Fields of Dreams

By Steve Charles
  December 18, 2003

"Sometimes the work we did in week one had to be repeated just two weeks later, and we’d go back and clean it up, but the sense of accomplishment I felt from what we were able to achieve was awesome." - Dan Matusik ’04

Dave Krohne’s dream hangs above his office desk in the new Science Building.

A bison grazes amidst a vast expanse of prairie grasses and wildflowers in a painted recreation of tall grass prairie in Sauk, Wisconsin, not unlike the deep black soil prairie that blanketed North America 200 years ago from Iowa to western Ohio. But for Krohne, it’s a glimpse of Indiana’s portion of the Grand Prairie.

"This was the banana belt of the tallgrass prairie," the ecologist explains. "Eight feet of black soil, 400 species of flowering plants, bison and other mammals we haven’t seen in this state for a century. Today there is only one remnant of grand prairie in the entire state of Indiana, a one-acre pioneer cemetery."

Krohne and the members of Northern Indiana Citizens Helping Ecosystems Survive (NICHES) hope to change that. One long-term goal of NICHES’ Grand Prairie sub-committee, which Krohne chairs, is to purchase 400 to 1,000 acres in Benton County and restore the land to the Grand Prairie it once was.

"The idea is to put this all together so that future generations can actually see all of these species in one place in a healthy, viable prairie ecosystem," Krohne says.

Anyone acquainted with the Wabash scientist’s research and his love of the outdoors could have seen this coming. Krohne’s observations of fragmentation in Indiana prairie plant populations are singular studies of the species found there, the relative health of these "island" ecosystems, and their prospects for survival.

But this year’s winner of the McLain-McTurnan-Arnold Award for Excellence in Teaching is now in his 50s, and he’s been stirred to action watching the conversion of Indiana’s former prairie-turned-agricultural lands into subdivisions and strip malls. He was looking for something he could affect more tangibly, a role in restoring and preserving the Hoosier state’s natural spaces, and five years ago he discovered NICHES, a professionally diverse but like-minded group of volunteers.

Since its founding in 1995, NICHES has purchased or agreed to protect through conservation easements 14 different properties—1,552 acres of land as varied as Wabash River bottomland and sand barrens to upland forest. "Non-adversarial" in its approach, NICHES works with landowners to find ways to preserve and restore the land. Krohne is vice-president of the group.

"This is as local and personal for all of us as it gets," Krohne says. "It’s our own environment, it’s everybody’s backyard, and these properties get a lot of use by people who just want to walk in a quiet place. It’s very satisfying."

But the organization’s acquisitions have also presented a problem: for all their long-term vision, the 50-somethings on NICHES’ executive board lack one thing—youthful energy.

"Running a chain saw for eight hours a day takes a lot of ibuprofen for a guy my age, no matter how dedicated I may be," Krohne says.

Enter Wabash students AAron Flagg ’05 and Dan Matusik ’04.

NICHES had received a grant to hire two interns for the summer to remove invasive species from its properties and re-introduce native trees and grasses, and Krohne invited college students in the Lafayette and Crawfordsville areas to apply. He was looking for students who had experience with chain saws and herbicides, could learn to identify a number of plant species, and, most importantly, could work independently.

The large applicant pool was winnowed to two—both of them, by coincidence, Wabash students. Flagg is a speech major interested in studying environmental law. Matusik, a history major and member of Ducks Unlimited, is considering a career in law enforcement, perhaps as a conservation officer.

Flagg and Matusik had never met before the internship, but one day clearing brush and trees in the heat and humidity of an Indiana summer tells you a lot about the other guy with the chainsaw. The team clicked. Eight weeks of eight-hour days later, the professor was impressed by their commitment and skills.

"This is hard work in hot conditions, and most of the time they were on their own," Krohne says. "And almost every time they made a decision, it was the right one."

"The independence we were given gave Dan and I a chance to put our planning and teamwork skills to the test," Flagg says.

"And the fact that we’d planned the work flow, decided how to do this, really gave me a sense of achievement when Professor Krohne would return to the field and see the non-native trees or the invasive romex gone," Matusik says. "He seemed amazed by how much we had accomplished."

"They did a terrific job—caught us up to the point that we’re not all stressed out about owning all this property and being 10 years behind in taking care of it," Krohne says. "For a while, we can keep on top of it with volunteer work days."

What did Matusik and Flagg get out of all this besides their daily wage?

"The most important thing I learned about habitat preservation and conservation this summer is that every little bit of work counts and has an impact," says Flagg.

"This is direct action," Krohne says. "At the end of the day, they saw that the property was in better shape than when they got there. Plants that belong on that land have sunlight for the first time in 50 years. At the same time, the guys know that, if we don’t keep at it, those trees will be back. The work of stewardship is never done."

"Sometimes the work we did in week one had to be repeated just two weeks later, and we’d go back and clean it up," says Matusik. "But the sense of accomplishment I felt from what we were able to achieve was awesome, and we were always moving forward."

So are Krohne and NICHES—continuing their work as stewards of the land they have while keeping their eyes on the prize.

"We don’t want to get so fixed on the dream of Grand Prairie that we draw resources from these important lands we already have; at the same time, if we don’t begin to work on the dream, it will never become reality."

Contact Professor Krohne: krohned@wabash.edu
Read more about NICHES: www.NICHESlandtrust.org/index.html