves Act.

All Hoosiers should care about this story and its outcome. The fate of Mounds State Park could foretell the result of many conflicts between short-term business interests and what we consider to be the permanent protections for the state’s nature preserves.

The General Assembly passed the Indiana Nature Preserves Act in 1967, creating a way to "permanently protect," "in perpetuity" and forever, significant natural areas within the state. Since then, over 250 areas have been dedicated as nature preserves, totaling more than 46,000 acres.

While this may seem like many preserves and a lot of acreage, consider that Indiana contains over 2.3 million acres, that 99 percent of its original forests have been wiped out, 90 percent of its wetlands have been drained and filled, and that dozens of species of plants, animals, and insects have been forever lost. Permanent protection of much less than 1 percent of the state is very small.

Some people contend that birds and fish and animals must always give way to economic development and jobs. Yet, the Nature Preserves Act begins with the following public policy statement: "As part of the continuing growth of the population and the development of the economy of Indiana, it is necessary and desirable that areas of unusual natural significance be set aside and preserved for the benefit of present and future generations before the areas have been destroyed. Once the areas have been destroyed, the areas cannot be wholly restored."

The act goes on to require that dedicated nature preserves be held "in trust for the benefit of the people … against modification or encroachment resulting from occupation, development, or other use that would destroy the natural or aesthetic conditions." The law declares that nature preserves are "the highest, best, and most important use for the public benefit." In competition between near-term business interests and permanent protection for natural areas, the public policy of Indiana is that nature preserves shall win.

More than any other reason, nature preserves are set aside to protect the plants, animals and natural communities found in them. Mounds State Park contains many unique and protected plant and animal communities.

The area that is a dedicated state nature preserve is a fen, which is a community of alkali-loving and tolerant plants, animals and insects created by water seeping through glacial gravel deposits. Fifty-five plant species occupy the protected fen. The starnose mole makes its home in the fen. And the gray petaltail dragonfly, which has been on the planet for 200 million years, is a "state rare species" found at the fen. This special ecosystem might be destroyed if the river is dammed and a static lake is formed.

The plan to build a dam and reservoir is outdated thinking from the early part of the last century and should be rejected out of hand. There are other reasons to reject it, including the cost estimated to be $400 million to $450 million, and the destruction of over 980 acres of forest, hundreds of acres of wetland, and close to seven miles of river habitat. Governmental authorities would need to condemn and take 474 residential and agricultural properties, as well as 154 business/industrial parcels. And the prehistoric mounds in the park would be threatened by the proximity of reservoir shoreline.

But proponents of the plan also would do much damage to the strength and integrity of the Nature Preserve Act, as they seek to remove the permanent protections for the nature preserve within Mounds State Park.

I feel fortunate to have known the author of the Indiana Nature Preserves Act, and worked alongside him for years acquiring, dedicating and protecting natural areas in northeast Indiana. Jim Barrett was kindly, scholarly, and fierce in his commitment to conservation of nature preserves.

For him, the word of the state of Indiana, as set forth in the law, was binding: nature preserves are permanently protected and held in trust for the benefit of the people of Indiana of present and future generations. No part of a nature preserve may be taken except after a finding of the existence of an "imperative and unavoidable public necessity" for another public use.

Most Hoosiers I know adhere to a common-sense principle: "say what you mean and mean what you say." Our state has eloquently stated its public policy for nature preserves: "It is essential to the people of Indiana that the people retain the opportunities to: (1) maintain close contact with the living communities and environmental systems of the earth … and (2) benefit from the scientific, aesthetic, cultural, and spiritual values the living communities and environmental systems possess."

We should reject the thinking that current economic interests should override "forever" protections to nature preserves in Indiana. The dam idea should be scuttled. Our nature preserves must be protected now and forever.