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Expansion of Protected Land a Rare Opportunity

Urban Preserve Adds Acres

It is a rare feat to gain land and it is even rarer to gain urban land.

Wesselman Woods is seen by many as the environmental hub of Evansville, Indiana. This nature preserve may be surrounded by urban sprawl but Wesselman Woods was incredibly fortunate to acquire 90 additional acres of land thanks to funding and support from the Hamman Foundation, the University of Evansville, and the City of Evansville.

In this land deal, 16 acres of old-growth forest were added to what is already considered the largest urban old-growth forest in the United States. Additionally, a former 32-acre golf course was gifted to Wesselman Woods by the City.

What makes this story even better is that the remaining 42 acres (about twice the area of Chicago’s Millennium Park) were part of a contentious 40-year history of land grabs and arguments. This is a huge environmental win for the area.

The expansion takes the Wesselman Woods property within feet of the Lloyd Expressway, one of the most traveled roads in Indiana. It also adds to the preserve’s profile as a central attraction for visitors to the area and encourages donors to be a part of a local solution to global environmental challenges.

So, while the first challenge was acquiring the land, the next challenge is regenerating these areas.

The project begins with creating sections of meadows interspersed with germinated old-growth trees. Wesselman Woods has trees that are 250–300 years old. The goal during reforestation efforts is to procure, germinate, and maintain these same old-growth genetics because these trees have seen heat, cold, wet, and drought. The genetics of this forest are resilient.

Along with old-growth genetics, there is an opportunity to experiment with climate adaptive species in these newly acquired spaces. There will be a push for including tree species on the cusp of Plant Hardiness Zones 6, 7, and 8 including (but not limited to) overcup oak, burr oak, and river birch.

Wesselman Woods is a beacon for the future. This expansion, combined with intensive environmental education efforts, has caused the public to take notice and realize what a valuable resource this forest is. Their work will transform southwestern Indiana for generations to come.

You can read more about this historic expansion from Wesselman Woods’ blog here.

Photo by Fauna Creative

Milestone Acquisition a Rare Opportunity

The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Indiana Chapter recently closed on the purchase of 1,700 forested acres in Pike County, adjacent to the Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). At least 63 animal species and 20 plant species considered threatened, endangered or of special concern by the State of Indiana live within the river valley, including federally endangered Indiana bats and nesting bald eagles.

“It is highly unusual to find such a large, wooded property all under one ownership in Indiana,” said TNC’s Director of Conservation Programs Matt Williams. “This was an unprecedented opportunity for land conservation in our state.”

Patoka River. Photo by Fauna Creative.

Built one new land acquisition at a time, the Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge and Management Area will eventually stretch for 30 miles along the channels and meanders of the Patoka River in southwest Indiana. In January 2023, The Nature Conservancy in Indiana (TNC) completed purchase of over 1,700 acres in Pike County to help achieve this conservation vision. Private properties of this size are exceptionally rare in Indiana, and the acquisition was TNC’s largest single land purchase since they purchased 7,000 acres at Kankakee Sands in northwest Indiana more than 25 years ago.

Indigo bunting sings. Photo by Fauna Creative.

TNC is working with the Refuge to transfer this 1,700-acre acquisition into federal ownership, adding to the 10,000 acres of land already protected as part of the Refuge. The Refuge was established in 1994 to protect one of the few remaining expanses of bottomland forested wetlands in the Midwest. Once dominated by uninterrupted stands of mature forest, the natural lands within and around the Refuge have been steadily degraded by unsustainable timber harvest, conversion to agriculture, and subdivision for homes and hunting camps. And significant pressures remain. To address these threats, The Nature Conservancy joins the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Friends of Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge, Sycamore Land Trust – which protected the 1,000-acre Columbia Mine property in 2012 – and other partners who work with willing landowners in this important landscape.

Aerial view of oxbow. Photo by Fauna Creative

The newly acquired property is contains an important natural freshwater feature: about 1.5 miles of a 2.5-mile long oxbow lake, which will bring the entire lake and most of its immediate watershed into the Refuge. A priority within TNC’s state-wide floodplain conservation strategy, oxbow lakes can act as storage reservoirs for flood waters, allowing excess water to collect and mitigating human and economic losses during natural disasters. They also filter water, which improves water quality, and they provide habitat to a variety of wildlife, including young fish, migratory birds and waterfowl.







Read the State of the Lands 2024 edition in full: get the pdf.