About four years ago, a land conservation project was launched to help celebrate Indiana’s 200th year of statehood in 2016.
It’s called the Bicentennial Nature Trust, and its performance can be summed up in a single word.
Backed by $20 million in state funding and an additional $10 million gift from the Lilly Endowment, the BNT set out to acquire or protect important conservation and recreation areas. The idea was to extend the legacy of land stewardship established in 1916 with Indiana’s state park system.
Wetlands, forests, river buffers, trails and local parks all qualified for BNT funding consideration, and local .
The project is overseen by the Bicentennial Commission, co-chaired by former Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman and former Congressman Lee Hamilton. A committee of DNR technical experts was formed to evaluate project proposals and make recommendations to the Bicentennial Commission.
The committee scores applications on such criteria as size, natural features, water quality protection, statewide and historical significance, impact on the State Visionary Trails system, wildlife habitat, proximity to other public lands, partnerships, support of county officials, and funding support from the applicant.
BNT funding requires a dollar-for-dollar match and a cap of $300,000 for the BNT portion of an individual project.
To date, applicants are putting up $1.35 for every allotted BNT dollar, and for projects that have closed it’s even better — $1.47 for every BNT dollar.
Funding has been approved so far for:
- Nearly 150 projects with another 30 under consideration.
- Projects located in 63 of Indiana’s 92 counties.
- Almost 13,000 total acres permanently protected for outdoor recreation.
- Projects ranging in size from a single acre to more than 1,000 acres.
Private land conservation groups like ACRES Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy, Shirley Heinze Land Trust and Sycamore Land Trust have benefited from BNT support. So have city and county park systems, and the Department of Natural Resources.
DNR divisions of Fish & Wildlife, Forestry, Nature Preserves and State Parks have received BNT funds, with Fish & Wildlife adding about 1,450 acres to its inventory, including 10 projects tied to its ongoing Healthy Rivers INitiative.
“The BNT funds are helping us stretch our HRI dollars,” said Mark Reiter, director of the DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. “By matching HRI funds with BNT, we’ve been able to accelerate the pace of HRI’s goal to obtain permanent land conservation protection along Sugar Creek, the Wabash River, and the Muscatatuck River.”
DNR Fish & Wildlife isn’t alone in being able to leverage BNT funds to help complete existing goals.
“It actually impacted our strategic plan, based on the fact BNT funding was available,” said Jason Kissell, executive director of ACRES Land Trust. “We set a goal to double our rate of acquisition, and we’ve been successful doing that, largely because of BNT. It really helped us be able to complete projects that had been on the table for decades. We didn’t create new projects, but BNT came in and helped us achieve priorities we already had. It’s been invaluable to our growth.”
ACRES has received BNT funding for 12 projects totaling 850 acres.
The largest project was one of the first approved – a 1,043-acre purchase of a former coal mine operation by Sycamore Land Trust. Columbia Mine tract in Gibson and Pike counties shares more than three miles of boundary with the Patoka National Wildlife Refuge and forms a connection between two large parcels owned by the refuge. The site features marsh, forested wetlands, upland forests, shrub and prairie plantings, and several lakes.
The second-largest project is a DNR Division of Forestry purchase of 704 acres in Brown County that has been added to Yellowwood State Forest.
Established by former Governor Mitch Daniels and continued by current Governor Mike Pence, the Bicentennial Nature Trust has done what it set out to do – provide a gift to Indiana’s citizens in honor of the 200th anniversary of statehood in 2016.
“This is the greatest thing to happen for conservation in 100 years since the formation of our state parks by Col. Richard Lieber,” said Mary McConnell, executive director of The Nature Conservancy’s Indiana chapter. “Everybody wins. The whole state wins. It’s not just nature for nature’s sake. It’s nature for people, for the whole state.”