GARY | Just southwest of the South Shore commuter rail line tracks and the Indiana Toll Road at Burr Street in Gary, 120 acres of land tell the environmental history of Northwest Indiana.
Ivanhoe Dune and Swale, managed by The Nature Conservancy's Southern Lake Michigan Rim Project office in Merrillville, was formed when Lake Chicago receded thousands of years ago, leaving linear sandy ridges with parallel wetlands called swales between.
"Between these ridges it is just incredibly biologically rich," said Susan MiHalo, conservation coordinator for the Merrillville office.
MiHalo and other representatives from The Nature Conservancy toured the property this week in advance of Wednesday's International Biodiversity Day. Since 2000, The United Nations has designated May 22 to increase awareness of the importance of the issue worldwide.
"Biodiversity is a relatively new term," said John Henry Drake, regional ecologist for The Nature Conservancy. "It's a relative measure of the degree of variation within an ecosystem."
Drake said North America has "a couple of hot spots for biodiversity," including the Great Lakes region, which was impacted by the movement of glaciers and lakes over thousands of years.
"Biodiversity itself represents the health of the environment," Drake said. "With our work, management and protection, we're trying to keep that intact."
The biodiversity of the region first drew University of Chicago botanist and ecologist Dr. Henry Chandler Cowles and members of Chicago's Prairie Club to study the area. Their early studies set the stage for the creation of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore as federally protected land, one of the five most biodiverse National Park Service properties.
One of the species key to that designation was the Karner blue butterfly, a federally endangered species that, at the caterpillar stage, feeds exclusively on native wild lupine.
At Ivanhoe, wild lupine thrives today and the Karner blue have returned, thanks to work of The Nature Conservancy, which released them there in 2001.
Indiana has 150 butterfly species, two-thirds of which are in Lake and Porter counties.
"Ivanhoe probably has the highest butterfly density in the state," Drake said.
Migratory birds use the swales as stopovers, and nesting birds live there as well. Eleven of the 13 calling amphibians in the Great Lakes are also at Ivanhoe, Drake said. Sounds of orioles singing and frogs croaking are interrupted by sounds of South Shore trains on the adjacent tracks.
"That always brings you back to reality," Drake said.
Forty acres at Ivanhoe were originally intended for use as a residential subdivision. The Nature Conservancy purchased those lots at auction in the mid-1980s and acquired the rest of the property in 1991.
Grant funding coupled with assistance from volunteers and partnerships with other nonprofits made restoration efforts at the site possible.
"Thankfully, the funding keeps coming in to keep it going," he said. "It's pretty much where we want it to be. The challenge is to preserve it forever."
Drake said he knows some may question grant funds for the work over other types of projects.
"The more diverse the life, the more special the life is," Drake said. "The inherent value of it is enough for me."