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Sandhill cranes have a new home

Indiana has 1% more net wetlands than it did before Goose Pond and Beehunter Marsh were restored. That makes Jane Hardisty smile. She’s the state conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

A Greene County native, ironically Hardisty was the acting official in Washington, D.C., who signed the form approving the Wetland Reserve Program for Goose Pond a decade ago. At the time, it was owned by Maurice Wilder, Clearwater, Fla.

“This project was 60 years in the making, with the final 10 being in earnest,” Hardisty says.

Ann Mills, undersecretary of agriculture, was so impressed that she attended the celebration for completion of the restoration. “Hugh Hammond Bennett, the father of soil conservation, said you can’t get conservation done behind a desk, and you can’t do it without others helping,” Mills noted. “Nothing affects me like coming to a place where wetlands have been restored. It’s been rare, but hopefully it will become less rare. This is a place where nature can work.”

Key Points

• Goose Pond represents the largest single wetland site restored in Indiana.

• More than 60,000 acres were restored to wetland in Indiana through WRP.

• State wetlands manager calls it the “project of a lifetime.”

Restore wetlands

Jerry Roach knows a thing or two about restoring wetlands. He’s NRCS’ state wetland reserve program manager. While the Goose Pond and Beehunter Marsh restorations are the largest to date, they’re not the only restored wetlands in Indiana.

“We have about 600 WRP easements and a total of 60,000 acres in Indiana in the program,” Roach says.

In the case of Goose Pond, WRP provided a window of opportunity to get the funding to restore the site. “At the time of enrollment, it was the largest single enrollment by a landowner in the country,” Roach says.

Giddiness over signing the prized property into the program was tempered by the challenge ahead. “Just the sheer size was a big challenge,” Roach recalls. “The biggest site we’d restored previously was 2,500 acres. Plus, we dealt with extreme conditions, including legal drains, roads and utilities.”

The plan was to use the same techniques that worked to restore other wetlands, Roach says. Those included breaking up existing tile lines, installing water control structures, adjusting the topography with bulldozers where necessary, and seeding both trees and warm-season grasses.

“We wanted to replicate the conditions that existed before,” he says.

That proved easier said than done. The clay was so tight that digging to break up tile lines sometimes required one backhoe to dig, plus another to knock the clay off the bucket of the first one. One underground utility line was cut, and one utility used helicopters to install what’s known as bird diverters over high-tension power lines.

Reap benefits

Most satisfying now that the work is finished is how well animals, particularly birds, have responded, Roach says. Record after record for birds of a particular species sighted in one area has been shattered. The project is in the Mississippi Flyway, and the word is apparently out: “Book reservations at the Goose Pond wetland — it’s open for business.”

“We’ve seen everything from whooping cranes to the crawfish frog, an endangered species in Indiana,” Roach says. “Warm-season grasses have brought in a number of species of grassland birds, too.”

If you know where to look, it’s easy to spot an eagle’s nest on the property. And in late winter, hundreds of sandhill cranes swooped in and out of various sections of the wetland.

“Sometimes when we’re talking about WRP, we say that if we build it, they will come,” Roach says. “We built it — a restored wetland — and the animals certainly came.”

The WRP is having a significant ecological impact on not only Indiana, but also the entire Midwest, Roach says. The whole goal is restoring marginal cropland to wetland habitat.

“This was the project of a lifetime,” he continues. “Scores of people worked on it. Some are no longer with us. Others moved away. The beauty is that everybody will enjoy the benefits for generations to come.”

Facts and figures reveal the scope of Goose Pond

Here’s a rundown of just some of the facts and figures that reveal the scope and size of the Goose Pond and Beehunter Marsh restoration project.

Size: The WRP easement is 7,138 acres out of 8,000 now owned by one entity

Original enrollee in WRP: Maurice Wilder, Clearwater, Fla.

Current owner: Indiana Department of Natural Resources, since October 2005

Acres of tree plantings: More than 400 acres

Native prairie plantings: About 1,317 acres

Miles of tile exploration: Some 44.5 miles (more than 1 million feet rendered useless)

Constructed levees: About 36.2 miles

Water control structures: 42 installed during the project

Macro topography alteration: 255 acres altered for the project

Whooping cranes: Federally listed whooping cranes have used the site since 2004

State-listed species: Those found at the site include least bittern, king rail, sedge wren and northern crawfish frog

National recognition: National Audubon Society lists the property as Important Bird Area.

Number of contractors on project: 47, according to NRCS statistics

Number of NRCS employees who worked on project: At one time or another, 54 people

Number of bird species documented so far: 240, and counting!

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NATIONAL SUPPORT: Ann Mills traveled from Washington, D.C., to show her support for the wetland restoration project in southern Indiana.

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CONTROL THE FLOW: Denise Held, Goose Pond project engineer on site, explains how this water control structure helps keep the right amount of water in the wetland area.

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PROJECT OF A LIFETIME: Jerry Roach was instrumental in overseeing the wetland restorations at the Goose Pond and Beehunter Marsh project.

This article published in the April, 2010 edition of INDIANA PRAIRIE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.