Our Big Green Space

by Jim Eaglemen

At many park interpretive programs, I often show a large, color photograph of the state of Indiana taken from around 400 miles in space. Generated with images collected by the US civilian observation satellite, LANDSAT 5TM which orbits the earth at a height of 705 km (440 miles), it’s an impressive view of the state. It clearly shows the cities of Indianapolis, Evansville and South Bend as well as the drainage systems of the Wabash and Ohio Rivers. At the northwest corner, the prominent Hoosier “notch” on Lake Michigan shows the metropolitan sprawl of Gary and East Chicago, and Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge, encompassing some of Crane Naval Weapons Depot, is visible in the southeast corner. Finally, I point to a large, green patch south of Indianapolis located right where my visitors (and you) are now, in Brown, Monroe, parts of Bartholomew, and Lawrence counties. I say they are in the middle of the “green blob” of Brown County State Park, since the park’ s 16K acres help comprise the state’s largest and most impressive contiguous forest. Along with Hoosier National Forest, the DNR, Division of Forestry holdings, camps, and other parcels, the large, green area is approximately 380,000 acres in size. And certainly it is of prime importance to all of us as its lucky residents.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC), with a local office in the county, is a large, private, international organization that has helped to determine the biological value of the Brown County Hills Eco-region (BCH). With on-going survey crews of academics, students, TNC botanists and biologists, the TNC works with partners in the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the federal government, local camp and cooperating landowners to make sure that the plants, animals and natural communities that make the BCH so special are protected for future generations. As conservation efforts continue, biologic significance is recognized through programs like the Audubon Society’s Important Bird Area (IBA), eco-regional conservation plans, and by inclusion on popular recreation and tourism sites. When taxa lists are compiled and shared from both remote backcountry and public areas, they help confirm its unique status.

Brown County Hills Eco-region

Using a common term with my group, a sink lets water and items accumulate before the plug is pulled. The BCH green spot I point to is referred to by biologists in a similar same way. By virtue of its thick forest cover, soil types, and plant communities, habitats abound. Animals and birds are naturally drawn in, collect, and live here. They are referred to as a source population. In addition to being a year ’round home, the area also attracts those species that pass through. It is a refuge offering food, water, and cover to many migrants, residents and occasional visitors. While public lands in the BCH are always open and accessible, some rare habitats are sensitive and may require added protection.

Of course, the BCH is also a place human residents call home. We live and work here, play, create, and rest. It is a magnet to both wildlife and humans. Forests in general are as much a home to people as they are to other living creatures. But as more and more people are attracted to visit and live here, and tree canopy cover permanently thins, how will the Brown County Hills continue to be a home to wild things? As we continue to experience development with building and alterations to the environment, will the BCH continue to be a natural area of importance? If development occurs with an eye towards conserving these abundant natural resources, wild things and wild places will persist over time.

Sustainability of forested areas need not be the sole responsibility of governments or private organizations. Landowners and residents have an obligation and play a large role in conserving natural areas across Indiana. Learning what exists on your land is the first step in responsible land stewardship. DNR district foresters, park and TNC staff, can be contacted to help you learn more about your land and potentially help identify threatened or rare species. Ultimately, what happens on your land is up to you.

As summer proceeds, county overlooks turn to a sea of rolling green. We slow down to take a look. Distant storms or sunsets highlight the beauty in front of us and maybe for some, it’s their first view of the hills o’Brown. They are mesmerized. Those of us who live here are also impressed. We know a scenic pull-off is up ahead and even if we’re in a hurry, the foot comes off the accelerator. The Brown County hills will continue to capture our hearts and slow us down. They are here for all to enjoy.

Behind the scenes and often overlooked, is an amazing collection of plants, animals, and natural communities that bind the Brown County Hills together. It is a wonderful forested fabric full of amazing diversity and complex forest relationships: predator animals, rare orchids, endangered species, and common trees.

They help make this place special. The BCH can help in this important ecologic endeavor, and we’re glad they’re here.