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Fern Station Nature Preserve

Protected forever. Cliff Chapman, executive director of the Central Indiana Land Trust, couldn’t seem to stop smiling when he said those words Friday afternoon during a special announcement in Madison Township.

Thanks to a public-private partnership, a 570-acre undisturbed piece of Indiana forestland west of Greencastle will be protected forever to support important wildlife and plants and provide opportunities for outdoor recreation.

That piece of forestland is now known as Fern Station Nature Preserve, named after a long-defunct “tiny town” along the former Big Four Railway.

Disturbed only by a little-used gravel road, the land is dominated by white oak, beech and hickory trees and features lushly wooded ravines that support a wide variety of ferns. It is home to a number of rare and endangered species, including cerulean, worm-eating and hooded warblers, broad-winged hawks, and Eastern box turtles.

And now it’s all protected forever.

“When I think about this land, I couldn’t be more thrilled we’re preserving the natural wonders of Hoosier landscapes like these,” Gov. Eric Holcomb said during the announcement. “Through this first investment from the Next Level Conservation Trust, we are preserving land not just for today, but for generations of future Hoosiers to enjoy, protecting habitats and promoting quality of life.”

The story of how it got to this point is one of partnerships between the State of Indiana, Central Indiana Land Trust (CILTI), individual philanthropists, and non-profits, but it all starts with one man.

Joe McCurdy has owned the land for more than 20 years and has more than once turned down offers from timber buyers. “Joe turned down millions of dollars from timber buyers,” Chapman said. “It’s because he said no to them that this place is just dripping with life. It’s an ecologist’s dream.”

The nature preserve that is now taking shape is just what McCurdy had in mind.

“I always wanted to visualize this as something that could be sustaining and would always be here,” McCurdy told the Banner Graphic. “This was just a beautiful place. I think it was the right time in my life and to the right organization.”

A Shelby County resident, McCurdy began buying wooded land in the early 1980s with an eye toward conservation. Through a variety of experiences, he learned more and more about conservation, forestry and ecology. McCurdy first took Chapman to his Putnam County property 15 years ago.

“It was 15 years ago when we first walked this incredible woods with Mr. Joe McCurdy,” Chapman said. “We tried several times to protect it, but we simply could not raise the money or find another way to do it. In the meantime, we worked with Joe on other lands in Hamilton and Parke counties, both through land purchases and conservation easements.”

By partnering in all three counties, CILTI and McCurdy have managed to preserve more than 1,600 acres.

“That’s larger than several state parks in Indiana. Thank you, Joe,” Chapman said. For Chapman, though, the prize always remained Fern Station.

“It wasn’t until the visionary approach that Gov. Holcomb took with the Next Level Conservation Trust that we were able to raise the funds not just to protect a forest this size, but a forest of this quality,” Chapman said. “You see, this just isn’t any woods — it’s an exceptional forest.”

On a later hike attended by only a few, Chapman expounded on this, noting the number of saplings present on the forest floor, a rarity in Indiana woodlands due to overpopulation of whitetail deer. He noted that McCurdy has hired a hunter specially trained in deer population control over the years.

Such measures have, in turn, increased the natural habitats of birds such as the warblers mentioned above, bringing their populations more in line with what they likely were when Indiana was still a forested wilderness.

The first big step was for the state-funded Next Level Conservation Trust to provide more than $3.1 million toward the land acquisition, representing 75 percent of the purchase price. In turn, CILTI raised more than $1 million from private donors, most notably a $500,000 challenge grant from the Efroymson Family Fund.

“As it turns out, the $500,000 challenge grant from the Efroymson family was the largest challenge grant, the largest amount of funding they had ever given in their history. We had no idea, and we are just humbled by that,” Chapman said. “That left us with a half million dollars to raise and a dry well. But we knew we had one thing going for us, and you’re looking at it. In fact, it’s surrounding us right now.”

So, CILTI began bringing would-be donors to Putnam County. The first visitor gave $20,000. Next they brought a van load and raised $150,000, including a sizable donation from someone who wasn’t even a CILTI member. “They were a cousin of somebody,” Chapman said. “Every person who gave money on this challenge — that half million dollars — none of them had ever given us money for a land conservation project before.”

Another large chunk came from the Putnam County Community Foundation.

“We have never felt more welcomed,” Chapman said. “Knowing we had a challenge grant and everything we raised was doubled, they came in with a $50,000 grant. This is just virtually unheard of. We cannot thank you enough.”

The governor also took notice, praising PCCF Communications Director Sarah Stone in his comments.

“Sarah, you’ve put the pressure on 91 other counties. Thank you,” Holcomb said. “Thanks for creating the model and proving it can be done because we do have more work that needs to be done all over the state.”

“Here in our community, we understand the vital link between preserving our heritage and securing a brighter future for our children and our neighbors,” Stone said. “This nature preserve represents our commitment to preserving the natural beauty of Putnam County, but Fern Station is much more than a forest where plants and animals can thrive. It holds great importance for our community in terms of public recreation and will undoubtedly enrich our quality of life.”

These various donations, which also included support from the Herb Simon Family Trust, got CILTI to the total purchase price of $4,125,000.

Those present recognized that the value of such places goes beyond simple conservation, but in promoting the economic climate of the state and the quality of life of Hoosiers.

“Literally, a couple of days ago I had a Fortune 100 company in my office and they said, ‘If I could leave you with one thing, keep building those trails,’” Holcomb said. “I said, ‘Can I have you call some people?’ They said, ‘Sure, we’ll call whoever because you’re competing against Ohio and Japan, and what you’re doing here is unlike anything we’ve seen.’ So anytime we can broadcast or share all that we have to offer … it’s not just rhetorical to say that there’s more to discover in Indiana. There is, there truly is.”

The Next Level Conservation Trust, administered by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, was developed to ensure that Indiana’s rich natural heritage is preserved or enhanced for succeeding generations by acquiring property that has outstanding natural features and habitats, historical and archaeological significance, and/or provides areas for conservation, outdoor recreation or the restoration of native biological diversity.

The Trust provides matching grants, which means that every organization requesting funds also commits to raising money from donors. As a result, more money than ever is available to purchase significant parcels of Indiana’s natural areas and place them into protective care forever. Hoosiers will have opportunities to enjoy pristine natural areas, to experience Indiana’s native flora and fauna, and to benefit from improved water and air quality well beyond those properties.

Funding for the Next Level Conservation Trust comes from the American Rescue Plan and is appropriated by the Indiana General Assembly. Earlier this year, the Indiana General Assembly and Gov. Holcomb committed an additional $10 million to land conservation through the President Benjamin Harrison Conservation Trust.

When the Central Indiana Land Trust closed on the property in May, it became the largest single land purchase in the nonprofit’s 33-year history. Now that CILTI owns the property, it is developing a land management plan and will be planning ways to open the preserve to the public. The land trust will protect the land forever, and the ongoing care will not require tax dollars.

Because CILTI is currently restoring the preserve, in the near term the property will only be open for guided hikes and events hosted by the land trust. Those interested in seeing Fern Station are encouraged to follow Central Indiana Land Trust’s website at conservingindiana.org/events to keep up to date.