Sycamore's Restoration Projects
Once the land is in Sycamore's care, that's only the beginning. Our Stewardship Department works hard to nurture and restore vibrant natural habitat.
Land stewardship is a pillar of our work on the land Sycamore owns. Once a parcel is entrusted to Sycamore to be protected forever, we begin the process of restoring it to nature. The goal is to create habitat for the plants, mammals, birds, fungi, insects, and microscopic creatures that make up our diverse ecosystems.
Sometimes that entails simply monitoring a healthy forest like Hoot Woods once or twice a year. Other preserves require much more work – maybe they’re overrun with invasive plants, or have become a dumping ground for people who choose to leave their old tires and fridges in natural areas. Every year we develop a stewardship plan with priority areas, projects, and goals. Below you can read about a few of our recent restoration projects.
It’s thanks to our members and project supporters that we’re able to accomplish so much!
Wetland Restoration Along Beanblossom Creek
In summer 2021, Sycamore began work on two major habitat restoration projects at our Fix-Stoelting and Sam Shine Foundation Nature Preserves, located downstream of Beanblossom Bottoms Nature Preserve along Beanblossom Creek. Each project will reclaim existing farmland in the floodplain of Beanblossom Creek and convert them to functioning wetland habitats and native bottomland hardwood forests. These will be Sycamore’s largest and most complex land restoration projects ever undertaken.
The Beanblossom Creek area in Monroe County is one of Sycamore’s priority areas for land protection. This is where we made our first land purchase as an organization in 1995 and now have over 1,600 acres of protected land. The 338.5-acre Shine and 31.5-acre Fix-Stoelting Preserves are near other Sycamore land along Beanblossom Creek, enhancing overall habitat connectivity and the potential for wetland restoration.
The Fix-Stoelting restoration project will encompass a total area of 9.7 acres and include a 2.6-acre pollinator habitat planting, a 2.7-acre native bottomland hardwood reforestation, and a 4.4-acre wetland restoration. The wetland restoration will entail the removal of existing field tile and the construction of embankments to catch and retain periodic floodwater from Beanblossom Creek. In addition to creating habitat for wetland-dependent plant and animal species, this project will also mitigate downstream flooding along Beanblossom Creek.
The Shine restoration project extends across a larger area, consisting of a 5-acre native bottomland tree planting and an 80-acre wetland restoration. The wetland restoration will include similar construction techniques used at Fix-Stoelting but on a much larger scale. We hope to create several permanent open water areas for waterfowl and other bird species that depend on wetlands.
These ambitious projects represent the maturation of Sycamore from a land trust that merely acquires land for protection to one that actively engages in large-scale habitat restoration. While we have performed active land management and projects such as tree plantings in the past, Sycamore has never undertaken projects of this scale.
While passive land restoration (protecting the land and allowing it to recover on its own) has been effective, taking a more active role will enhance the quality and speed of the restoration at these two sites. Sycamore will be directly leading the restoration and monitoring its success by making sure native plant species become established while minimizing encroachment of invasive plant species.
Sycamore has already started collecting baseline data at the two sites so we can monitor the impact of these restoration projects. Partnerships with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been critical in this regard. Sycamore is also grateful for our support from the Indiana Bicentennial Nature Trust and the Sam Shine Foundation, for making these land acquisitions possible and having the vision to see what is possible in the Beanblossom Creek area. The staff at the Monroe County Natural Resource Conservation Service have been critical in site planning and helping Sycamore receive project funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Without the support of our partners and Sycamore members, these projects would not be possible. Thank you for your commitment to protecting and restoring land in southern Indiana.
Reforesting a Floodplain Field at Touch the Earth 2 Preserve
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 May 2018, Sycamore Land Trust planted 30,000 native tree seedlings to reforest a 50-acre field at our Touch the Earth 2 Preserve in western Brown County. This field is bordered by the North Fork Salt Creek, a major water source for Lake Monroe. Reforesting this former crop field will restore important bottom forest habitat and help protect the health of the creek and the lake downstream.
The tree planting was completed by Habitat Solutions, a local forestry and habitat management contractor. This began with two rounds of treatments to kill invasive plants, one year apart, followed by planting trees. 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. Funding for the project came from the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Wetlands Reserve Easement program.
An assessment in April 2019, one year after the planting, reported that the trees had a 95% success rate. It’s only the beginning for this fledgling floodplain forest.
Creating New Habitat 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 this photo.
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.
Sam Shine Foundation Preserve & Dan Efroymson Preserve
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.
Amy Weingartner Branigin Peninsula Preserve
Garlic mustard, like many invasive plants, takes years to eradicate. But the rewards of removing an invasive plant from a landscape are worth the hard work, as we’ve seen at this Monroe County preserve on Lake Monroe. This timeline was originally printed in our 2019 Impact Report.