Following the Dustins’ footsteps: Northeast Indiana loves ACRES Land Trust

I anticipated our arrival at the Dustin Nature Preserve as much as any of the 200-plus Indiana natural areas I’ve explored in the past four years. The Huntertown couple were pioneers in the environmental movement that swept Indiana and the nation in the 1960s and 70s. I profiled Tom in my 1996 book Eternal Vigilance: Nine Tales of Environmental Heroism in Indiana and spent a weekend at their home north of Fort Wayne, photographing Tom and the Cedar Creek in the valley below.

The Dustins were founding members of ACRES Land Trust, the second-oldest nonprofit land conservation organization in Indiana. Their home is now the group’s headquarters and is surrounded by the Dustin and two other preserves. So parking outside the rustic, cedar-and-stone structure with its low, sloping roof brought back a torrent of memories. Jane died in 2003, Tom in 2004.

And, of the countless impressions I have from exploring nearly four dozen natural areas in Northeast Indiana during the month of June, the most vivid involve ACRES properties, which number 30 – to date.

It must go nearly without saying – compared with what could be said – that ACRES properties represent the entire range of Northeast Indiana natural communities.

Art Hammer Wetlands in Noble County, the largest at 356 acres, protects swamp forest on the North Branch of the Elkhart River.

Bicentennial Woods protects the oldest trees in Allen County.

Wing Haven Nature Preserve in Steuben County harbors one of the few undeveloped lakes in the Indiana county with the most natural lakes.

Hanging Rock on the Wabash River in Wabash County is a National Natural Landmark.

Blue Cast Springs Nature Preserve is the only Dedicated State Nature Preserve in the state’s Black Swamp Natural Region.

And the organization’s site maintenance is impressive. It wasn’t uncommon for granddaughter Raina to ask, when Siri announced, “Arrived,” at our destinations, “Is this an ACRES site?” As she told ACRES Outreach Manager Lettie Haver at the office, their preserves are “easy” to hike. At the Asherwood Nature Preserve in Wabash County, the land steward there pulled weeds in front of the sign before he’d let me photograph it.

But what stands out most glaringly is the ACRES sites’ popularity. I plan our excursions to de-coincide with popular trail times – weekdays only. I couldn’t recall the number of ACRES lots with vehicles, but I wasn’t surprised to find more than one. On a Tuesday afternoon, Bicentennial Woods had two when I arrived, replaced by two others when I left.

As ACRES Executive Director Jason Kissel explained in Tom and Jane’s old place, the group incorporated in1960, beaten by a year by The Nature Conservancy as the state’s first land trust. Initially called Allen County Reserves, the organization renamed itself ACRES in 1961 after receiving its first donation – the Edna W. Spurgeon Nature Reserve, in Noble County.

Today, ACRES protects in perpetuity more than 5,000 acres on 85 preserves in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. A full quarter of the Guide to Natural Areas of Northern Indiana destinations will feature ACRES Land Trust in the "Owned by" lines.

Not that it’s possible to identify a favorite ACRES site – Bincentennial Woods would be in contention – but for nostalgic reasons if nothing else, Dustin would be my pick if I had to.

On Thursday we retraced my steps from the 1990s and followed the trail to Cedar Creek, which is one of only three Indiana waterways designated as a Natural, Scenic and Recreational River. Wildcat Creek in Tippecanoe and Carrol Counties and the Blue River in in Harrison, Crawford, and Washington counties are the other two.

Tom was the first paid environmental lobbyist at the Indiana General Assembly, and among his many achievements was passage of the Indiana Natural, Scenic and Recreational River Act in 1973, which made such designations possible.

While it’s likewise as foolhardy to pick a favorite photo, I might choose one from Bicentennial Woods of a remarkable reflection on the Willow Creek that I shared with fellow Dustin proteges under the Subject line "The Dustins' Spirit."

Photographs: Top, "The Dustins' Spirit," Bicentennial Woods; Center Top, Little Gentian Lake, Wing Haven Nature Preserve; Center Bottom, Hanging Rock Natonal Natural Landmark; Bottom, Cedar Creek, Dustin Nature Preserve.


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