PORTER — After decades of children playing and laughing at the Dunes Learning Center, two new residents are taking over the land at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
Thelma and Louise, female Nubian goats, are helping to combat a decades-old problem.
In 1941, the camp at 700 Howe Road was built by U.S. Steel and operated for its employees' children. The camp ran until 1976 when the National Park Service bought the land.
"But they didn't want it. It was like a golf course," said Geof Benson, executive director of the learning center. "But they bought it to protect it and kind of let it rot for 20 years."
The land had plenty of fruit and pine trees and "manicured grass," added Jim Whitenack, volunteer program coordinator. The original cabins rotted completely and were eventually removed. In 1998, the land was designated as an environmental learning center. New cabins and a lodge were built. Some 5,000 youngsters stay in the cabins each year for school-learning activities.
"But during that time that they bought it — from 1976 to 1998 — the invasive species took over," Benson said. "They kept taking it over and the park had tried to beat them back."
The learning center tried to curb the problem with student programs, but "it's just kind of a massive project," Benson said.
Up until two years ago, the area where the old cabins sat was "a wall of dead trees and ... bittersweet, an invasive plant that was basically covering the whole area," Whitenack said.
Whitenack helped to lead the efforts with mechanical thinning, manual removal and chemical treatments. Eventually, Whitenack and his team thought to bring in a "biological control."
That's where the goats come in. Thelma and Louise live in a nearby barn, but come out to feed during the day. Female goats are less picky eaters than male goats and eat both the native and invasive plants.
Thelma and Louise have free range of the "test facility," which is a fenced-in area around an old swimming pool overrun by plants. Oriental bittersweet covers the tall fence surrounding the pool, and more tall vegetation has taken over inside, so much so that features like the diving board and ladders are basically hidden.
"We're kind of testing out the fence right now and hoping next year if this is successful, if this infrastructure works, we'll bring some more goats out and have them feed in here to knock back some of these invasives," Whitenack said.
The aim is to maintain the historic viewshed in the corridor and instead of manicured grass, "we've going to have a low profile prairie with a lot of flowers," Whitenack said. The area still has plenty of dense forest with invasive plants and dead ash trees. Benson said it is so thick birds can't fly through it.
"Where they've cleared it, there's more wildlife, it's more easy on the birds and it's easier to manage for the resources," Benson said.
Crews have already cleared and replanted 40 of the project's 200 acres. The testing area has actually been cleared before, but what is there now is a regrowth of plants.
If the experiment is successful, Whitenack imagines having five goats next year. Benson said with the amount of the land to cover, they could have 100, but "we have to balance that with kids, public and other uses."
But the educational component of the goats' job is already having a positive impact, especially for kids who have never been to the national park.
"We have thousand of kids who come through here every year," Whitenack said. "So when they see this ... they can learn about invasive plants, and how to handle a goat."