Looking north to the Dustins

Every conversation I've had regarding Northern Indiana natural areas has pretty much followed the same script -- puzzled looks followed by confident conclusions that there are none. At least none that are worthy. Of course, those opinions are held by Southern Indiana nature lovers, who are anything but unbiased on the subject.

But just as I relearned from a trip with Gary Morrison to Fall Creek Gorge Preserve and Portland Arch Nature Preserve in June, there's more to the state north of I-70 than corn. I already knew that, as I've explored parks and preserves in the flatlands on numerous occasions through my film years. Turkey Run, Shades, Indiana Dunes Lakeshore, Chain o' Lakes, Pokagon immediately come to mind.

I'm not making any announcement here, but let's just say I've started looking north. And I've identified nearly 200,000 acres of protected land on 186 properties between I-70 and the Michigan state line.

With the exception of 850 acres in a state forest near Fort Wayne, none of that acreage is managed for logging. More than 100 are dedicated state nature preserves, protected from development in perpetuity.

As in the Indiana South, the North sites are owned and managed by a mix of national, state and private conservation organizations: National Park Service, Indiana Department of Natural Resources, city and county parks departments, The Nature Conservancy, ACRES Land Trust (Huntertown), NICHES Land Trust (Lafayette) and Shirley Heinz Land Trust (Valparaiso), to name but a few.

They range from the one-acre Smith Cemetery Nature Preserve in Vermillion County to the 15,000-acre Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the state's only national park.

Among the sites are two that bring to mind memories of Tom and Jane Dustin, two of the state and nation's most influential environmental activists of the 20th century. 

One is the Big Walnut Preserve, a 2,697-acre TNC site in Putnam County that, were it not for Tom Dustin and like-minded citizens, would have been flooded for a barge canal in the 1960s. Tom told me that story for my 1996 book Eternal Vigilance: Nine Tales of Environmental Heroism in Indiana

The other is the 85-acre Dustin Nature Preserve, which occupies part of the property Tom and Jane owned, where they told me the Big Walnut story in the mid-1990s. They lived above the Cedar Creek -- one of only three Hoosier waterways protected as Natural, Scenic and Recreational Rivers -- near Huntertown north of Fort Wayne.

That's way up north.

Photographs: Top, Portland Arch Nature Preserve; Left, Bottom, Fall Creek Gorge Preserve.

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