While a lot of public attention in recent years has focused on government-initiated riverfront redevelopment and bike trails and other recreational components that will make northeast Indiana a better place to live, ACRES Land Trust quietly built the size of its nature preserves to almost 7,000 acres.
In 2012, the trust’s strategic plan set a goal of obtaining as much land in five years as it had in the previous 30 years. Its acquisition strategy was successful, but not so much its communications strategy, executive director Jason Kissel conceded.
As the nonprofit works to develop a plan for its next three to five years, communications will get more attention.
“We need to remind people what ACRES does, with every Facebook post, every event, every press release,” he said.
“People already know that they need healthy natural areas to live in. We all want clean water to drink. We all want to breathe good air. We all want to know that there’s natural places out there. but I think that it’s kind of viewed as an option instead of critical. I think that’s where our goal is, to help people make that connection.”
Just as a business might develop a strategic plan for its success, so does ACRES. The difference, however, is that ACRES is focusing on what it can do over the next three to five years, a minor blip of time, “to impact forever,” Kissel said. The land it has acquired - 106 preserves and counting - is set aside to be preserved in perpetuity.
ACRES’ acquisition plans got a boost with the Indiana Bicentennial Nature Trust, which provided seed money to get a lot of projects off the ground in conjunction with the state’s 200th birthday in 2016. It also provided a frame of reference for Hoosiers, who could reflect on how much the state’s natural environment had changed over the last two centuries and how much it could change over the next two, Kissel said.
People moved to northeast Indiana in the first place because of its the natural features: rivers, forests and farmable land.
“The reason Fort Wayne is where it is is because of the natural features. The reason many of us like to continue to live in Fort Wayne is the same thing,” he said. “We need to make a better case for quality of place.”
ACRES has about 1,600 members, mostly individuals and families, “but we know that’s a small percentage of the people who appreciate what we do,” Kissel said.
“What we’re really trying to do is figure out what people need as a trigger to participate in ACRES, and it doesn’t necessarily mean being a member, but maybe volunteering, coming to events, something more than just ‘we know what ACRES is and we like that you’re doing that,’” Kissel said.
“We have to do a better job of reminding them that what we do is important to them directly. We preserve land, but we really preserve land for people. It’s people we’re serving: people who want to see their own property preserved or in the vast majority of cases people who just want to see land out there. Whether they want to walk it or not, it’s nice to know that there are little bits of nature out there.”
ACRES currently has preserves in 16 Indiana counties, mostly in the northeast, and a few that cross into Michigan and Ohio. One of the things it is trying to do going forward is to build on what it has by acquiring adjacent properties. The Cedar Creek corridor began with just 15 acres and now encompasses 1,000.
“That’s where our highest priorities are for new acquisitions, working in areas we can create big chunks of natural areas. They just function better when you get to that scale,” Kissel said.
None of the ACRES properties currently connect to the area’s growing trail network, but when the Pufferbelly Trail is extended it will be adjacent to the Cedar Creek corridor.
ACRES is not not going to stop acquiring land, but its emphasis on that might drop from 99 to 95 percent of its focus, Kissel said.
“We even view how we manage land as part of our acquisition strategy,” he said. “People see that we respect the land that we own, and manage it well, and that results in more people being enamored of what we do and then more land being purchased.”
It’s not clear yet whether ACRES will be affect by proposed cuts in federal funding. It gets relatively little direct government funding related to land acquisition, but a drop in federal farm subsidies that encourage conservation practices could diminish income for its land management work, such as reforestation and wetlands restoration. That would be the bigger impact of budget cuts, Kissel said.