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Nature's Best by Elma Chapman - ACRES land trust

Sunday, Sept. 25, was the annual meeting of the ACRES Land Trust. It was a warm, early autumn day with lots of sunshine and blue skies over the Dustin Nature Preserve. The day included a chili lunch, music by the Farmland Jazz Band, voting for board members, the annual report, and of course several hiking options.

The annual report was delivered by Jason Kissel, the executive director. It was good news for the trust: this year they added their 100th property preserved forever, and they passed 6,000 acres of preserved land in northeast Indiana, northwest Ohio and south-central Michigan. There were seven new properties added this year, and they plan to close on 12 additional properties before next June. Much of this expansion was made possible through the state’s Bicentennial Fund.

Several of their properties are in LaGrange County (Maple Wood is partly an ACRES property and partly a county park) and one is in Elkhart County. The Elkhart County one, Eby Bog, is not open to the public, nor are several in LaGrange County. There are several reasons for that. Sometimes people donate property that they are still living on and want to preserve their privacy as long as they live there. Some properties may not have any trails or parking available at present. Some properties are in the process of being restored after years of agriculture or after having been logged. But over half of the properties are open to the public and constitute a real treasure to our appreciation of the natural world. There are over 70 miles of trails in the various preserves. They are open dawn to dusk with no admission charge. They only ask that you walk softly, take only pictures, and leave it the way you found it (unless, of course, you are removing trash or invasive species.) There are guided hikes available at certain times as well as stewardship days when you can volunteer to help with various projects like trail maintenance and invasive species removal. These events are published in the ACRES Quarterly and on the ACRES webpage.

The hike I went on was through the restoration of a flatwood forest. I had never heard that term before, but I learned that a flatwood was a forest that had no natural drainage and as such was wet most of the year – wet enough to require boots. Since part of the restoration effort was turning farmland back to forest it was still mostly meadow with saplings poking above the grasses and weeds for the first part of the hike. Once we entered a more mature forest there was definitely moister soil, but it didn’t require boots on this day. The hike was led by Dr. Jordan Marshall, an associate professor of biology at IPFW. He pointed out some ash seedlings that were growing as well as some standing dead ash trees. Apparently ash trees with smoother bark were not as appealing to female emerald ash borers, or else they were better able to heal over the wounds of the borers. Research is being done into the genetics of why some trees can withstand such attacks when others succumb. He also talked about elm trees growing in southern Indiana. I remember Dutch elm disease devastating the trees on my grandparents’ street when I was little. I thought all the elms were gone, but apparently not. They are just not as dominant as they were, and it’s expected that ash may be much the same – not completely wiped out, just not as dominant.

We saw lots of autumn olive in among the younger trees. I knew that this was an invasive, but I didn’t know that 40 or 50 years ago the government was encouraging people to plant autumn olive and multiflora rose (another invasive) because they were good wildlife habitat – they grew fast and they were easy to grow. Birds do eat the seeds from autumn olive, but it is not considered a high quality nutritional seed. Fires do not discourage autumn olive, either. The best way to get rid of them is to cut them off at the ground and immediately paint the cut with a strong herbicide. That’s very time consuming and hard work, as I learned when I helped with that process during a Weekday Warrior project at Oxbow County Park in Elkhart in June. But if they aren’t checked, they choke out the native plants and we lose biodiversity. Biodiversity is what keeps the world in balance. If you have a monoculture and it’s wiped out by a pest or disease, you have nothing, but with diversity you have other species that survive and thrive.

If you’re looking for a new place to hike or have some property that should be preserved, or just looking for a good place to donate some money, consider looking into ACRES Land Trust. It’s a very worthwhile organization.