Stone Head Nature Preserve
by Paige Langenderfer
Mike Kelley describes the 122-acre Stone Head Nature Preserve, with its heavily wooded ridge tops and gently sloping terrace, as an unfinished novel. Each day reveals another chapter in its geologic history, but there are many more pages to write.
This story began many years ago when, as a young boy, Kelley fell in love with nature. On walks on his uncle’s 40-acre property in Decatur, Indiana, Kelley developed an appreciation for plants, animals, and insects. In a high school zoology class, he was introduced to and fell in love with bird watching.
“It was then that I became hooked on the game of watching birds,” Kelley said. “I dreamed of someday having my own private wooded trails where I could enjoy my admiration for ‘odd birds.’”
But nature is much more than a hobby to Kelley.
“It inspires me such that I tell people my church has trees and offers shade to those who seek it, even the logger who scars it in exchange for monetary gain,” he said. “I worship there almost daily, in total awe of the many wonders of life.”
After a career as an orthodontist, Kelley and his wife Jan were able to make his dream come true, purchasing the 122 acres that now make up the Stone Head Nature Preserve.
Kelley bought the land, not only to enjoy the beautiful scenery, but also to preserve the land in its original splendor.
“Like all the different cells of a human body working in a coordinated fashion to make up the individual, I believe that all of nature is functioning together as one big organism called life. We all need each other for ultimate survival,” he said. “The ego of man has us thinking of ourselves as superior to the rest of nature when in reality, all of nature is equal as one. We all need each other for ultimate survival.”
Over the past 10 years, Kelley and volunteers have been successful in nearly eliminating invasive plants, giving native plants and animals the opportunity to reclaim the land. There has been a homecoming for nesting blue grosbeaks and sedge wrens, Virginia and sora rails, nesting and migrating duck species, great white egret, and little green heron. All but one of the 11 frog and toad species have returned, as well as beaver and mink.
Part of the success is due to restoring a portion of the land, in a valley flood plain, to a wetland. Plantings have included a variety of native wetland plant species around the ponds, as well as prairie grasses and wildflowers. Tree saplings were planted along the banks of Salt Creek to create a buffer, favoring the creek and its inhabitants.
“It’s always nice to see certain wildlife species that wouldn’t otherwise be found here if not for changing the habitat through wetland improvements,” Kelley said.
After enjoying the land privately for several years, Kelley began considering donating his land to a conservation trust to protect it from potential development in the future.
Today, the donated land is managed by the Stone Head Conservancy, a newly formed non-profit organization. The board of directors of the Stone Head Conservancy is responsible for improvements to the land including bridges, boardwalks, invasive species control, signage, trail upkeep and other maintenance.
As a dedicated nature preserve, Stone Head Nature Preserve serves as a living museum, a record of Indiana’s original natural character.
Located in southern Brown County, five miles south of State Road 46, the preserve is open to the public, welcoming each visitor with wetland and meadow trails, wooded hills and countless species of birds, vegetation, animals, and insects. Informal footpaths provide good starting points for exploration and nature study.
Various local groups have already utilized the land including the Bloomington Photography Club, Bloomington Watercolor Society, Walking Women Hiking Club, Sassafras Audubon Society, Moonwalker’s hiking group and school groups from Columbus. It has annually been on the program for Brown County’s Spring Wildflower Foray and Nature Awareness Weekend.
Kelley said he hopes the preserve will grow and inspire others to preserve land.
“It is our dream to someday have an uninterrupted corridor of nature preserve running the length of Salt Creek Valley (Middle Fork) from Stone Head to Story, dedicated to the appreciation and study of nature for generations to come,” he said. “It won’t happen in our lifetimes, but all dreams have a starting point and we like to think the seed has been planted for future growth.”