Transforming the earth through caretaking
by Abby Henkel, Communications Director
This article originally appeared in the summer 2019 issue of The Twig, our member newsletter. To see more articles and past issues, click here.
“We strive for a way of life that our descendants will look back on with gratitude, a way of life that is worthy of our magnificent planet.”
– Scott Russell Sanders, conservation writer and Sycamore member, in his book A Conservationist Manifesto
The universe is 14 billion years old. Homo sapiens have been around for about 300,000 years. Agriculture emerged around 10,000 BCE. By the mid-1800s, less than 200 years after stepping foot in the region, European-Americans had cleared much of Indiana’s 20 million acres of forests.
We humans have a massive impact on the land. Our relationship with this environment we love is complex; just as we depend on its natural resources to sustain life and support progress, so too must we embrace the responsibility to protect and restore it for future generations.
That’s why conservation is so essential. For 29 years, Sycamore members have made remarkable progress toward restoring the natural landscape of southern Indiana. In this issue of The Twig, The Stories Issue, we’re focusing on the ways our land stewardship projects have begun to transform places we love, by highlighting stories at several unique preserves.
29,000 TREES IN ONE WEEK
Touch the Earth 2 Preserve
Year acquired: 2006
Take a moment to close your eyes and think about trees. What do you see? You might be picturing yourself in the woods, looking up at tall, sturdy oaks or maples towering overhead. Or maybe it’s a favorite tree from childhood, like the dogwood my siblings and I used to climb in our backyard.
Every tree you’ve ever loved was once a seedling, no bigger than a little twig, vulnerable to a gust of wind or a brief rainstorm. Imagine 20,000 of these peering out of the ground in neat rows, filling the landscape. This is what Touch the Earth 2 Preserve, a Sycamore preserve in Brown County, looks like today.
But it wasn’t always that way, and someday it will look very different. Formerly farmland with two miles of frontage along North Fork Salt Creek, an anonymous family donated the 124 acres to Sycamore in 2006. Sycamore and the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) are working to remove invasive species and restore it to bottomland forest. It’s a critical part of the Lake Monroe watershed, so our restoration work will help protect water quality, reduce soil erosion, and restore wildlife habitat.
In 2017, Sycamore hired Habitat Solutions to help us set up Touch the Earth 2 for success. This began with two rounds of treatments to kill invasive plants, one year apart, followed by planting trees. Almost 29,000 of them, planted in just seven days. The crew used a machine to make a furrow in the dirt and plop in each seedling about halfway down its length. They planted a variety of 12 hardwood species, among them bald cypress, shellbark hickory, swamp white oak, and swamp chestnut oak. The crew then formed a buffer along the creek with pollinator-friendly shrubs like gray dogwood and buttonbush to foster a strong forest margin.
On a visit this past April, one year since the planting, we saw that the trees had a 95% success rate. It’s only the beginning for this fledgling floodplain forest, but we’re encouraged by the progress thus far and can already picture tall, resilient trees forming a lush forest canopy.
Columbia Mine Preserve
Counties: Pike & Gibson
Year acquired: 2012
Many of us would say our creative passions give us life. If I couldn’t sing my heart out in choirs, I’d be a Negative Nancy. But for Steve Gifford, a former Sycamore board member known for his incredible wildlife photography, this hobby-turned-profession helps him manage the troubling symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Sitting in nature, calm and still for hours at a time, is “critical to being able to do things like walk and swallow,” he explains.
And I promise you, it’s relevant to our stewardship story at Columbia Mine Preserve. At 1,043 acres, Columbia Mine is Sycamore’s largest contiguous nature preserve. Much of the land was strip mined by Peabody Coal until 2000. When the company was finished with it, they replanted it with native grasses and trees, then left the land alone.
Columbia Mine sat unmanaged for 12 years before Sycamore stepped in to negotiate the purchase. Bill McCoy, a new Sycamore board member and recently retired Refuge Manger at Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge, called it “the mother of all land protection negotiations” due to complications with the deed that almost prevented the deal entirely, until Sycamore got involved. In that time, invasive plants took over. Japanese honeysuckle and autumn olive grew so thick they crowded out native grasses and shrubs, shifting natural succession and impacting creatures up and down the food chain.
Patoka manages the preserve, while Sycamore remains the owner. Funds for the purchase came from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Indiana Bicentennial Nature Trust, Ducks Unlimited, Sycamore members, and a conservation easement negotiated by Friends of Patoka River NWR.
Bill explains the level of invasive plant chaos when we were finally able to begin rehabilitating the land in 2012: the callery pear and black locust trees had grown so large that a normal bush hog couldn’t handle them. That’s when he hired a hefty Fecon chipper to run them over and break up the trunks into manageable particles. The Refuge also held several prescribed burns to remove brush and invasive plants, and stimulate native grass growth.
But one of the cleverest methods of controlling invasives came to Bill in a particular spark of genius (my words, not his). A fishery study of the 12 lakes created for mining found that the small fish had no forage base due to a lack of cover. In a partnership between Sycamore and Patoka, we used grant funds from American Forests and Alcoa along with donations from local businesses to bundle up the most massive invasive trees, which were too large even for the Fecon chipper, and drop them inside the perimeter of several of the lakes. To build more habitat, Patoka added boulders trucked in by a company that dug them up in the process of creating new landfills. (One such lake, Laura Hare Lake, is pictured above at the top of this post.)
When mining companies restore land to its former state as required by federal regulation, the method they use compacts the soil more than would be ideal for the forest that once covered the land. But it’s perfect for grassland, a habitat in short supply in Indiana. Nesting grassland birds have an increasingly difficult time finding ground on which to nest. The farms they once occupied are becoming uninhabitable as soybeans and corn replace pasture and hayfields. And they need large tracts of land; half an acre here and there won’t cut it.
Bobwhite quail, wild turkeys, bobolinks, and Henslow’s sparrows are among the many species that wouldn’t have a home at Columbia Mine were it not for the new grasslands. Birds of prey like long-eared owls now have the opportunity to hunt in this open environment.
One of the more captivating creatures to inhabit Columbia Mine Preserve is the bobcat. And this is where Steve Gifford comes in. When Sycamore acquired the property, Steve was thrilled for the opportunity to explore 1,100 new acres for photography and wildlife viewing. Sitting in silence, examining animal scat, and tromping through waist-deep marshes isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time. But to Steve, this was not simply a chance to track breathtaking animals like bobcats. His physical state had been declining due to Parkinson’s disease, to the point where he had to leave his engineering job. Photography allowed him to slow down, calming the activity in his brain that triggers life-threatening muscle tightness.
While exploring Columbia Mine, Steve began to notice more bobcat tracks in the mud caused by springtime rains. He tracked down their dens during periods of flooding, when they seek out the driest spots. In an early sighting, while standing waist-deep in a marsh, he heard a curious sound, then turned to watch two young bobcats scramble up a dead tree. He was thrilled to capture the photo below.
Flooding also encourages bobcats to use the old railroad tracks as a convenient sort of wildlife highway. Steve started visiting three or four nights a week – “maybe a waste of time,” he muses, “ but I knew they were there.”
One day while hiding behind a wood pile, with only his camera lens visible amid full-body camo, he spotted a bobcat nearby. Eventually the bold creature came within 15 feet and Steve got onto his knees to snap a series of now-iconic, head-on shots (at the top of this section). Without Steve’s patience and dedication, we might never have these awe-inspiring images.
By the mid-1900s, formerly widespread bobcat populations were at grave risk in North America due to demand for their fur. From 1969 until 2005, they were an Indiana State Endangered Species. Their return is a great conservation success story in southern Indiana. As the largest wild cat native to Indiana, they depend on everything else down the food chain. The fact that their numbers are growing suggests the conservation efforts of Sycamore Land Trust and our colleagues are working. It’s a sign that the critters they prey upon are finding more suitable habitat in the region and strengthening their populations as well.
FARMING PAST, WILD FUTURE
Sam Shine Foundation Preserve & Dan Efroymson Preserve
Years acquired: 2015-18
These preserves are two contiguous properties in the Beanblossom Creek Bicentennial Conservation Area, with fantastic opportunities for habitat restoration. The land includes 240 acres of former crop fields in the floodplain, a steep wooded bluff, and an upland field with karst topography.
Stewarding a new property often starts with cleaning up some messes; here, that meant selling an old pole barn and trailer to make space for more wilderness and reduce waste by giving them a second home. We fenced off a big sinkhole in the upland and hauled out large piles of junk dumped in the past. We hacked Asian bush honeysuckle from the bluff and sprayed reed canary grass in the wet floodplain areas to begin the ongoing process of removing invasive plants.
One simple restoration option would be to plant trees on the property; but as we’ve done at Columbia Mine, we’re excited about the chance to turn part of this preserve into a grassland to create much-needed habitat for grassland birds. After just a few years of less-frequent mowing in the pasture fields, we’ve noticed unusual birds including bobolinks, dickcissels, and Henslow’s sparrows. As we plant native grasses and prairie wildflowers, more pollinators such as monarch butterflies and native bees will make the preserves their home. Strong pollinator populations help humans and wildlife alike: they strengthen ecosystems by helping native plants thrive and pollinating many crops that humans depend on.
With the help of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Sycamore will be restoring the Sam Shine Foundation/Dan Efroymson Preserves to native wetland, an abundantly productive habitat for thousands of species. Tasks will likely include removing field drainage tiles and blocking drainage ditches so that the water can stick around like it once did, before this area was ever farmed. Adding water control structures would allow seasonal drawdowns to create mudflats and shallow water for shorebirds like sandpipers, yellowlegs, and common snipe.