Why nature preserves are good for Indiana

A pearl crescent butterfly at Hoosier Prairie Nature Preserve, on Wednesday, August 10, 2022, in Schererville. (Credit: Indiana Department of Natural Resources)

John Bacone made it his life’s work to see Indiana protect some of its most natural and undisturbed areas — and he did that through his work as the director of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Division of Nature Preserves

When he started, the state was home to 46 preserves. Bacone dreamed of one day reaching 225.

Indiana has now blown past that number, with Toothwort Woods in Jennings County this month becoming the state's 300th nature preserve. 

Indiana Department of Natural Resources Director Dan Bortner (left) presents John Bacone, the retired director of nature preserves, with the Sagamore of the Wabash from Governor Eric Holcomb during the dedication of Toothwort Woods as the state's 300th nature preserve, Oct. 10, 2023.(Credit: Indiana Department of Natural Resources)

Bacone, 74, is from Chicago but he started his career as a naturalist at Turkey Run State Park.

“That's when I got to understand how great and beautiful Indiana was,” Bacone said. 

He then worked in Illinois to inventory the last remaining natural areas in the state before returning to Indiana in 1977 to become the division’s assistant director. Three years later, he took over as director of the division, holding that job until his retirement in 2019 — and by then the state had reached 287 preserves. 

In an interview with State Affairs, Bacone explained why Hoosiers should protect the state’s natural areas, how they can support those efforts and which ones are his favorites to visit. 

The conversation is edited for clarity, brevity and length.

Q. What is the purpose of nature preserves?

A. They are habitats for some of Indiana's rarest types of natural communities. At Turkey Run State Park you have floodplain forests, ravine forests, upland forests, fens and seeps, cliffs. And each one of those kinds of habitats supports some different and unique species.
And when you go to the northwest part of the state, you have prairies and savannas. And when you go to the northeast part of the state, you have lakes and huge marshes. And when you go to the southern part of the state you have cypress swamps, and we have caves and large forests and Brown County and so on. 

So the purpose of the nature preserves was to try to find and protect the least disturbed examples of those varieties of habitats. And by doing that, you usually can get some of the rare species because that's the kind of habitats they live in. So that's the main purpose of it; and then it's to set them aside for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations. The Legislature, when they passed the law, they wanted to be sure some of the Indiana that we inherited — our heritage, when the first settlers came here — would still be there on into the future for people to see where we came from and where we're going.

Q. Can you tell me more about the Nature Preserves Act in Indiana? 

A. It was passed in 1967. A dedicated state nature preserve is the highest level of protection a piece of ground can have in the state. It's got more protection from a conversion for another use than even a state park does because of the way the law is written. It says you can only take a piece of a nature reserve for an unavoidable and an imperative public use, and then only with the approval of the Natural Resources Commission and the governor.

So regardless of if this land changes ownership, that's always staying with the property. So a new owner has to honor those things that are in there. So it's intended to be kept in its natural condition forever. And the other thing the Nature Preserves Act does in Indiana, which is really great: It's regardless of ownership and, in fact, the act encourages all owners of natural areas — be it the city or county park departments, colleges or universities or other entities — it encourages them to dedicate their land and they can be given that protection under the Nature Preserves Act. A lot of these places would have never been protected had it not been for one of those partners going out of its way to acquire the land and then see that it continued to be protected.

The Bluffs of Beaver Bend is a nature preserve in Indiana. (Credit: Indiana Department of Natural Resources)

Q. Indiana values economic development and new jobs, but it seems like the state also has this culture of valuing natural areas.

A. state parks that were acquired — places like Turkey Run, Shades and McCormick's Creek — were big, large, natural areas. But the economy and ecology go hand in hand. 

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources is involved with the environmental review process. The state has a natural heritage database and that gets checked: Like, what are some of the rare species? Basically, the entities that want to develop, they don't want to have a big fight and destroy high-quality things so they get involved early on and look for a route — like the new Interstate 69 or a new factory that's proposed somewhere — and they find out that they can pick the alternative that's minimizing any kind of environmental issues at all.

Q. What’s the difference between a state park and a nature preserve? 

A. Well, in general, the state parks are striving to have a way to afford recreation so people can enjoy the resource. But you know, a big part of what they're doing is having an infrastructure, maybe it's an inn, some campgrounds and some trails. And then the nature preserves are set up within the parks' master plan. Parks are set up to encourage and establish appropriate recreation, and then the nature preserves are established within the parks to help parks maintain the balance because their vision for the future also includes having significant parcels of parks stay natural because that's a big part of why people come to the parks.

Q. Can people visit nature preserves? 

A. Almost all the nature reserves. For instance, Acres Land Trust just closed a few trails on some of their properties just because they're getting overused and they want to give the area the right to recover. Sometimes nature preserves are not opened yet — the key word being “yet” — because for instance, when the Division of Nature Preserves buys a site, we have to try to find a way to provide appropriate parking.

And then there's a category of nature preserves that are actually just too fragile. For instance, a ‘fen’ is a type of wetland that contains a number of rare species and it's just a mucky, boggy substrate. If you can't put a boardwalk on it to get a boardwalk right up to it, you really don't want people going through it because it can get ruined in a hurry. And then there's a few caves that have Indiana bats or other federally listed species that are just not allowed by federal law to be open. They're only open when the biologists go in and do a count to try to figure out how many bats are in the cave. But the vast majority of nature preserves are open.

Blue-eyed Mary in bloom at Shrader Weaver Nature Preserve, on Thursday, April 28, 2022, near Connersville. (Credit: Indiana Department of Natural Resources)

Q. What are your favorite nature preserves? 

A. That's like trying to pick your favorite albums. One of my favorites is the Hoosier Prairie Nature Preserve, which is in Lake County, and it's a fairly large complex of prairie, savanna and wetland. It has a nice trail and parking lot. 

Another one of my favorites is the Bluffs of Beaver Bend, which is a really neat area in Martin County near the town of Shoals that has a really nice trail in it. And it's about a mile of fringe along the White River and it has almost a mile of 50- to 100-foot high sandstone bluff next to the river, so it's just really scenic. 
And I guess the third one is Portland Arch Nature Preserve. It's got a natural arch and some beautiful sandstone canyons and it's located near the Wabash River in Fountain County.
Shrader Weaver Woods in Fayette County is a beautiful old growth woods that has a really nice hiking trail and parking lot. The woods were protected by the owners for years. They refused to sell it. They didn't want money. They just wanted it to be protected. And eventually they gave it to the Nature Conservancy who gave it to the state to be a dedicated nature preserve.

Q. How can Hoosiers support nature preserves?

A. So one thing is to buy the environmental license plate. The funds from that go to the Benjamin Harrison Conservation Trust which is set up to fund land acquisition. Or they can donate land to any land trust.

Another thing: Nature preserves and state parks have volunteer days — and so do some land trusts where they try to get volunteers to help them with invasive species control and things like that. And I know nature preserves love to have hikers report, you know, 'Hey, I saw you might have a problem' here or there so they can learn, because they have regional ecologists who are responsible for a huge part of the state. So anytime we have anybody else who could be the eyes and ears, and even including doing plant inventories and other things. They really appreciate that.

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Header image: A pearl crescent butterfly at Hoosier Prairie Nature Preserve, on Wednesday, August 10, 2022, in Schererville. (Credit: Indiana Department of Natural Resources)