Driving south along

State Highway 59, long stretches of flat yellow cornfields populate the

landscape, broken up by occasional farmhouses and billboards. As you near

Linton, Indiana, suddenly something different emerges: sparkling sunshine on a

vast expanse of water, large white birds swooping through a blue sky, and, if

you pull your car over and walk, you will hear the call of hawks, whooping

cranes, frogs, egrets, bald eagles and shorebirds.

This is Goose Pond,

Indiana's largest Wetlands Reserve Program. As Jane Hardisty, State

Conservationist of the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service), says, "This

7,000-plus acre site in the heartland of Indiana is a National Treasure, one of

the largest Wetlands Reserve Programs in the United States," and for those in

the NRCS, it has been ten years of hard work in the making.

After battles with

local Greene County residents, problems with buried utility lines, piled-high

stacks of paperwork, and numerous unexpected surprises, the recent blue-ribbon

cutting ceremony to formally announce the completion of the Goose Pond Wetlands

Reserve project provided much reason for celebration. Standing at the podium,

Hardisty smiled broadly. "This is history, folks," she said. "When we all

leave, Goose Pond will still be here. That is our legacy." 


The Wetlands

Reserve Program

Jerry Roach, State

Wetlands Reserve Program Manager for NRCS, explains that the Wetlands Reserve

Program (WRP) is voluntary. He says, "It allows private landowners an

opportunity to participate in the conservation and restoration of wetlands. The

farmer is compensated for the wetland restoration easement and retains

ownership of the land, along with the right to sell the land."

The NRCS (USDA/United

States Department of Agriculture) manages the wetland program as well as providing

technical and financial support to landowners who participate. The goal of WRP

is to provide wetlands to migratory birds and wetland dependent species,

including threatened and endangered species. Wetlands also improve water

quality, reduce flooding, protect open space, and provide contributions to

scientific and educational scholarship. According to Roach, there are

approximately 600 WRP projects in the state. Goose Pond, which is over twice

the size of any prior Indiana Wetland Restoration project, offered a "once in

lifetime opportunity."

At the time of

enrollment, the area known as the Goose Pond and Beehunter Marsh site had the

largest single landowner of a WRP in the country. Roach notes, "We had to take

Greene County's largest cornfield and try to restore it through a transition

period and back to a wetland. That was a significant challenge."

Due to the size of the

area, extensive restoration work was necessary, involving NRCS civil engineers,

hydraulic engineers, biologists, soil specialists, survey workers, project

managers and inspectors.

The project required

coordination with adjacent landowners, the local community, contractors,

politicians, farmers, utility and highway folks. NRCS formed partnerships with

the Nature Conservancy, Cinergy, Indiana State University, IUPUI, Ducks

Unlimited and the IDNR (Indiana Department of Natural Resources).

Roach says, "During

the restoration, the area looked like a beehive of activity." But in the end,

he says, "The proof is in the pudding."

On the 7,138-acre

permanent easement, there are 350 acres of tree plantings, 1,300 acres of

native prairie plantings, and 3,860 acres of shallow water wetlands, 36.2 miles

of constructed levees, 42 water control structures, and 255 acres of macro

topography.

The area is

historically, biologically, culturally and economically significant. Moreover,

there has been a tremendous response from the wildlife with wading birds, land

birds, shorebirds, raptors, migratory birds, grassland species, amphibians,

reptiles, mammals, and numerous threatened and endangered species.

"This area has

statewide and Midwest significance in terms of the restoration," Roach adds.

"Goose Pond is a legacy passed on to benefit wildlife, the community, and

generations to come." 


What Mother Nature

intended

The history of Goose

Pond as a natural wetland extends back over a hundred years. According to Dave

Stratman, NRCS State Biologist: "Goose Pond was an old glacial basin, which

means when the last glacier came through, there was a big chunk of ice there.

So when the ice melted, it created a large shallow basin, like a bowl." It is a

low elevation piece of land. "The ditches that go through the area are actually

higher than the field itself," he says.

For years, farmers

tried to produce crops. They tried draining the area, digging ditches,

installing underground tiles, and even built levies to keep the water in the

ditches from flowing into the basin. Stratman says the clay content of the soil

makes the land difficult to farm. "With the clay content, the soil does not

absorb water well and once water is there, the clay doesn't let go. The clay

did not provide much water for plant roots of crops such as corn or soybeans."

Because the water does

not drain off the land, it had to be pumped out. "It was just a big hole and

once it rained, there was no place for the water to go." The soil is like

modeling clay. So it held water on the surface for long periods of time.

"Basically," he says grinning, "you spit on it and it stays there for weeks."

According to Stratman,

wetlands serve a variety of important functions. Wetlands act as a filter. "If

the wetland is near a lake, the water will be filtered through the wetland

before it gets to the lake and will help keep the lake clean."

Wetlands alongside a

lake or river will serve as a buffer against extreme currents, so it cuts down

on erosion. He notes that wetlands also serve as a groundwater recharge; the

wetland holds the water long enough so it can soak into the ground and ground water.

In addition, wetlands

assist with carbon issues.

Stratman says, "We are

worried about the extra carbon in the air. Wetlands do a good job of storing

carbon in the plant roots and in the organic layer that's at the top of the

soil. When water and soil come together, they usually have that thick mucky

layer. That layer holds a lot of carbon."

Stratman makes clear

that wetlands also help prevent flooding to nearby homeowners. The Goose Pond

and surrounding areas were subject to flooding. "Enormous amounts of resources

went into producing a crop and often, those resources were flushed downstream."

Wetlands greatly

benefit wildlife. "It's nice to take property that was only marginal cropland

and of only marginal benefit and put it back to a wetland habitat for species

that don't really have any other place to live," says Stratman. "A lot of these

species can't live in upland woods, they can't live in urban settings, and they

can't live in croplands. Their life cycles depend on water, plants that grow in

the water, and the insects and other species living there." In this particular

case, "nature wants this to be a place where wild things live and grow. "

The community also

benefits from wetlands. Goose Pond will provide an opportunity for people to

interact with the wildlife and get a feel for what the wetlands are and what

wetlands mean to them. Stratman says, "People can go from the words to actually

experience what the call of the great blue heron sounds like or hear frogs jump

in the water and see animals they don't typically see in their own backyard."

The NRCS restores land

back to its best use. As Jane Hardisty notes, "With Goose Pond, farmers spent a

lot of money trying to get Mother Nature to do something she didn't want to

do." In the wetland restoration project, "we can put the area back to its best

land use and help landowners get the best value from it." 


Build it and they

will come

Lee Sterrenburg of the

Audubon Society expresses his excitement at the Goose Pond bird bonanza. He

states, "Goose Pond is an unparalleled example of successful wetland

restoration in Indiana." He talks animatedly of the amazing things that

happened once the restoration work was done.

"This property has the

largest King Rail population in the entire inland migratory range of the

species." He remarks upon the stunning seven different species that produced

all time Indiana state record high counts, with Northern Pintail, Great Egret,

Green Heron, Greater Yellowlegs, White Ibis, and the first confirmed state

record of a Roseate Spoonbill which stayed 97 days, not to mention another 27

species of shorebirds. There were 17 bald eagles and three nesting bald eagles.

Sterrenburg emphasizes

that Goose Pond has 36 species listed as endangered. The annual Goose Pond

Christmas bird count recorded an all-time high count of 107 species. "There are

over 17,000 bird records in the database. The response from birds was almost

instantaneous and have exceeded all expectations in terms of numbers and

diversity."

Goose Pond is located

in the Mississippi flyway, a corridor for migrating birds. "Goose Pond is right

in path with a lot of waterfowl flying north and south," says

Stratman. "Birds don't take random paths. They follow patterns, like a

braided weave. When the wetlands along the Wabash were drained, part of that

flyway weave pattern no longer existed." The Goose Pond project is part of

several very large Wetland Reserve Projects that NRCS has put together up and

down the Wabash River to help re-establish part of the weave of the Mississippi

flyway. As a result, Goose Pond is attracting some of the most diverse array of

birds that anyone has ever seen in the state.

Stratman emphasizes

that while it is exciting to see migration patterns re-established, Goose Pond

also provides habitat for other threatened and endangered species. NRCS takes a

holistic approach with a program that focuses on many species of wildlife.

"We're dealing with birds that migrate up and down the flyway, but we're also

helping endangered and threatened frogs, different types of amphibians, snakes,

various mammals, and a whole host of wildlife that utilize wetlands."

As noted by Mike

McGovern, NRCS Public Affairs Officer, "Water is life. There are osprey,

beaver, muskrat, and mink. We have a habitat that brings insects, reptiles,

bugs, and spiders that act as food for other species. The response from

wildlife is basically because the water is there. We have all kinds of plant

and species diversity." The wildlife response at Goose Pond has been

astonishing and beyond all expectations.

All are in agreement:

"Build wetlands and the wildlife will come." As Stratman says, "It's exciting

to be part of a team of people that over the course of ten years was able to

bring something back that had not existed in over a hundred years. No one

person and no one group could have put this together." 


A boon to the

community

The Indiana Department

of Natural Resources (IDNR) purchased the entire 8,000-acre Goose Pond site

from a private landowner in 2005. As Brad Feaster, IDNR, Property Manager for

Goose Pond, says, "Theoretically, the landowner could make more money by

selling it in pieces, rather than one large chunk, which would lead to all

kinds of complications as far as how to manage the easement. Obviously, the

state and county had an interest in buying it so that the county could benefit

and get some tourism revenue. But even more important than tourism and bird

watching, is the benefit to the wildlife by having it managed as one big

8000-acre area." According to Feaster, with a larger landscape, a greater

number of critters can benefit. When efforts are coordinated, more can be accomplished.

"There is no other place in Indiana that has the acreage we have here," he

says, "The NRCS really deserves a lot of credit for the restoration work

they've done. They did such a good job at the restoration work and design; it

makes it easier for DNR to manage. Whenever something is built right and done

right, it makes it easier to take care of."

Barbara Simpson, Board

member of Friends of Goose Pond (FOGP), states that FOGP was established in

2007 to assist DNR with their mission of conservation and to help community

members take full advantage of the enjoyment, education, and economic

development opportunities offered by Goose Pond. "We recognized how important

this land was as the largest Wetland Reserve program in the State and one of

the largest in the United States."

FOGP now partners with

IUPUI Center for Earth and Environmental Science. Simpson explains that they

offer weeklong programs for teams of teachers to visit Goose Pond to learn how

to use the outdoors for teaching children science. The Center for Earth and

Environmental Science also brings a high tech trailer to Goose Pond so that

students can use equipment and conduct various studies.

Simpson adds that in

July there will be the first ever biodiversity survey at Goose Pond. FOGP will

partner with the Indiana Academy of Science and work with the Hanover Institute

to put together the biodiversity survey. She says there is a lot of data on

birds, thanks to Lee Sterrenburg, of the Sassafras Audubon Society

bird-monitoring project. "The group of scientists will inventory as much bio

data on the property as they can for two days in July. We are very confident

that there are a lot of exciting things going on with respect to wildlife. We

just don't yet have the data."

Other FOGP projects at

Goose Pond include wildflower identification workshops, fun outdoor activities

for students, teachers, and the general community, nature hikes, community

birding days, and future bird identification classes. Simpson states, "Its

location is establishing western Indiana as a corridor for wildlife. Goose Pond

is a jewel to the State of Indiana."

Feaster says, "Goose

Pond is within a 200-mile radius of Indianapolis, Louisville, Cincinnati, St.

Lewis, and Chicago. People can take a day trip and spend the day here." He

observes that the landscape changes and what you see will depend on the time of

year. "You come now and you will see waterfowl by the thousands —

sandhill cranes and whooping cranes. You come later in spring, and it is prime

shorebird time, so you're going to see a lot of migrating shorebirds. If you

come in summer, the prairies are blooming, with egret, herons, rails, and some

nesting resident waterfowl. Come back in the fall and you see northern

harriers, redtail hawks, roughlegged hawks, short eared owls. You return in the

spring and you are back to the sandhill cranes. That's what's so amazing about

Goose Pond. You can visit in September and then come back to visit in March,

and it's totally different — a whole different guild of birds and landscape."

Joan Bethell,

Executive Director, Green County Economic Development Corp, says that Goose

Pond is a key asset for the local community. "It is providing a primary anchor

for tourism based on outdoor recreation." She states, "studies are finding that

bird watching is the fastest growing outdoor recreation in America, more than

hunters and fishers combined. Bird watching employs 60,000 people and upwards

of $25 billion is spent every year. It is an economic plus for the community." 


The future

Ann Mills, Deputy

Under Secretary, Natural Resources and Environment, states, "NRCS will play a

role in a vision for not just restoring wetlands, but as an example for

restoring depressed rural communities to prosperity." She says, "Goose Pond has

been restored to a functional ecosystem where the community and wildlife can

work together again. I think that kind of beauty is rare, but hopefully will

become less rare." Mills points out that Goose Pond will impact the economy for

the entire region. "Private landowners serve a role in protecting this

country's great resources going forward," she says. "It's the people on

the ground that make wetland restoration happen. That's the story that needs to

be told: the people are a great resource of this country."

According to Feaster,

the DNR vision for Goose Pond is to maintain the open landscape, keep the area

a wetland and make Goose Pond a destination for people from all over the

country. There are future plans for a visitor center, levee trails, and

observation towers. School groups and community groups are invited and

encouraged to enjoy and explore the Goose Pond property.

There is no cost for

admission. Goose Pond hosts groups for bird watching, wildflower

identification, biological water quality assessment, prairie soil studies,

educational and scientific workshops, research, and outdoor enjoyment. "The

8,000 acreage makes this wetland unique. There is no other place like it in

Indiana," he says.

The NRCS is hopeful

that future Wetlands Reserve Programs can be utilized for those areas in

Indiana that do not make good farmland, turning those taxpayer deficits into

rural community assets.

Dave Stratman says,

"There are many places, especially along the Wabash and among other major

rivers in Indiana, that could be restored to wetland habitat. I am hopeful that

the success we have had at Goose Pond will encourage the further success of

this program in other places throughout Indiana, the Midwest, and the United

States."

As Jane Hardisty aptly

sums up, "NRCS was part of something really big that made a difference to the

community, to the environment, and to all those involved." She nods and smiles.

"Goose Pond is a National Treasure."

As the Natural

Resources Conservation Service celebrates its 75th Anniversary this month,

she has reason to be proud. 
 


For more info:

www.friendsofgoosepond.org

www.in.nrcs.usda.gov

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