Content reproduced with permission from Indiana University Press. The following essay was published in The Natural Heritage of Indiana, copyright 1997, Indiana University Press.
We believe that this country will not be a permanently good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a reasonably good place for all of us to live in. .. Our cause is the cause of justice for all in the interest of all.
-Theodore Roosevelt, White House Conference of Governors (1908)
It is not possible to summarize the nature of natural Indiana today in the limited space available here. The range of situations is too vast and the approaches to management of our natural resources are too varied to hope to explore more than a sampling of the total. But developing an understanding of how today's management strategy came to be will help us to determine the rightness of what we are presently doing, and should guide us in designing our future course of action.
During the 1930s, both the quantity and the general health of Indiana's natural resources (and also its economy) reached their nadir. As a result of record high temperatures and record droughts, crops withered and the soil became airborne throughout much of the Midwest. One Indiana farmer remarked to his neighbor in 1936, "You have been wishing for years that you had a rich prairie farm. Well, another year or two of this drought and the wind will deliver one to your doorstep!" Rural life became so desperate that farmers in the prairie counties in northwest Indiana burned ear corn for fuel to heat their houses, because a wagonload of corn would not buy a ton of coal.
Our original forests were long since gone, and picking the bones of the second-growth stands had reduced the size of the state's woodpile to an all-time low. Loss of forestland, widespread erosion of soils and stream siltation, general destruction of habitat, shrinking wetlands, and flagrant abuse of hunting regulations had all but destroyed the dwindling wildlife resource. In the late 1930s, raccoons, presently at near-nuisance levels, were so scarce that locals would bet a coonskin as the ultimate wager.
Worldwide, as in Indiana, the Great Depression stalked the land, keeping both the spirits and the economy at their lowest ebb in two centuries. Poor people do desperate things that make the land even poorer. Battered landscapes and abandoned, eroding farms were a too-common scene in much of the state in the late 1930s. Indiana's resource base had suffered mightily by the eve of World War II.
It was against this backdrop that the Second Wave of Conservation swept across Indiana, as it did elsewhere in the United States-the first wave having occurred during the Theodore Roosevelt administration early in the twentieth century. This was the time when the alphabetical agencies came to the forefront of American conservation: the Soil Erosion Service (SES) initiated erosion control, then with county-based offices, overall land capability classification, and farm landscape planning, the agency matured into the Soil Conservation Service (SCS); the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) attempted to establish a balance between farm production and market demand; the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) refurbished our state parks, state forests, and recreational areas; wildlife and fisheries research and habitat dollars filtered down from Pittman-Robinson (P-R) and Dingell-Johnson (D-J) funds. Later on, the Indiana Department of Conservation (DOC) became the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). At long last the fortunes of the state's resources were climbing upward, an end to the long downward spiral that had lasted one and three-quarters centuries. The era of agency-based management of the Indiana's natural resources was now under way.
For resource management to be effective, it needs to be based on the latest and best information available. Determining ownership is often the initial step in land management. Today it is relatively easy to obtain information about the nature of our natural resources, who owns a tract of land, or how one of Indiana's more than 3 million parcels of real estate is used and managed. Remotely sensed data obtained electronically by satellite not only give a wide-scale picture of the patterns on the Indiana landscape, but also allow us to determine the exact location of any specific point via the Geographic Positioning System (GPS). Statistics are compiled routinely about land use, enabling quick access to the relative amounts of land held privately versus publicly, or that devoted to natural vegetation, forestry, agricultural production, industrial sites, or civic landscapes.
It took only 50 years to transfer essentially all of Indiana from a common ownership by Native Americans to public state ownership to private ownership. The vast majority of Indiana remains in private ownership today. Landownership grants a wide range of choices as to how that land is used. As such, any landowner pretty much chooses the destiny of a given parcel of real estate. But do we own the land, either individually or jointly, in the real sense of the word, or do we merely have access to certain benefits and privileges during our temporary occupancy! How we answer these questions weighs heavily on the future of natural lands in Indiana, and elsewhere. As Robert Frost wrote, "The land was ours, before we were the land's."
In less than two centuries we changed the Indiana landscape from 7/8 to 1/6 forestland. More important, the timbered portion went from one large block of essentially unbroken primeval forest to tens of thousands of wooded tracts, the majority of which are now less than 40 acres in size. Prairie land was reduced from about 1 acre in 10 originally to fewer than 1,000 total acres today. Wetlands were reduced from as much as 5.6 million acres during wet seasons to less than 800,000 acres today. Meanwhile developed land covered with civic landscapes and transportation corridors increased to some 4 million acres, or 1 acre in 6, and is still increasing rapidly. Travel routes changed from a few Indian trails originally to more than 92,000 miles of roads and highways today (1992 data). In contrast, we have only 45,000 miles of rivers and streams.
During this same two-century period, agricultural land increased from essentially none to nearly two-thirds of Indiana's more than 23 million acres. During the 1990s, in any given year, more than 1 acre in 4 of Indiana's land is planted to corn, while soybeans cover at least 1 acre in 5. Our state is predominantly agricultural, and will continue to be so during the foreseeable future. The preponderance of Indiana's crop production occurs on highly mechanized cash grain farms, which progressively decrease in number and increase in acreage.
Yields of agricultural crops have increased steadily in recent decades to today's all-time highs, but I fear that more of these gains have come from improvements in the nutrient and water pumps (the plants), rather than in the well (soil fertility levels). Despite modern fertilization practices, we cannot help but wonder how protein content, vitamin level, and mineral presence in our farm grains have fared during recent decades, as many of our soils have likely become depleted of the micronutrients which are crucial to plant nutrition, hence animal and human health.
But agricultural practices are changing rapidly as farmers discover that yearly tillage turns the soil "wrong side up," as a Native American told the midwestern pioneer fanner a century and a half ago. Limited tillage and no-till cropping systems favor earthworms and wildlife, save fuel costs, and reduce soil erosion.
"We saved 520,000 tons of soil last year in Clay County," proclaims a Soil Conservation Service-sponsored billboard along 1-70 near the Vigo-Clay county line. Such an amount of soil is equivalent to an eight-inch-deep furrow slice covering more. than 500 acres of land. "T' by 2000 (i.e., reducing soil losses to formation rates by the turn of the century) may yet become a reality. Every county in the state now has a comprehensive "Soil Survey Report" with detailed soils maps along with excellent information on erosion control, land management, and overall land-use capabilities. Obviously, keeping soil in place means cleaner waters, greater fish diversity, fewer threatened mussel populations, higher-quality recreational experiences, plus saving millions of dollars' worth of precious topsoil.
Farmers now eagerly discuss the merits of ecologically sound land management, organic farming, and alternative agricultural crops. Sensitivity to problems associated with excessive chemical use is growing, as is an interest in Amish farming practices and lifestyles. We have much to learn from the Amish and their gentler, more sensitive approach to working with the land. For example, Amish farmland is one of the few places loggerhead shrikes are holding their own in Indiana. Perhaps these birds of prey serve as land-use equivalents of "canaries in the coal mine." One day we may even go back to rotation farming as, knowingly, the Amish have always farmed.
Should rotation farming return, we may witness a resurgence of such farm wildlife as cottontails and bobwhites as their food and cover improve. If this happens, we can stop complaining that hawks, foxes, and coyotes have caused the long downward population spirals of farm game species, instead of blaming the real culprits, the bare fi.elds. Throughout Indiana's grain belt, during the past 40 years, a rabbit would have had to carry its lunch and a tent to have any chance of survival on most grain farms.
Marginal croplands-those too steep for sustained intensive cropping without excessive soil loss-are being retired from grain production. Such subsidy-based encouragement as the decade-long Cropland Reserve Program (CRP) has returned some 2 million acres to permanent vegetation. In many places the greensward now covers the rolling hills of Indiana like a benediction. Where there is hope, there is life.
Given the will and the incentive, and with cardul stewardship, land will revert quickly to a more natural environment [n many cases it is a matter of economics. As we [md that long-term, sustainable land use pays and is socially preferable, better management will follow suit. We have come a long way from the time when the hardscrabble farmer stated, "You can't tell me nothin' 'bout farmin' as I've already wore out two farms, and now I'm workin' on my third." And there is little doubt that we already know how to farm a lot better than we are now doing Certainly we know that we should farm in more environmentally sensitive ways.
Much marginal farmland, especially in southern Indiana, has reverted to forest, in many cases following farm failures and land abandonment during the Great Depression of the 1 930s. A majority of this land on steeper slopes should never have been cleared and cultivated in the first place, and- frequently suffered severe erosion while it was farmed. Despite the land degradation that often occurred, some of these tracts now contain excellent second-growth hardwoods, and such forest wildlife as ruffed grouse are doing well therein. A case in point is the Deam Wilderness of Brown County Although it fails to qualify as true wilderness, still it is one of the largest essentially unbroken forest tracts in the state presently, practically all of which was previously cut over or completely cleared.
Even today, there is still far too much highgrading of the state's finest hardwood species-black walnut, white, red, and black oaks, ash, and wild black cherry. High timber prices have encouraged excessive harvest of top-quality walnut and oak, especially, causing them to be cut heavily, and often prematurely, to meet domestic demand for veneer and solid lumber, and to supply foreign markets. The extent of total forestland in Indiana has nearly stabilized, with regrowth acreage approximately equaling that lost to development and cleared to create additional farmland. But erosion of the quality of many privately owned stands continues when only the less desirable species and individual trees are left as seed sources. Our local hardwood industries, especially those producing high-quality furniture, continue to have problems with supply of first-rate lumber and veneer.
In many localities, wooded tracts are avidly sought for real-estate development and as private home sites. Seeing potential hardwood timber deficiencies looming, many shrewd investors, domestic and foreign, are purchasing Indiana forestland to manage long-term.
Timber stand improvement CTSI) has expanded in scope and techniques, with some progress being made in improving the quality of hardwood stands statewide. Cost-share funding for TSI has given incentive to many forest landowners, but growth and regeneration of hardwood species often takes a longer time than we are willing to wait, or longer than we feel we have available. Then, too, TSI work often removes hollow beeches and other "low-value" species, including some mast-producing trees, which have a high wildlife value. Forest management plans now consider wildlife and recreation values in addition to timber production. Old-growth stands, including their snags, den trees, and mast trees, are being protected for both hunted and non-game species of wildlife which require mature forest habitat.
The Classified Forest Program, in place in Indiana since the 1920s, has been a strong incentive to owners of private forestland to protect and manage their timber holdings according to recommended forestry practices. Property tax reductions on Classified Forest lands, which typically yield low economic return to their owners, encourage forestland holders to participate. Some of our best remaining natural areas have been protected as Classified Forests since the 1920s or 1930s (see also chapter 52, "Inventory and Preservation").
Public scrutiny of clearcutting practices in the Hoosier National Forest and elsewhere has resulted in clearcuts being diminished in individual size and overall extent Currently new data are being sought to support different forest management objectives and techniques. We are beginning to look more seriously at forests as fully functioning ecosystems which provide homes to a range of species from trees to warblers to wildflowers, instead of just as sites for growing timber, or only for human recreation, or as habitat for hunting. As populations of summer resident birds that winter in neotropical forests continue to decline, we are searching for answers to how forests in Indiana and South America are linked. Saving ecosystems is prerequisite to saving species.
Wildlife managers have improved their art and craft by basing their management practices on sound ecological principles of habitat manipulation and careful analysis of population dynamics. Witness the successful harvests of species once extirpated or nearly lost from Indiana-whitetail deer (now almost too successful), wild turkey, beaver, and ruffed grouse. Through environmental education, wildlife management programs and practices are now understood by both hunters and anglers, and the public at large from this has come a groundswell of support for wildlife-related activities and a general understanding that managing species successfully first requires the proper management or ecosystems.
Eagles and peregrine falcons are being successfully reintroduced after decades of no Indiana nests. And river otter have been returned to the wild coverts along the major streams and lakes of Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge and the Tippecanoe River drainage in northern Indiana. Bobcats are sighted occasionally or found as roadkills, confirming their presence here. It is sometimes tempting to believe the reports of cougar sightings by southern Indiana locals, but so far definite proof of their existence is lacking. Some of us even dream of tiny wild populations of black bear and elk being reintroduced in the largest contiguous tracts of natural cover such as the Jefferson Proving Ground in southeastern Indiana.
As mentioned earlier in more detail by John Bacone, non-game species have gained enormously in stature and financial support Witness the surging popularity of the check-off option for those qualifying for Indiana state income tax refunds, and also the demand for environmental license plates. The Classified Wildlife Habitat Program (a companion to the Classified Forest Program) has the objective of encouraging landowners to protect lands for wildlife enhancement, with similar tax incentives available to participants.
And note the interest in everything connected with saving wildlife and wild plants-from jewelry to sweatshirts to the exquisite prints and paintings by Nashville-based wildlife artist Bill Zimmerman. There is no question concerning public interest in protecting wild plants and animals or the will to do it, we need only the space in which to accomplish it, and the additional funding necessary to make it work.
How much farmland can we afford to lose to development and urban sprawl?
The foregoing obviously does not mean to imply that all is well with what remains of Indiana's natural vegetation cover and the fauna it harbors. Without sensitive stewardship, we can no longer assume that our remaining natural heritage can survive the changes that inevitably will come to the Indiana landscape. But what Indiana is, and what it can become, in the way of natural landscapes, is a predominant challenge as we enter the twenty-first century. Despite the enormous gains made in resource management since World War II, we must guard against being lulled into a complacency that the future has been secured.
Our generation of ecologists and land managers, like each generation that preceded us, has conviction that we have most of the answers; that we know for sure how the global ecology is arranged and works; that our approach to saving whatever is left of the biosphere in a somewhat natural state is the proper one. That is an understandable posture because more is known today, and the practice of information gathering, storage, retrieval, and manipulation relies on a more sophisticated technology which daily grows both more complex and capable.
But we also need to realize that those who follow us will be better informed than we are about how the natural world works and what must be done to protect it. Rather than set all of our present-day management practices into concrete, we need to defer changes, whenever uncertainty exists, to those who will continue our cause.
The natural heritage that will continue into the future is the choice of our generation. Let us hope that our actions as custodians of the Indiana landscape of today do not cause history to judge us harshly.
All of us are somewhere on a long arc between ecological ignorance and environmental responsibility. What freedom means is freedom to choose. What civilization means is some sense of how to choose, and among what options. If we choose badly or selfishly, we have, not always intentionally, violated the contract.
-Wallace Stegner, The Gift of Wilderness