This semester, Trine University students enrolled in a Conservation course will help ACRES Land Trust as part of a land management immersion, focused on caring for the Beechwood, Foster and Majneri Nature Preserves, adjacent to Pokagon State Park.

Students will work at the preserve 8-10 weeks, battling non-native invasive species, learning land management strategies and techniques and exploring how land ethic impacts land. Trine Assistant Professor of Biology, Samuel A. Drerup initiated the partnership with ACRES Director of Land Management, Casey Jones and Blue Heron Ministries Executive Director, Nate Simons.

“It’s important for students to get their hands dirty and see how large projects are done,” says Drerup. “An underlying theme of the course is how an individual’s land ethic and bias influences management decisions. I hope to express to them that there are many different ways to approach conservation, none are really wrong but all come with their own consequences.”

ACRES acquired the original parcel of the preserve, named Beechwood, in 1964. Beechwood is a mixture of habitats including a beech/maple forest; yellow birch, red maple, red elm and blue beech trees; an oak savannah; rolling meadows; thickets with dogwood, poison sumac, elderberry and spicebush; and a fen. Birds and wildflowers are as varied at the cover.

Forming a land ethic: Why manage land? For what purpose?

Engaging in land ethic is part of ACRES’ planning. When establishing a land management plan, ACRES asks, “Why? Why manage this particular place? For what purpose?” In short, as a nonprofit with a mission to protect land, we view our job as serving nature’s highest purpose by supporting natural systems through the least manipulation possible, with humility and respect.

In some places, where natural plant cover is established, ACRES monitors and defends from non-native invasive plants. In other places, where non-native plants have taken hold, or perhaps where land has been significantly altered, we work to remove obstacles, allowing native natural plant life to establish dominance, on its own.

ACRES’ view is not focused on returning land to a particular historic condition or on future predictions for our area, but to its current place in the successional cycle, given its current context. What’s growing here now? What do the soils tell us? What’s growing nearby? How is land being used around it? And, what is the least-manipulative approach to supporting this land in, essentially, being as natural, or undisturbed, as possible? How can we get out of the way?

Beechwood: a view from 200 years

At Beechwood, beginning in 2008, ACRES contracted Blue Heron Ministries to manage a native prairie and an oak savannah, using methods such as controlled burns and removing a few, scattered native saplings. In selecting this approach, ACRES observed that for fifty years, this fallow field grew into a native grassland, out-competing most trees. Too, non-native invasive plants grew here, densely enough to warrant taking action. And, early county surveyors noted that for as far as fifteen miles, the view here was open, not forested.

Today, the results are stunning: this preserve provides a beautiful example of a native prairie and an open savannah.

Beechwood provides a prime opportunity for education in land management, habitat type and, in land ethic. Drerup’s conservation students have plenty to engage in here. Students will lop off smaller-stemmed non-native invasive brush like autumn olive and bush honeysuckle. The ACRES crew will work with chainsaws and heavy equipment to remove denser thickets, demonstrating these methods for the class.

You can visit Beechwood to take in the view, watch the work unfold and engage your own land ethic:

Beechwood, Foster and Majneri Nature Preserve is located at 5145 N. SR 127, Fremont, IN 46737. It offers 1.7 miles of hilly trail on 90 acres, connecting to Pokagon State Park.