ACRES Land Trust

By: INPUT Fort Wayne

When you think of regional, natural landscapes, what do you picture? Maybe flat land, agricultural fields, or dense forests?

Midwest landscapes are often referred to as boring, flat land. But a visit to an ACRES Land Trust preserve might change your mind about that.

As Indiana’s largest and oldest land trust, they’re solely focused on preserving land in the region. Their coverage area includes over 25 counties in Northeast Indiana, Southern Michigan, and Northwest Ohio.

In the late 1950s, Tom and Jane Dustin saw Fort Wayne experiencing a lot of development and thought it might be crucial to preserve some natural areas. Tom and Jane, along with 10 others formed the Allen County Reserves, each contributed five dollars to become the founding members.

Plants native to Indiana outside of the ACRES Land Trust office.

By 1961 they had their first preserve– The Edna W. Spureon Woodland Reserve in Noble County. The land was donated by its namesake. But the preserve’s location made the founding Board of Directors rethink its name. They decided to go forth using ACRES, an acronym for Allen County REServes.

Now ACRES has over 150 properties, equaling more than 7500 acres in permanent protection. Over 30 of those properties include public trails, which are open from dusk to dawn, with basic trail rules– take nothing, leave nothing, and keep all pets on a leash.

Volunteers, which are an integral part of ACRES, help with a variety of tasks. Volunteer land stewards help keep their public trails open and maintained. Other volunteers help with office work, like mailing, fundraising, and spreading the word about ACRES’ mission.

They know the value of volunteers– for the first 32 years of its existence ACRES operated on a volunteer basis.

“Volunteers did everything– they raised money, they wrote letters, they constructed trails, they bought land, and accepted donations,” says Heather Barth, advancement director at ACRES. “Volunteers today still remain integral to our mission.”

Barth says that the organization has evolved over the years, but volunteers are still an important part of their mission. While there are currently only 10 paid staff positions, there are over 150 regular volunteers, with large groups coming in annually to do projects.

Land protected by ACRES Land Trust in Allen County

Reena Ramos, ACRES outreach manager, who helps manage their current roster of volunteers says it’s crazy to think the organization was built on volunteer work.

“It’s insane to think that for 32 years there was no paid staff position,” she says. “Our founders and some of those early volunteers are all-stars for doing the work that they did.”

The founders of ACRES also played an important role in the creation of the Indiana Nature Preserve Act in 1967, which protects natural areas throughout Indiana. So what was so precious about Indiana’s landscape that moved those original 12 members to take action to preserve it?

If you ask Ramos, she’ll tell you Indiana’s beauty is often overlooked and underrated.

Born in New Mexico, Ramos spent her childhood exploring the mountainous landscapes out West. Her family vacations were centered around outdoor activities, like visiting national parks.

She moved to Indiana and was introduced to ACRES Land Trust as a college student when she was studying environmental science, a choice heavily influenced by her upbringing. Eventually, she became an intern for ACRES and then later returned when her current job was listed.

“You don’t have to go out to New Mexico to hike really cool areas,” she says. “We have that here and it deserves to be protected as a natural space. We have cool critters here. You don’t have to go out to the mountains of Washington to have a cool, fun time and to value land.”

The public trails under ACRES’ protection gives people a chance to see what our regional landscape has to offer.

“Some of the trails have really unique geological formations and waterfalls,” says Ramos. “It’s introducing people to what Indiana has to offer. This land deserves protection just as much as a national park does. There’s cool stuff here.”

An overlook of a ravine at an ACRES Land Trust property.

Ramos says while the trails introduce people to the work ACRES does, it’s not their mission to provide hiking trails– their only goal is to preserve land.

“That’s been our mission since we were founded in 1960,” she says. “Something really cool about that is that’s kind of all we do– land protection. It allows people to come to us for a variety of different reasons. We don’t identify as a recreational organization, a religious organization, an environmental organization, or an education organization. We really try not to put ourselves in any kind of box. We’re just here to protect land.”

The land ACRES preserves is donated by landowners. Each property is evaluated and typically undergoes restoration, which often requires invasive species control. Occasionally they’ll host tree plantings too. Other work done to restore depends on the type of habit, which is typically one of the three main types of habitats in Indiana– wetlands, prairie, or forest.

Reena Ramos, ACRES outreach manager, holds up a leaf from an invasive plant.

Ramos says they do a lot of restoration work on old agricultural land too and they protect 500 acres of agricultural land, which they farm on, planting soybeans and corn. Money made from that is used to restore and protect other land.

“We get to show people that farming can be done semi-sustainably, and the farmland gets recycled every once in a while,” she says.

Only 31 of their properties are open to the public. The properties closed off to the public are done so for various reasons. When land is donated, donors can set parameters for how the land is used, including if they want it to be open to the public. Sometimes, a preserve is closed to the public to protect a sensitive animal, like the endangered Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, the only rattlesnake species found in Northern Indiana. Other times, properties are just too small to hold trails.

Many of the preserves can be used for research as well. Ramos says they work with a number of institutions, including local high schools and universities for research purposes.

“What’s really cool about research on ACRES Preserves is that that preserve is gonna be there forever, which means if you’re sampling a tree there in 2023, you can come back in 2033 and that tree will still be there unless it is taken down by a storm,” she says. “It’s going to be awesome for long-term studies to come back and have it be a protected place. It’s not very common and it is one of the difficulties of environmental research. Some days you’ll be looking at a bat habitat and the next day that’ll be a new housing addition.”

And speaking of new developments– the team at ACRES isn’t against it. You won’t see them fighting big developers for plots of land or anything of that nature.

“ACRES is not anti-development,” explains Ramos. “We understand that there have to be houses and schools and hospitals. We all have families that need facilities of different types. We’re just trying to keep up with it. For as much development is happening, we believe that that much more nature should be protected.”

ACRES is funded by members, whose monetary support goes toward protecting and preserving native Indiana habitats forever. Because ACRES doesn’t classify itself as anything but a land preservation organization, members choose to support the organization for a wide range of reasons. Makayla Tedder, communications manager at ACRES, says the staff’s reasons for supporting ACRES’ mission vary too.

“It’s really cool to hear everyone’s different ‘why,’” says Tedder. “Together we all care about the same things and our ‘why’ can be different but we’re all working together to protect this land and protect the habitats. It’s cool to know you have that connection with everyone that’s involved.”

The sign at the front entrance of ACRES Land Trust office.

ACRES hosts different events throughout the year to bring people to their preserves and share their mission of land preservation. Events include educational walks, social gathers, and art workshops. Members get access to special events, including some that give them access to preserves not typically open to the public.

To see a full events schedule or to learn more about ACRES Land Trust, click here.