DNR celebrates 300 nature preserves, humble beginnings

Since John Bacone joined DNR in 1978, the number of nature preserves in Indiana has grown sixfold: from 46 to 300.

By: - October 16, 2023 6:30 am

Toothwort Woods Nature Preserve’s first hikers explore a preserve hillside hiking trail following the dedication ceremony. (Courtesy John Maxwell/Indiana DNR)

The Hoosier Prairie Nature Preserve was smoldering.

It was late October, 1978: Indiana’s first prescribed burn. The ancient prairie ecosystem requires periodic fire to regenerate, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

And John Bacone — one of just three employees within DNR’s Nature Preserves Division — was nervous. He’d joined, early career, that same year.

After dark, with the fire out, he and a colleague returned to check on the nature preserve’s black oak trees.

“I can always see this in my mind,” Bacone told the Capital Chronicle 45 years later. “We walked through the blackened landscape, through the savannahs.”

He described unscathed deer trails criss-crossing the burned-out prairie in stark white lines. And the trees, he said, “were hollow like chimneys” with sparks “flying out of the top of them.”

“I could feel like, ‘Wow, this is like it would have been in 1832,'” Bacone said. “… We’ve just seen a fire sweep through this area. And then we also know that next spring and summer it’s going to be super green and full of flowers.”

Since Bacone joined DNR in 1978, the number of nature preserves in Indiana has grown sixfold: from 46 to 300. More than 50,000 acres of Hoosier land lie within dedicated nature preserves, in the most widely distributed system of protected lands in the state.

‘Irreplaceable’ places

Nature preserves protect Indiana’s highest-quality natural lands, whether that’s landscapes seldom touched since the state was settled or species that face extinction.

Indiana established its first two state parks in 1916, according to DNR, and now has 24.

But conservationists saw other Hoosier land at risk of degradation and destruction.

The Vernon Fork of the Muscatatuck River flows alongside the new Toothwort Woods Nature Preserve. (Courtesy John Maxwell/Indiana DNR)

The Indiana General Assembly approved the Nature Preserves Act in 1967.

“It is necessary and desirable that areas of unusual natural significance be set aside and preserved for the benefit of present and future generations before the areas have been destroyed,” reads the act. “Once the areas have been destroyed, the areas cannot be wholly restored.”

Attorney Jim Barrett wrote in the law that the areas are “irreplaceable” as laboratories for scientific research, reservoirs of potentially useful natural materials and habitats for species “whose diversity enriches the meaning and enjoyment of human life.”

Barrett, a founder of Indiana’s ACRES Land Trust, called the areas “living museums,” where people can ponder the “interdependence of all forms of life” and be reminded of human health’s “vital dependence … upon the health of the natural communities.”

Pine Hills Nature Preserve in Montgomery County became the state’s first, in 1969.

Its most recent — as of last week — is Toothwort Woods Nature Preserve in Jennings County. It’s the only place in Indiana where all four native Hoosier toothwort plant species are found growing together, according to DNR.

And Barrett’s words, straight from Indiana Code, were read aloud at its dedication as the state’s 300th nature preserve.

The program’s successes, however, belie its humble beginnings.

Scrounging for resources

Bacone joined DNR fresh off a three-year gig surveying Illinois for unprotected land worth preserving.

“That was done kind of in one fell swoop,” Bacone said of the Illinois project. “When I started working here (at DNR), … we tried to duplicate it. But we never did get, like ‘Here’s a ton of money, go inventory the state.’ So we did what we could when we could.”

The Division of Nature Preserves was small at the time: Director Bill Barnes, Assistant Director Bacone, a secretary and a federally funded field assistant. Though the team was crammed into “a couple of teeny rooms” at the back of DNR’s State Parks offices, Bacone recalled only “great respect and cooperation.”

Barnes maintained detailed files for potential nature preserves — the initial sites were based off an influential conservationist book — and updated them as he visited the land and owners. And he’d call on the rest of the agency for borrowed equipment, or even time — like to fence the new properties.

Trees sway in the breeze alongside Fall Creek at Fort Harrison State Park. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

“(Barnes) would do (fencing) with volunteer workdays. There was just so many people that always were showing up to help get the job done because he didn’t have any staff,” Bacone said. “… It was just wonderful cooperation … and it kind of grew from there.”

It grew, according to Bacone, with “fortuitous bumps” in resources. He became director of the division in 1980.

In the 1970s, as the state considered creating a coastal management program, the division got a grant to inventory that area.

Later, when Indiana wanted to take over administration of a coal mining and land restoration program from the federal government, it needed a database of natural areas. It used DNR’s, and Bacone’s division gained two coal region-focused employees. The state gained primacy in 1983, according to an annual oversight report.

The division was also asked to inventory urban U.S. Department of Defense properties, like Fort Benjamin Harrison in Marion County — right as the federal government began decommissioning those properties.

“They were going to get rid of these military installations (and) we had already done this report. I think it helped Evan Bayh decide, when he was governor, that this is kind of a neat place,” Bacone said.

The former fort — opened as a state park in 1996 — contains four different nature preserves. Bacone noted that the park is the largest contiguous forested block in central Indiana. Hoosiers have converted most of the region’s forests into farmland or developed upon it.

And DNR gained a new funding source in 1992, when the Indiana General Assembly established a land acquisition trust. It’s funded by “environmental” license plate design purchases, donations and any additional lawmaker appropriations.

The trust has enabled the state and others to acquire 440 sites totaling 61,793 acres — nature preserves, state parks and more — for about $50 million, according to DNR. Indiana has also used the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal-state 50-50 matching program, to acquire land, Bacone said.

Preserved in perpetuity

Today, Indiana and other landowners maintain 300 nature preserves, with more to come.

Longtime DNR Division of Nature Preserves Director John Bacone was honored last week with a Sagamore of the Wabash award during the dedication of Indiana’s 300th nature preserve. (Courtesy John Maxwell/Indiana DNR)

Bacone retired from DNR in 2019, but said his former division is still “out there looking” for new possibilities.

“They’re … still finding things, and going back out and rechecking things,” he added.

The state of Indiana owns much of the land, but so do other entities: local units of government, nonprofits and more.

The land is permanently protected; when the preserves are dedicated, the documents are recorded with the location’s county and stay with the deed.

At Toothwort Woods’ dedication, DNR Director Dan Bortner presented Bacone with a Sagamore of the Wabash award for his decades of work on nature preserves. The award is one of the state’s highest honors, conferred by the governor for distinguished service to the state.


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Leslie Bonilla Muñiz
Leslie Bonilla Muñiz

Leslie covers state government for the Indiana Capital Chronicle with emphases on elections, infrastructure and transportation. She previously covered city-county government for the Indianapolis Business Journal. She has also reported on local, national and international news for the Chicago Tribune, Voice of America and more. She holds an undergraduate degree in journalism from Northwestern University.