When Phil Cox introduced himself to a gathering of citizens outside the Newport Chemical Depot gate on Aug. 12, a female voice in the crowd embellished his resume – "He knows every blade of grass in there." Bird watchers, soil and water conservation officials, academics, 4-H leaders, hunters, hikers and friends of the nearby Turkey Run and Shades state parks comprised the group of 28.
For most, the upcoming tour was their first opportunity to venture inside the 7,100-acre U.S. Army facility – located about 30 miles north of Terre Haute on the Indiana-Illinois border – and to glimpse a rare, black-soil prairie that occupies 336 acres in its southwest corner.
The notion that Cox was intimately familiar with the depot's ecosystem was anything but hyperbole. The natural-resource-administrator-turned-prairie-activist has become a revered figure among environmental advocates around the state and beyond. For 27 years he worked for a private contractor that managed the west-central Indiana installation's acreage for the Army. Only a small part of the property was involved in the production and storage of deadly VX nerve agent. More than 5,000 acres were farm fields, woods, wetlands and prairie.
Indeed, Cox was largely responsible for the Newport prairie's existence. After a 1994 report from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Division of Nature Preserves on the base's endangered species and natural areas, he oversaw the former cropland's conversion to prairie from 1994 to 2005. The Army has historically leased about 2,900 acres of depot land to farmers, mostly for corn and soybeans.
In the report, the state's natural resource experts concluded, "A restoration this large (1,900+/- acres) in this part of the Midwest is an exciting opportunity. There are no remnants in Indiana of the size of this potential restoration."
In pre-settlement America, the Great Plains that stretched to the Mississippi River began in the Wabash River Valley. Today, fewer than 2,000 acres of remnant prairie remain, according to Tom Swinford, DNR's regional ecologist for Central Indiana. A remnant, he explained in a Sept. 14 email, is a "natural community that has serendipitously survived the storm of civilization and was not converted to some other use such as agriculture or other development."
Even though the Newport black-soil prairie, a.k.a. tallgrass prairie, isn't virgin grassland, the collection of conservationists whose small convoy followed Cox onto the depot that August morning couldn't emphasize its significance enough.
Prairie ... or corn
Clara Walters, a Clinton resident and an Izaak Walton League of America national director, noted the prairie is a globally threatened ecosystem. The league is a conservation group whose mission is to "strive for the purity of water, the clarity of air and the wise stewardship of the land and its resources" and to "know the beauty and understanding of nature and the value of wildlife, woodlands and open space."
Taylor University Professor Paul Rothrock explained the prairie's ecology and history. Surrounded by some grasses that stood taller than he, Rothrock said they had been planted by retired Knox College Professor Peter Schramm, who had pioneered prairie restoration techniques over a 40-year career.
As the Rothrock spoke, Ross Brittain, the National Audubon Society's Indiana director, explored the shorter grass prairie across the road. Brittain was drawn by the call of a Henslow's Sparrow, one of several of the state's endangered species that inhabit the Newport prairie. Others include the peregrine falcon, northern harrier, sedge wren and Virginia rail, he said.
The Newport prairie restoration contributed to the depot receiving the U.S. Army Environmental Security Award for Natural Resources Preservation in 1996 and 2003. The restoration abruptly ended in 2005 when a congressional commission on military bases recommended that the Newport depot be closed.
More than $157,000 had been invested in the restoration to that point, Cox said. "After that, we just kind of stopped doing anything that would impact anything in the future or cost money."
As federal, state and local officials planned the Newport depot's future, Cox, who is a vice president for both the Wabash Valley Audubon Society and Ouabache Land Conservancy, tirelessly campaigned for the prairie's future. But he quickly found the power structure cast jaundiced eyes upon him and his supporters.
After the prairie tour, Cox illustrated the point when he met with a dozen or so preservationists at an Izaak Walton League retreat outside Clinton. Stressing that the prairie equals less than 5 percent of the Newport property, he paraphrased comments made at a public meeting by the vice president of the Newport Chemical Depot Reuse Authority, a quasi-governmental five-member board appointed by the Vermillion County commissioners.
Said Cox: "He pointed, and he said, 'If the prairie is so important to all of you, come up with a hundred thousand dollars a year, because that's what we can get if we lease this out for corn production.' "