On September 6 a group of about 40 people gathered at LaGrange County’s Pine Knob County Park to view and celebrate what has become a wonderfully successful partnership of not just LaGrange County Parks and Blue Heron Ministries, but many agencies and nonprofits to create what many experts in the field are calling one of the best examples of natural areas restoration in the region.
The day began under a veil of clouds and a threat of light rain, but only a brief early morning mist teased the group and soon a beautiful late summer day unfolded. The forty attendees represented stakeholders and direct participants in two significant acquisitions to this LaGrange County Park and the several year, and still ongoing, effort to return it to its once natural state…a closely juxtaposed collection of oak openings, upland prairie, prairie fen, sedge meadow, and small marl lake fed by meandering rivulets and seeping fen waters.
Participants were greeted by LaGrange County staff, affixed with nametags, seated at the long tables of the former conservation club headquarters, now park visitor center, and treated to a homemade lunch of pork sandwiches and side salads. Placemats were 11×17 photos of the property with all the stakeholders mentioned and how each was involved (see below).
The meeting opened with Parks Director, Mike Metz welcoming the group, thanking those who made the project possible, and giving the historical context on how the properties came to LaGrange County Parks over the years and how the restoration of natural areas began and is progressing.
Mike turned the program over to Blue Heron Ministries’ Director, Nathan Simons, who further discussed the already unique features of the undisturbed portions of the property, the research done to determine how the land once was, pre-settlement, and finally the incredible work that has and is being done to restore and manage the land back towards its original high quality.
The box below shows the incredible number of groups and individuals who made the project possible. So much of the work was completed through the generosity of both individuals, former landowners, and many federal, state, regional, county organizations.
Following lunch, the highlight of the day was a guided walk from the center through the oak woodlands and restored prairie to a high ridge overlooking the Duff Lake Fen restoration project. Mike and Nathan gave a verbal description of the land at the time of acquisition. With sweeps of their hands we learned of where the drainage ditches once ran, where they are now filled, where culverts were removed and existing streams were enhanced. Areas of high quality remnant natural features were noted and areas of intensive management and restoration with fire, mower, herbicide and seed were pointed out.
We then descended our ridge overlook and entered the fen wetlands, sedge meadows and marl flats. Nate took the lead and Blue Heron Ministries’ field steward John Brittenham followed towards the rear to provide supplementary interpretation. The path was narrow, undeveloped, and we snaked along, stopping occasionally to admire a unique plant or to discuss the ‘then and now’ of this unique project.
For some, this opportunity was the first time to set soggy feet in the fen since the early days of project planning. What a treat to hear their claims of total satisfaction of the project’s success. IDNR Division of Nature Preserves botanist, Scott Namestnik was on hand and with his keen eye and occasional consult of his hand lens, offered commentary on some of the very special plants. Under a private consulting hat, Scott was part of the initial investigation of plant life for the project. It was a treat for me to eavesdrop on the conversations of he and Scott Fetters of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, as they both discussed what they had dreamed for the property and how to their pleasure the dreams are coming true.
Topics of conversation also included plans for public access through the use of trails, boardwalks, and strategically placed overlooks. When these come to fruition, we will all have a great view of this successful project and a piece of our past and natural heritage returned.
Pine Knob County Park and Duff Lake Project
Juday Tract 108 Acres
Appraised at $380,000
- Bicentennial Nature Trust $190,000
- Heritage Trust $95,000
- LaGrange County Community Foundation & Friends of LaGrange County Parks $20,000
- Bargain Sale – Juday Family $75,000
Dehority Tract 21 Acres
Appraised at $78,000
- Bicentennial Nature Trust $39,000
- Heritage Trust $19,500
- LCCF & Friends $10,000
- The Nature Conservancy $9,500
Total ACRES 229 Total acquisition $458,000
- National Fish & Wildlife – Sustain Our Great Lakes grant $270,000
- LCPD In-kind $12,000
- US Fish & Wildlife Partners Program $25,000
- IDNR Fish & Wildlife Cost Share $3,800
- Ralph E. Taylor Conservation Fund grant $5,000
- The Conservation Fund $108,000
- LaGrange County Park Department $15,000
- LCPD In-kind $13,000
- Blue Heron Ministries $2,000
Total Restoration $486,400
Approximate total acquisition/restoration $944,400
Future Pine Knob Park and Duff Lake Fen Trail Development
- Land and Water Conservation Fund Grant $175,000
- Olive B. Cole Foundation Grant $35,000
- LCCF Grant $15,000
- LaGrange County $75,000
- LCPD In-kind labor and equipment $50,000