SILVER LAKE — Since 2006, Kosciusko County wildlife enthusiasts have enjoyed the ACRES Wildwood Nature Preserve, drawn by its size and the variety of habitats that make it a unique destination. In fact, Wildwood is part of a distinctive and evolving network of lands set aside not only for preservation of natural habitats, but sustainable agriculture as well.
Compared to neighboring states, Indiana protects a small amount of land in its natural state, 2 percent compared to at least 6 percent in Ohio, Michigan and Illinois, ranking 45th in the country as of 2014.
Land trusts such as ACRES represent a different way of setting land aside. According to Casey Jones, now in his third year as ACRES caretaker and director of land management, ACRES is privately funded through donations. “No tax dollars are going to keep them open,” he commented, though the organization does partner with the Department of Natural Resources on a regular basis. As a result, parks like Wildwood tend to be “rougher around the edges.”
“We keep the area as natural as possible — limiting human impact,” Jones said. This “rough” quality is exactly what many people prefer about ACRES preserves.
Started in 1960, ACRES is the oldest land trust in the state, and also the largest, with around 6,000 acres in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. Wildwood represents about 235 of those acres. The diverse habitat was donated by Bob and Alice Frantz in 2006. Since then, a pond and a restored prairie have been added, the latter by the Farm Service Association. “It’s a really nice opportunity to see various habitats,” stated Jones. Photos on Facebook attest to the number of different sights for hikers.
In April, 20 students from Manchester University, Jones’ alma mater, with the environmental studies club, planted around 200 trees, adding young forest to an area that also boasts old forest acreage.
A sizeable amount of ACRES land is also dedicated to agriculture, family farms required, as of this year, to use cover crops and no-till practices. Claxton Woods in Spencerville has been protected with the intention to make it a working forest, “harvested sustainably for supplemental income,” said Jones, in 40 to 50 years.
Wildwood’s charms have attracted a number of other activities as well. On Saturday, May 21, General Thad’s Folk Festival brought local bands, poets and artists together for the day.
At 6 p.m. Saturday, July 23, ACRES is hosting a plein air painting workshop at a new, as-yet-undisclosed ACRES location in Kosciusko County, tentatively called Wayne Township Prairie. Those interested should RSVP Jones at [email protected] or (260) 637-2273, ext. 6 due to limited supplies. “It’s not something you normally see in a nature preserve,” Jones observed.
Another reason to enjoy Wildwood soon is the looming mosquito season. The pests are abundant at the preserve thanks, in part, to the wetlands. As a native species, mosquitoes are not one of the invasive pests Jones works to keep out of the preserves. That honor goes to such plants as autumn olive, found in drier areas, and phragmites australis, a common reed Jones is battling in the wet areas.
Wildwood and other ACRES preserves are open 365 days a year, so, reminded Jones, “Don’t wait for ACRES to make an event” to plan a visit.