Lee Botts' vision and the work of local professors and students have combined to create a tool for monitoring environmental restoration in the region.
"We know this region is responding to decades of environment perturbation," said Spencer Cortwright, biology professor at Indiana University Northwest. "We want to be one of the ways we can keep track of that and say hey, this place is no longer an environmental wasteland. Look at how much it has improved."
In 2007, Botts, the legendary Great Lakes environmentalist from Miller, produced a report for the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission titled "A Restoration Revolution," documenting area restoration efforts.
Botts concluded there were a host of positive strides being made in area restoration, but little to no follow up efforts taking place to document the results afterward.
Botts lives across the street from Pete Avis, a biology professor at Indiana University Northwest in Gary, and kept encouraging him to take the lead on the project.
"She was adamant that we do this," Avis said.
Avis eventually said yes and with the assistance of a now-former student, created the framework for the Northwest Indiana Restoration Monitoring Inventory.
"It started to come together," Avis said. "Lee kept an eye on how things were going and said we had to put in for some funding."
NIRMI founders started the search for funding with the Lake Michigan Coastal Program, which supported the project and allowed Avis to hire student interns. ArcelorMittal and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelly Foundation also provided financial support.
The program, now in its third season, pairs university experts and students with various land managers to log and monitor plant species on a given plot of restored land. NIRMI is monitoring 28 sites in Lake, Porter, LaPorte and Cook counties this season as well as in Barrien County, Mich.
The process takes students into the field to plot 50-by-20-meter squares — half a football field — on the property and inventory each species stem by stem. Soil quality test results, plant density and other variables also are entered into the online database.
Avis said the "cyber infrastructure" backing the project is key.
"Indiana University is really unique in its cyber infrastructure," Avis said. "They've got a really high-speed fiber optic system. … Part of the complex is devoted to anyone doing research. That piece was very important to the NIRMI project because of the size, speed and capacity."
This year, NIRMI has seven student interns from IUN, Purdue University Calumet and Valparaiso University. In past seasons, they have employed students from Calumet College and Ivy Tech.
"They came in not knowing anything at all about plants," Avis said. "We wanted to build a program to help train people in plants and restoration. This is developing people who can observe and gather data, train them in identification, GPS and GIS and data collection."
Savannah Hauter, a graduate student at PUC from Schererville working as a NIRMI intern this summer, said she heard about the program from a friend working last summer.
"It's putting a name to a face to me," Hauter said. "You can talk about succession, plants and trees all you want, but seeing it in the field, it's all clicking for me now.
Cortwright said the skills learned in the field translate into valuable knowledge in the workplace.
"When I've asked restoration companies what is the number one skill needed by new hires, ... it is plant identification," Cortwright said.
NIRMI provides the stakeholders with a report on the inventory at the end of the season.
"Those have been useful for a variety of reasons," Avis said. "If they've got funding, they need to be able to document the work in some way. If they document the need, that can help with additional or future funding … We can capture information and come back to the exact same spot and see what's there a year, two years, a decade later."
"Also, problems are going to show up that you can put on people's radar," Cortwright said.
Avis said finding the funding to continue the work is always a concern.
"It's a little bit trying to explain there is a lot of money being put into restoration and to do boots-on-the-ground type of work but very little to do monitoring and recording of data," he said.
"I keep hoping Oprah (Winfrey) will hear about it," Cortwright said as a joke.
Botts said she has been pleased with the results of the project.
"The monitoring network is another example of the leadership Northwest Indiana is providing in restoration of natural areas in the Lake Michigan region," Botts said. "It is providing opportunities to students and involving our local universities in response to this growing need, as well as meeting a need for the people and agencies doing the restoration."