Jason Kissel lives near Wabash, Indiana—a city about an hour southwest of Fort Wayne where visitors can find some surprising sights, like waterfalls.
“They’re not just little trickles either,” Kissel says. “They’re pretty impressive falls. People just don’t expect that here.”
Take Hathaway Preserve at Ross Run, for instance. This Wabash gorge has waterfalls, reef fossils, vertical cliffs as high as 75 feet, and mature oak trees more than four feet in diameter.
And thanks to a nonprofit organization based in Huntertown called ACRES Land Trust, places like Hathaway Preserve will remain natural, local treasures for visitors to experience—essentially forever.
“We like to find unique spots, preserve them, and open them up to the public rather than see them get developed or become part of an estate that only a few people can enjoy,” Kissel explains.
About 13 years ago, he traded his career at the Parks Department in Indianapolis to become Executive Director of ACRES, which is the oldest land trust in the state.
The organization began about 60 years ago when 12 Fort Wayne residents got together and decided to start a grassroots group to acquire beautiful, natural properties in the region and keep them that way for future generations.
“They saw land trusts doing this out on the East Coast and the West Coast, and no one was doing it in Indiana yet,” Kissel says. “So ACRES was a startup, and since then, 26 other land trusts in Indiana have followed our lead.”
Visitors can explore waterfalls at Hathaway Preserve at Ross Run.
ACRES began by acquiring 44 acres of land in Noble County, Indiana. Today, it owns and maintains more than 7,100 acres across the region, including parts of southern Michigan and northwest Ohio. Its properties range from natural bogs to forests, prairies, wetlands, and river corridors.
When Kissel first heard about the organization, he assumed it had a clearly defined goal as to why it was acquiring property, like preserving wildlife habitats or conducting ecological research. But what he’s discovered about ACRES is that its work is actually broader and more inclusive than that.
“We just preserve land,” he says. “The ‘why’ is different for every person and community involved.”
One rare piece of land ACRES owns is the Seven Pillars of the Mississinewa in Peru, Ind.
While some communities view ACRES land as an extension of the local parks systems, others see their work as maintaining an area’s local character, or keeping the land “the way it should be.”
Across the board, it’s about “preserving a sense of place,” Kissel explains.
“When we acquire land in a community, we want it to be land that the community wants to protect,” he says.
Once ACRES owns a property, its staff works to maintain that land. So far, its acreage includes amenities like 65 miles of trails.
ACRES properties have more than 65 miles of trails.
Even so, the organization does not consider itself a parks, trails, or environmental group, Kissel says. Instead, its goal is simply to raise funds from citizens and local foundations to purchase land and preserve it forever. And it’s having this simple, focused goal that allows ACRES to carry out its work so effectively.
The nonprofit organization does not receive tax dollars, which allows it to be more nimble than government agencies, Kissel explains. But its independence does not mean that it doesn’t play well with other organizations.
In fact, ACRES works closely with the Indiana DNR and other groups like Little River Wetlands Project. If it feels that another organization is a better fit for a property, it may even acquire land and turn it over to them.
“We do whatever makes the most sense for the land,” Kissel says.
An enhanced prairie at the Bock Nature Preserve.
This collaborative, no-strings-attached approach helps ACRES attract donors who are true nature lovers. Another key aspect of the organization’s success is its promise of longevity.
For instance, if a local family has owned a forest or natural plot of land for generations, and they’re ready to let go of it, they will often donate it or sell it to ACRES at a reduced price because they know that the organization will preserve the land forever and do what’s best for it at all costs.
“When you know you’re going to own a piece of land forever, it changes the way you manage the property,” Kissel says.
Beechwood Nature Preserve is one of ACRES's properties in Fremont, Ind.
Another benefit of the organization’s longevity is that it allows it to develop deep, long-term relationships with land owners and have what Kissel calls “the luxury of patience” in the acquisition process.
“Some land acquisition projects can take decades,” he explains. “We’re just now closing on a few properties that ACRES members started working on back in the ‘70s.”
Overall, about 20 percent of ACRES land is acquired through pure donations, 20 percent is purchased at market rate, and 60 percent is purchased at a bargain price because the seller believes in ACRES’s mission.
The organization’s work is resonating across northeast Indiana’s community of volunteers and financial donors, too. According to ACRES’s 2017-2018 annual report, its footprint and volunteers are on the rise. During the fiscal year, it acquired 331 new acres of property, added 227 new members, and hosted more than 70 hikes and events.
Kissel believes it’s exciting, impactful land acquisitions like Eby Bog that are engaging the community. After ACRES acquired 10 acres in the corner of the bog from the Nature Conservancy, it made a fast move to purchase the rest of the bog on auction earlier this year and is now fundraising for the move in reverse.
“We were willing to take a risk on Eby Bog because it’s such a high-quality natural system,” he explains.
Unlike forests, which may be a couple of hundred years old, bogs are formed over thousands of years, so a bog that hasn’t been disturbed is a rare gift to a community, Kissel says. And with ACRES, that bog can keep developing for another several thousand years.
“Being a part of ACRES, either as a donor or a volunteer, is such a tangible thing you can do to make a difference for generations to come,” Kissel says. “You can help acquire land, you can map it, and walk it. You can see real results.”
ACRES hosts hikes for members through its nature preserves.
While people might assume that you need to be a nature enthusiast or a botanist to enjoy land preservation work, the barriers to entry are actually much lower than that, Kissel explains. Annual memberships to ACRES start at $25 for individuals ($15 for students and seniors), and some of ACRES properties are open for the public to explore.
“You don’t need any special knowledge to enjoy ACRES’s land,” Kissel says. “Just bring your family, or walk your dog on a leash.”
Discovering the natural beauty of northeast Indiana is that simple.
For more information about ACRES and to explore one of its properties, visit its website at www.acreslandtrust.org.