Stay ahead of the curve as a political insider with deep policy analysis, daily briefings and policy-shaping tools.Request a Demo
Why nature preserves are good for Indiana
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.
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.
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.
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.
Header image: A pearl crescent butterfly at Hoosier Prairie Nature Preserve, on Wednesday, August 10, 2022, in Schererville. (Credit: Indiana Department of Natural Resources)
Gov. Holcomb taps Boone County Council president to serve out remainder of Comptroller Tera Klutz’s term
Republican Elise Nieshalla, president of the Boone County Council, will serve out the remaining three years of State Comptroller Tera Klutz’s term.
Gov. Eric Holcomb announced the appointment of Nieshalla, a real estate investor, on Tuesday. As state auditor, Nieshalla will oversee the balancing of Indiana’s checkbooks and payment of all state employees.
“My appreciation runs deep for the strong financial standing of our state and the integrity in which the State Comptroller’s Office is run,” Nieshalla said in a statement. “It is truly my privilege to receive Gov. Holcomb’s appointment to serve our great state and local units of government by upholding the highest standards of fiscal responsibility and offering tremendous Hoosier service.”
Earlier this year Klutz announced she would resign Nov. 30, roughly a year after she was reelected. Klutz, who was first appointed by Holcomb in 2017, is the fourth state auditor in a row to not finish their term, enabling the sitting governor to choose a replacement.
Nieshalla was already well-known within Republican circles. She previously ran for treasurer in 2022 against three other Republicans, losing to current Treasurer Daniel Elliott at the state Republican convention. At the time, the convention loss of Nieshalla and other Republicans more closely aligned with the party establishment was seen as a rebuke of the Holcomb wing of the party.
Nieshalla, who lives in Zionsville, is also president of the Indiana County Councils Association and the chairwoman of the Association of Indiana Counties’ 2023 Legislative Committee. She has a bachelor’s degree from Oral Roberts University and a master’s degree from Indiana University.
She’ll be sworn in on Dec. 1 and will serve until at least the 2026 election when voters will have the option to choose the next state comptroller.
Holcomb praised Nieshalla in an emailed statement.
“Elise is a dedicated and proven public servant who has committed much of her professional life to bettering her community through service,” Holcomb said. “She has shared her financial expertise to help steer and shape the bright future of Boone County which gives me great confidence she’ll do the same serving Hoosiers as our next State Comptroller.”
On Tuesday, Indiana lawmakers returned to the Statehouse for Organization Day, the ceremonial start to the legislative session, ahead of what legislative leaders are saying should be a low-key, short session.
“We’ll probably take a pretty measured approach on what we address … , maybe fine tune some things,” House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, said during an Indiana Chamber of Commerce legislative panel on Monday. “Short sessions are supposed to be for emergency items only.”
Not only will 2024 be a non-budget-writing legislative session mandated to end by mid-March, but this session also falls in the midst of a heated Republican gubernatorial primary. There’s no obvious assumed winner who can lead policy discussions ahead of the election, nor has Gov. Eric Holcomb laid the groundwork for any major policy changes in his last legislative session.
Plus, recent criminal corruption charges against a former lawmaker — and the potential for other lawmakers to be charged in connection with the case — has put a cloud over the Indiana General Assembly.
Still, some minor bills are expected to move, and something can always pop up. Here’s a breakdown of some of the issues State Affairs expects to be debated, and three that probably won’t move.
Both Huston and Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, said they want to limit the situations in which schools allow third graders to advance to fourth grade when they fail the IREAD-3, the state’s reading comprehension test.
During the 2021-2022 school year, more than 18% of students failed the test because they were not reading at a third grade level.
“When you pass that kid on, and they aren’t prepared to succeed, you’re not doing that kid a favor,” Huston said, following his Organization Day speech in which he laid out his caucus’ priorities.
Huston’s goal is to make Indiana the No. 1 state in the nation for third grade reading proficiency by 2027.
Democrats cautioned that it may be too soon to make major changes to how IREAD scores are handled in Indiana. During the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers passed a science of reading bill.
“We need to make sure that schools have the opportunity to train their teachers, to implement these strategies across the board before we start throwing new legislative hurdles in the way,” said Sen. Andrea Hunley, D-Indianapolis. “We have to give [new recommendations] time to work before we start, say, failing all children or retaining a whole class of children.”
Continuing to re-think K-12 education
Last legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill seeking to expand work-based learning in high school, but Huston emphasized during his Organization Day speech that legislators can still do more to transform the K-12 school system.
Huston said House Republicans will push to allow state money typically set aside for students pursuing a college education to be used to obtain certificates and certifications for “high demand, high wage jobs.”
“We must continue to adjust the way we think about K-12 education in order to meet the needs of all students, including those who aren’t interested in pursuing a two-or four-year degree,” Huston said. “Let’s use this session to build on skill and work-based learning, and let’s align our funding to this goal.”
This fall the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce took a delegation of Indiana lawmakers and others to Switzerland to see how the country’s apprenticeship program operates. Expect more changes in the coming years that would enable Indiana’s K-12 system to more closely mirror that of Switzerland’s.
Child care access
During his own Organization Day speech, Bray emphasized a need to expand affordable child care options for young children.
“Day care is a constant challenge from the Ohio River to the Michigan line, trying to find day care at all if you can find it and whether it’s affordable,” Bray said.
He pointed to a legislative study committee on the topic which recommended some minor reforms to the system, such as lowering the age requirement for working unassisted in an infant or toddler classroom to age 18 from 21 and requiring the state to review how it can streamline child care regulations to increase availability.
Don’t expect lawmakers to throw more money at the child care system since 2024 isn’t a budget-writing year.
Health care costs
Lawmakers passed multiple bills during the 2023 legislative session aimed at cutting health care costs, ranging from limiting physician noncompete agreements to creating benchmarks for how high hospital prices in the largest hospital systems should be.
But Bray said he expects lawmakers to offer more legislation on the topic this year in order to help drive down costs long term.
A legislative study committee on the topic backed recommendations to require more disclosures by insurance companies on their “prior authorization” process for medical care, as well as require medical providers to give lawmakers a six-month notice for mergers or acquisitions.
It’s unclear whether legislation on water access will actually pass either chamber, but the topic is almost certain to come up in discussions.
Earlier this year, the Indiana Economic Development Corp. announced plans to pump water from the Wabash River aquifer to the LEAP district in Lebanon. Tippecanoes citizens have been vocal in their opposition to the plan, and just this week the Tippecanoe County Commissioners voted to put a moratorium on high volume water exports.
Legislative leaders say they want to avoid legislating on the issue until they get more data. The Indiana Finance Authority and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce are studying the issue.
“We’re not going to take any other steps until we have an opportunity to study to make sure that there’s ample water for the projects that we’re trying to bring into the state of Indiana,” Bray said, “and we understand just how much is too much to take away from a particular community.”
But, even if leadership would rather wait to address the elephant in the room, lawmakers are almost certain to file legislation.
Issues that won’t move: Gaming
For at least the past two legislative sessions, lawmakers have filed bills to legalize internet casino gaming, or iGaming. It appeared momentum was on proponents’ sides. Until this month.
Earlier this month former state Rep. Sean Eberhart agreed to plead guilty to criminal fraud charges that federal prosecutors say stem from influencing casino legislation in return for the promise of a $350,000-a-year job.
Both Bray and Huston said Monday they don’t expect any gaming legislation to move in 2024.
During Monday’s Chamber panel, Bray said the federal investigation “makes gaming extremely hard to engage in.”
“It taints the Statehouse, it diminishes the confidence that people have in the integrity of the Statehouse, it causes an awful lot of problems and it makes it particularly difficult to engage in that kind of policy,” Bray said.
Issues that won’t move: Marijuana
Lawmakers studied the impact legalizing marijuana would have on the workforce and youth in an interim committee this fall, but the committee never issued any recommendations for legislation.
Both legislative leaders and Holcomb have emphasized their reluctance to legalize marijuana until at least after the federal government reschedules it. Huston reiterated his hesitation on Monday.
“No one has made a compelling case to me yet on why legalizing marijuana or having more people use cannabis in the state of Indiana is a positive thing,” Huston said. “So until I hear that answer, I wouldn’t expect a whole lot of change.”
Likewise, Bray said its passage “seemed unlikely.”
The ceremonial start of the legislative session is just that. Lawmakers won’t start moving bills until they return to the Statehouse in January.
The gist Destiny Wells, the 2022 Democratic secretary of state nominee, announced she is running for the Indiana attorney general’s office next year, hoping to oust Republican incumbent Todd Rokita. Earlier this year Rokita, a vocal supporter of social conservative causes, announced he was seeking reelection. This race could be among the more competitive races …
Indiana’s unemployment rate remained steady for October at 3.6% after inching up each of the five previous months.
The state’s jobless rate was unchanged from September, following a slow rise from April when it was 3.0%, according to an Indiana Department of Workforce Development report released Friday.
August’s rate is Indiana’s highest since August 2021 but still remains below the national mark of 3.9%. Indiana’s rate is the same as Ohio’s and below those in Michigan (4.1%), Kentucky (4.2%) and Illinois (4.6%), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Indiana’s rate was tied for 34th highest in the country.
Indiana had about 123,000 job seekers during October, with nearly 3.3 million people employed, according to preliminary federal data.
Indiana’s October private employment topped 2.8 million people, which the Department of Workforce Development said is a new private employment peak. Industries that showed employment increases for October included construction (+2,500), private educational and health services (+2,400) and leisure and hospitality (+1,900).
“Indiana’s labor market continues to show strength for both workers and employers,” Workforce Development Commissioner Richard Paulk said in an agency statement. “Though the state set a private employment record, employers still need to fill many more critical jobs.”