Starling Nature Sanctuary

Scott Starling Nature Sanctuary wetland restoration project

Project overview

The Center for Earth and Environmental Science is restoring a mosaic of relatively rare and biologically diverse groundwater-fed wetland systems in the Scott Starling Nature Sanctuary portion of Eagle Creek Park. The restoration is occurring in areas that were historically fen and sedge meadow. CEES has established a broad coalition of stakeholders that include professional staff at the City of Indianapolis Department of Parks and Recreation, university faculty and staff, wetland restoration professionals from Spence Restoration Nursery, JF New and Associates, university students, corporate and community volunteers, and citizen groups representing the Starling Nature Sanctuary as well as the area watershed task force.

Project history

We anticipate that 60-70% of the eleven acre site will be returned to wetlands and associated habitats. Site geophysical surveys and manual probing are being used to locate the old agricultural tile drainage network, which was installed by earlier settlers to drain the wetlands at the site. The tiles are then being targeted for removal. Ten groundwater monitoring wells have been installed to monitor the level of the groundwater and track its chemical characteristics. As the hydrology is restored, site preparation will continue with the removal of exotic species and existing turf grass. And, as the hydrology is recovering, wetland plants are being returned to the site. All native plants re-introduced are of local genetic make up. The remaining area will be allowed to establish its own ecological setting based on ground wetness, elevation, and relationship to surrounding vegetation communities.

Project location, setting and benefits

The Scott Starling Nature Sanctuary is located at the north end of Eagle Creek Reservoir in Eagle Creek Park. It is situated in Pike Township of northwest Marion County on the Tipton Till Plain section of the Central Till Plain Natural Region of Indiana.

The area was settled in the mid-1800s. Nearly all of the land on the north side of Fishback Creek was utilized for agricultural purposes during most of the twentieth century. Aerial photographs from 1936 show several areas that are now covered with young second growth forest were in row crop (Tungsevick, 1997). The area was purchased by the City of Indianapolis in 1966 as a portion of the land designated for the developing Eagle Creek Park and Reservoir. Several agricultural fields continued to be cultivated until 1991. The area was officially dedicated as the Scott Starling Nature Sanctuary in 1992 and is managed by Indy Parks and Recreation.

The physical setting of the Nature Sanctuary is defined by Fishback Creek and the associated stream valley. This deeply incised valley originated from glacial meltwaters of the Wisconsin epoch when water flows were significantly higher than those in the current stream (Barr et al., 1996). The valley is characterized by a narrow floodplain and steep bluffs on the south and west sides of the creek. A broad floodplain with a gentle slope occupies areas north and east of the creek. This is the area of the wetland restoration. Glacial meltwater has left broad outwash deposits dominated by permeable sand and gravel. These deposits are the source of groundwater seeps on the preserve.

During pre-settlement times, the majority of the Starling Sanctuary was forested and included both upland and floodplain forests. A section of the property likely contained an open sedge meadow. This area is located around the groundwater seepage area and contains a deep muck soil consistent with the presence of a saturated sedge meadow (Tungesvick, 1997). Prior to the initiation of restoration, the area consisted of a small seepage along Wilson Road north of an infrequently mowed grassy area. The area is sunny, but contains abundant evidence of disturbance (Tungesvick, 1997).

Wetland functions and benefits

Wetlands are a part of our natural heritage. They provide many vital physical, ecological, and economic functions and benefits. These benefits and functions can generally be classified as water resource related, biological and ecological, aesthetic, educational, recreational and economic. Water resource functions and benefits include flood control, water quality and groundwater discharge and recharge (DNR, 1996). Biological and ecological functions and benefits include habitat and resources for fisheries, wildlife and plants. About 900 species of vertebrate animals require wetlands at some time in their lives.

Wetlands provide the principal habitat for virtually all species of waterfowl nationwide, and also for many other birds, mammals and reptiles. In Indiana, 11 species of waterfowl use wetlands for nesting, and 28 species use wetlands as migration/wintering habitat (DNR, 1996). Nationwide, nearly 35 percent of all rare and endangered animal species depend on wetlands for survival, although wetlands constitute only 5 percent of the nations lands (DNR, 1996). More than 60 wetland-dependent animal species are listed as endangered, threatened, or of special concern in Indiana. A great variety of plants thrive in wetlands and many are wholly dependent on wetland habitats. Because so many wetlands have been lost or degraded, there are more than 120 species of wetland plants in Indiana that are endangered, threatened or rare (DNR, 1996; Bennet et al., 1995).

Habitat change and wetland loss in Indiana and Marion County

Prior to European settlement, approximately 99 percent of Marion County was comprised of closed canopy forest (Barr et al., 2002). The remainder of the county consisted of wetland plant communities and included fens, bogs, sedge meadows, wet prairies, swamps and marshes (Hedge, 1997). A fen is a type of wetland that receives mineral-rich (calcareous) inputs of groundwater (Thompson and Luthin, 2000). They are dominated by sedges and other grass-like vegetation typically with tall shrub borders. These systems have very slow flowing water in which the water level fluctuates seasonally (DNR, 1996). Sedge meadows are sedge-dominated wetlands of stream margins or floodplains. The substrate is typically highly organic, and is at or just above the water level (DNR, 1996).

After settlement, most of these forest and wetland plant communities were cleared, drained and converted for agricultural use or other development. Wetland drainage most commonly consisted of the installation of a subsurface tile drainage network. These tiles were typically fired clay and were designed to move water through an underground plumbing system to an outflow point, typically a creek or artificial ditch.

Fragments of Marion County’s original forest were allowed to grow back for timber harvesting or because the soils were unsuitable for farming or other development. These forest fragments make up most of the remaining hardwood forests of Marion County and in 1997 accounted for only 13% of the county (Barr et al., 2002).

Indiana’s wetlands fared poorly. The best estimate of the wetlands in Indiana prior to settlement is based on the presence of wetland (hydric) soils. Analysis of soil data statewide by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Indiana Department of Natural Resources concluded there were approximately 5.6 million acres of wetlands in Indiana circa the 1780’s representing 24% of the state’s surface area (DNR, 1996). Surveys completed during the 1980’s concluded that there are 813,000 wetland acres today accounting for only 3.5% of the surface area of the state (DNR, 1996). These estimates indicate that Indiana has lost 85% of its wetlands and ranks 4th (tied with Missouri) among the 50 states in proportion of wetland acreage lost (Dahl, 1990). The vast majority of the 85% of the wetlands lost was due to drainage for agricultural purposes (DNR, 1996).

The current distribution of wetland types in Indiana heavily favors forest wetlands with 62% of the remaining wetlands being of this type. Fen wetlands and sedge meadows are classified within the “other” category along with bogs and together combine only 3% of the remaining wetland types statewide (Rolley, 1991). Northeastern and southwestern Indiana have the greatest proportion of remaining wetlands with several counties retaining wetland acreage of 10-15% of the county acreage. Marion County has retained only 3-6% of its acreage as wetland.

Indiana’s wetlands continue to be lost or impacted in a variety of ways. Comprehensive data for the current extent and causes of wetland loss are largely unavailable. Recent Supreme Court rulings have significantly reduced wetland protection, especially for small, isolated wetlands. The State of Indiana is currently debating the future of wetland protection and several wetland protection bills are currently before the Indiana legislature (HB1221 and SB491). The future status of wetland protection in Indiana is uncertain at this time.

Educational impact

As the site restoration proceeds, CEES is partnering with Indy Parks and Recreation to install educational signage with an associated trail and boardwalk system. Educational programming modules based on the research and restoration of the site are being incorporated into the Indy Parks and Recreation naturalist program and CEES outreach. CEES is additionally creating and serving a project web site with site information, research data and teacher curriculum resources. Restoring this rare and biologically diverse wetland type will increase biodiversity, provide a rich location for environmental education and awareness, and create an important area for nature appreciation by the citizens of Indiana.

References cited

  • Barr, R.C., Hall, B.E., and Jewett, D.G., 1996. The Evolution of Fishback Creek Watershed. Hydrology Laboratory, Department of Geology, IUPUI.
  • Barr, R.C., Hall, B.E., Wilson, J.S., Souch, C., Lindsey, G., Bacone, J.A., Campbell, R.K., and Tedesco, L.P., 2002, Documenting changes in the natural environment of Indianapolis-Marion County between the time of European settlement (ca. 1820) and the present: Ecological Restoration, v. 20, p. 37-46.
  • Bennet, J., McElfish, J., Bale, A., and Fischman, R., 1995. Indiana’s Biological Diversity: Strategies and Tools for Conservation. Environmental Law Insititue, Washington, D.C., 78 pp.
  • Department of Natural Resources, 1996. Indiana Wetlands Conservation Plan, 75 p.
  • Rolley, R.E., 1991. Indiana’s Wetland Inventory. Indiana Wildlife Management and Research Notes, No. 532, 6 pp.
  • Thompson, A.L., and Luthin, C.S., 2000. Wetland Restoration Handbook for Wisconsin Landowners, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Publication # SS-944-00, 108 p.
  • Tungesvick, K., 1997. Floral Inventory of Scott Starling Nature Sanctuary.