Teeming with native plants and wildlife, Kankakee Sands offers the region’s residents an opportunity to step away from Lake Michigan’s industrial shores and the hustle and bustle of Chicago.
Located off U.S. 41 just north of Morocco, the Kankakee Sands site is located in the footprint of the former Beaver Lake, Indiana’s once largest inland freshwater lake that was drained beginning in the mid-1800s, said Trevor Edmonson, project director for Kankakee Sands. The site preserves some of the remaining wetland pockets of that habitat.
“Kankakee Sands also supports thousands of acres of prairie habitat,” Edmonson said. “Historically, Indiana was approximately 15% prairie, the majority of which was located in Northwest Indiana.”
Most of that 15% was destroyed over time and only a few small remnants remain today, he said.
“The species that rely on large scale prairie habitat have been displaced and diminished over time as a result of that prairie loss,” he said.
The national organization, The Nature Conservancy, purchased 7,200 acres of agricultural ground in Newton County in 1996 in an effort to reverse this habitat loss. The non-profit environmental organization began the process of converting these acres to the diverse prairies of today’s Kankakee Sands, and its work continues today as the organization continues to expand and enhance this prairie jewel.
“At over 8,000 acres, Kankakee Sands is one of the largest and most diverse prairie restorations east of the Mississippi,” Edmonson said. “We support 600 plant species, 70 different butterfly species and nearly 250 different birds, many of which rely on grassland habitat for forage and nesting.”
Today, visitors can stroll through the immersive trails to experience migratory bird watching opportunities, a bison viewing area and wetlands.
“Kankakee Sands is providing space for thousands of species to thrive in a natural setting,” Edmonson said. “Without these areas, whole communities of plants would not functionally survive the development and disturbance of society.”
Creatures like the state-endangered regal fritillary butterfly and breeding grassland birds would disappear from Indiana, he said.
“We not only preserve species, but also important ecosystem functions across our site,” Edmonson said. “Our wetlands hold a lot of water, and our soil is teeming with life and organic matter. We are able to let nature thrive and run its course on all levels, and that is important because once you lose those building blocks and populations of species in a place, it is very hard to bring them back in a meaningful way.”
In addition to Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has been involved in conservation in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties for nearly 30 years, said Joel Perez, TNC project director for Northwest Indiana. Much of the organization’s work has been centered around the Grand Calumet River area.
“TNC doesn’t always set out to own the properties it supports, but if a property has high conservation value or buffers or helps connect existing managed habitat, TNC periodically financially assists other land trusts or government agencies with acquisition,” he said.
The organization’s involvement in the Grand Calumet River area is an example of how it strives to achieve conservation goals in the longer term, Perez said.
“The Grand Calumet River, prior to industrialization of the area and degradation of the river, was historically a very diverse landscape,” he said.
Connected to the river and riverine wetlands is an extremely rare habitat known as dune and swale, he said.
“Scientific analysis in the 1990s of the remaining fragments of riparian and dune and swale habitat helped TNC advocate for their protection and restoration as part of the planned cleanup of the Grand Calumet River as a tributary to Lake Michigan,” Perez said. “This was important because it allowed the river and adjacent habitat to be restored together in areas including between Kennedy and Cline Avenues in Hammond and East Chicago, just north of the Indiana Toll Road.”
Simply restoring the river itself would not have been enough to reinstate what are known as beneficial uses to wildlife and humans, he said.
“By restoring the dune and swale habitat, riverine marshes and the river combined, positive outcomes were much more likely,” Perez said.
Today, staff and volunteers continue to remove invasive species from the Kankakee Sands area to allow sunlight to reach the ground, Edmonson says. This allows oak seedlings to grow and the diverse savanna flora to thrive.
“We are also starting a new partnership with the National Park Service’s Rails, Trails and Conservation Assistance program where we will be looking at updating our preserve for better accessibility, signage and viewing opportunities,” Edmonson said.
To protect nature, Edmonson says it must be valued.
“The more people we can get out to our preserves and get them exposed to the wonders of nature, the better,” he said. “Kankakee Sands and other TNC preserves across Indiana represent pieces of Hoosier natural heritage, and it’s vital we connect people to the land in a meaningful way. Ecological stewardship has been a part of human culture as long as we have been around, and we take it upon ourselves to keep that connection going.”