Sycamore, land trusts and Green Drinks Bloomington

In a way, I feel a little like the Sycamore Land Trust’s distant-but-still-loving, journalistic godfather. I wasn’t in the room when Scott Russell Sanders, Tom Zeller and other Sassarfas Audubon Society activists conceived Southern Indiana’s premier land trust some 27 years ago. But I was the first person they called; I wrote the Herald-Times article in February 1991 that announced the birth to the world.

Sixteen years later, I penned a front-page story in The Bloomington Alternative about its adolescence titled “Preserving quality of place.” A decade after that, at adulthood, I profiled 16 Sycamore properties in my Guide to Natural Areas of Southern Indiana. In between, before my first knee surgery, I served as a land steward on Sycamore’s Campbell Preserve in eastern Monroe County.

So, it seems natural that the largest public presentation I’ve made since I don’t know when – at this Wednesday’s monthly meeting of Green Drinks Bloomington – will be called “Intimate Sycamore Landscapes.” The public event runs from 5:30-7:30 at the Upland Brewery Banquet Facility in Bloomington.

In addition to showing an eight-minute slideshow of the same name featuring more than 100 Sycamore images from my guidebook journey, I’ll be talking about the role Sycamore and conservation organizations play in safeguarding what precious little is left of our state’s natural heritage.

Here are some early notes.

- Indiana’s land mass totals 36,000 square miles or 23 million acres. My Guide to Natural Areas of Southern Indiana includes a mere 600,000 acres in Southern Indiana that is managed for natural characteristics. More than a third of that – 40 percent of the Hoosier National Forest and 100 percent of Indiana State Forests – are subject to logging and other extractive uses and / or development.

Fifteen percent – nearly one in six acres – is protected in perpetuity by a land trust.

- Land trusts protect and conserve land with unique, natural characteristics by purchasing it outright or managing privately owned land through conservation easements that limit harmful uses.

Protecting more than 9,000 acres of natural Southern Indiana from development, Sycamore is the region’s second largest conservation group. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is the largest and oldest, with more than 80,000 acres under its stewardship. Central Indiana Land Trust preserves 1,000 acres; the Oak-Heritage Conservancy, 700 acres; and the Oxbow Inc., 100 acres.

- Simple math shows the significance of the work Sycamore and the land trusts do.

In pre-European settlement times, Indiana’s 23 million acres were all, by definition, natural. Aside from the rivers, lakes and a small patch of prairieland in Western Indiana, the entire state was covered by a vast, unbroken hardwood forest canopy.

Nearly nine of every 10 Hoosier acres – 87 percent – were forested, including all of Southern Indiana. Even the extensive, post-glacial swamplands of Northwest and Northeast Indiana were largely wooded.

At 640 acres per square mile, more than 20 million acres of natural Indiana were wooded. Today, the percentage is about 20.

The largest stand of virgin timber in Indiana is the 190-acre Wesselman Woods in Evansville. At 88 acres, Pioneer Mothers Memorial Forest in the Hoosier National Forest south of Paoli is second. Donaldson’s Woods in Spring Mill State Park is third at 60.

Among the “Intimate Sycamore Landscapes” slideshow images is a long-distant shot of a bald eagle nest at the Beanblossom Bottoms Nature Preserve, near which today stands a popular viewing platform. That reminded me of the 2007 Alternative story, which began:

Christian Freitag's baritone voice grows perceptibly bigger when he talks about the pair of bald eagles that nest on Sycamore Land Trust (SLT) property.

"There aren't very many of those in this part of the state right now," the director of the nonprofit land conservation group says. "An active nest on our property is a pretty nice affirmation of our work. If you look at that you say, 'This is actually doing something.'"

Other slideshow images include protected swamps, wetlands, prairies, sedge meadows, bottomland forests and forested ridge tops; intermittent streams, creeks and ponds; birds, turtles and butterflies; grasses, fungi and wildflowers; red cedar and bald cypress trees, both rare; even a now-swampy, abandoned coal mine.

Protecting all of that is indeed doing something. Just what a godfather likes to see.

Photographs: Top, Eagle Slough Natural Area; Second, The Cedars Preserve; Third, Beanblossom Bottoms Nature Preserve; Bottom, Trevlac Bluffs Nature Preserve.


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