While the giant panda and the bald eagle have graced countless environmental posters, how often has anyone raised a banner and shouted "Save the northern cavefish!"? Even school children speak out for the rainforest, but how many people have heard of the once vast but now drained Grand Kankakee Marsh? Until recently, such Indiana natural resources may have had their advocates, but relatively few people knew of efforts to protect them.
In 1996, however, the many habitats and species in Indiana gained a public voice with the founding of the Indiana Biodiversity Initiative (IBI). Seeing a need for coordination among environmental programs in the state, a coalition of members, from scientists to developers to community activists, formed a group that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Forest Clark calls "remarkable for its own diversity."
In addition to promoting cooperation between conservation groups, the IBI is conducting a statewide assessment of Indiana''s biodiversity. Essentially, biodiversity is an umbrella term that describes an area''s living organisms, including their genetic differences, their natural communities, and the evolutionary and ecological processes that sustain them.
Historically, Indiana was a region rich with biodiversity. Its borders crossed the Grand Prairie in the West, the Great Lakes in the North, Gulf region swamps in the South, and unbroken deciduous forest blanketing the rest. These different landscapes meant a wealth of life in the state''s many wetlands, dunes, savannas, prairies, and forests.
Most of these natural areas are now gone or depleted. For instance, the state''s tallgrass prairies have dwindled to 0.001 percent of their original size, remaining mostly in railroad corridors, dusty cemeteries, and a few nature preserves.
Today, explains Cloyce Hedge of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, "Natural diversity tends to occur in most parts of the state in small, isolated pockets, where historically the entire landscape would have been a mosaic of forest, prairie, and wetland stretching unbroken across the landscape."
What happened to Indiana''s biodiversity? Early on, settlers cleared forests, drained swamps, and capriciously hunted native species such as bear, beaver, elk, and cougar until they disappeared from the state. Later, manufacturing and development helped to shrink and fragment habitats. Although outright loss of habitat is still the primary reason for the overall decline in biodiversity, local populations of plants and animals are especially vulnerable when roads, fences, and developments separate members of species so that they cannot interbreed or migrate to replenish struggling populations. Genetic diversity within these local populations is very important to maintain their flexibility to adapt to environmental changes.
Although Indiana has lost much of its natural diversity, there is hope for regeneration, from programs that let citizens designate private land as wildlife preserves to nurseries that cultivate native seeds for replanting. Much of the lush hills of Brown County, for instance, were eroding farmland before the Civilian Conservation Corps replanted them in the 1930s. As Sycamore Land Trust Steward Kathleen Dowd Gailey emphasizes, "There is still much around here to protect, but we need to start doing it soon."
Today, conservation and restoration efforts are directed at Indiana''s 12 natural regions. These include: · The dune and swale landscape of northwestern Indiana''s Lake Michigan region. · The Grand Prairie region, which is a remnant of the eastern lobe of the great Midwestern prairies. This region also includes remnants of the Grand Kankakee Marsh, which shelters at least 100,000 seasonally migrating waterfowl. · The widely varying communities of the Northern Lakes region, including wetlands, lakes, prairies, meadows, and deciduous forests. · The once forested Central Tillplain and Black Swamp regions, now dominated by agriculture. · Southwestern swamps and oxbow lakes, harboring Deep South species rare to Indiana such as the bald cypress and swamp rabbit. · South-central Indiana''s karst region, riddled with caves and sinkholes and home to endangered species of bats and cavefish. This region and the southeastern portion of the state share Indiana''s largest area of unbroken forest. · The rugged hills and wide, free-flowing streams of southeastern Indiana. · The Big Rivers region which includes the Ohio River and stretches of the Wabash and White Rivers.
We are not likely to recapture a large amount of the raw Indiana of pre-settlement times, nor do many think we should. However, wherever possible, conservation groups are trying to protect and restore existing or potential pockets of biodiversity, and some corporations and private landowners are implementing "nature-friendly" management practices. These efforts are necessarily conducted in the context of today''s society, which places many demands on the state''s natural resources for food production, living space, industry, and recreation. These multi-layered needs are one reason why diversity within the IBI itself is so important. As Tim Hayes, Senior Environmental Scientist with Cinergy Corporation, points out, "By everyone-business and industry, government agencies and conservation organizations-working together, we can achieve much for biodiversity."
Ultimately, the direction that conservation groups such as the IBI provide is only a start. As Sierra Club Wetlands Project Director Susan Thomas explains, "To achieve biodiversity goals, communication and exchange of current information are absolutely essential." Clark agrees. "What we [at the IBI] can do is provide some of the scientific basis for action, action that''s really going to have to come from the people who live here. And if they are excited, we feel that they can take hold of that and they-the communities, counties, state government, and the individuals that live on 200 acres out in the country-can act."
Conservationists say there is much to gain from protecting biodiversity, from natural resources for food and recreation, to flood control and soil generation. And if caught in a philosophical mood, many speak of the bigger picture. "Biodiversity issues," says John Shuey of The Nature Conservancy, "are at the core of our humanity. The essence of being human is largely defined by our co-inhabitants of Earth. We have a moral obligation both to ourselves as well as to other species to ensure that our planet retains its biologically rich heritage."