Undoing the Ingenuity of Wetland Destruction

By Daniel Layton, Land Steward

Not long after starting as a land steward at Sycamore, I managed to get our all terrain vehicle stuck in a deep hole at our Sam Shine Foundation Preserve.

After coming to my senses and being thankful that I hadn’t flipped the thing over, I began to wonder why there should be such a sudden deep hole here in an otherwise perfectly flat field in the bottomland floodplain of Bean Blossom Creek. After my boss Chris Fox kindly came and helped me pull the vehicle out with our truck, I noticed there was actually a straight line of similar holes leading to a ditch that drained into the creek. I kneeled down to inspect one of them and heard water running in it. That seemed strange to me. Turning on my phone’s flashlight, I saw a broken terracotta tube that seemed to be lined up with all the other holes, and sure enough there was water running through it. I then walked down to the ditch and found a similar terracotta outlet pipe with water trickling out of it into the ditch.

You may have heard that Indiana has lost 87% of its wetlands since colonization, making our state one of the most drained in the nation. You may not have heard how that was accomplished. The answer is millions of tons of sections of terra cotta pipes like the ones I literally stumbled (crashed?) upon at our Sam Shine Foundation Preserve. Being a bit of a city slicker myself, Chris Fox explained to me that these were so-called tile drains (named for the terracotta material originally used for the pipe), and the holes were “suck holes’’ that form when the clay tubes break or shift over time and start to suck out the soil above them. These terracotta tubes can be up to two feet long each and weigh up to 30 pounds. They would have been installed by laying them in a trench end to end with a tiny gap left between each individual segment. The soil is then filled back over them. They work by drawing water from the soil into the little gap via osmosis, which then collects in the pipes and flows into a ditch in turn connected to a stream. It’s the same concept as a French drain system used to keep home basements dry (and as it turns out, those are named after Henry French, author of the 1859 book Farm Drainage: The Principles, Processes, and Effects of Draining Land). It seems that the tiles we found had probably been there for a long while, because perforated plastic pipe has been used instead of terracotta since about 1960.

Daniel with two generations of drain tiles at the Sam Shine Foundation Preserve. Photo by Kate Hammel

I was surprised to learn that tile drainage for agriculture has been used since Roman times. However, it was apparently not used in the US until 1828, and it didn’t really ramp up until the passage of the federal Swamp Lands Act in 1850. This law transferred vast amounts of federally owned wetlands to the states on the condition that the proceeds gained from their sale be used to pay for drainage to convert the land to agriculture. Indiana sold this land to private individuals for an average of $1.29 per acre in the 1850s, but due to widespread corruption and speculation associated with the Hoosier State’s poor administration of the program, very little of it was actually drained at the time. Of particular note regarding this corruption was the illegal drainage and subsequent expropriation of Beaver Lake, Indiana’s largest natural lake; the empty basin is now The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands, home of the state’s largest bison herd.

The next big drainage bonanza came with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Roosevelt-era organization more famous for its planting of billions of trees than its destruction of thousands of acres of wetlands. In northwest Indiana, for example, a single “drainage camp” of the CCC drained over 2,000 acres and excavated a million cubic yards of drainage ditches (often with dynamite) in just four years. From the middle of the 20th century up to today, about 40 percent of crops in Indiana are grown in former wetland areas that rely on hundreds of thousands of miles of tile drainage. Environmentally this is unambiguously a ghastly accomplishment, but its scale and the incredible amount of labor invested is nonetheless awe-inspiring.

Two types of drain tiles removed from Shine, now on display in our Stewardship Office. Photo by Kate Hammel

It wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that the ecological impacts of wetland drainage were seriously considered and no-questions-asked government incentives came to an end. Permits have only been required to install new tile drains and ditches since 1977. At Sycamore Land Trust, we are now stewards to hundreds of acres that still have functioning tile drains and drainage ditches. We are recognizing that the most effective way to restore our wetlands is simply to undo the amazing yet destructive ingenuity of Indiana’s early settlers by cutting and plugging the miles of tile drains under our preserves, blocking the artificial drainage ditches they connect to, and generally slowing down the movement of water off of the landscape rather than speeding it up. We are beginning that process this year at the Sam Shine Foundation Preserve, where we are creating constructed wetlands to capture and hold Bean Blossom Creek’s flood waters. We did the same last year at our adjacent Fix-Stoelting Preserve. In both cases, multiple generations of terracotta and plastic tile drains were cut in the process. However, these tile drains are extensive, and removing them all is an expensive and laborious process. It’s your support that makes it possible to undo this ugly legacy of wetland destruction. If nothing else, your help can eventually ensure that I no longer get stuck in any holes caused by tile drains.

Top photo: Daniel stands in a newly-constructed wetland area at Sycamore’s Fix-Stoelting Preserve. Photo by Chris Fox

This article appeared in “The Shine Issue,” the Fall 2023 issue of The Twig, our membership magazine.