I first met Cliff Chapman at Meltzer Woods at an event he was leading for the Spirit & Place Festival in partnership with Timepiece Theatre Company to celebrate the woods and pioneering forest ecologist E. Lucy Braun. Meltzer Woods is one of Indiana’s last remaining stands of old-growth forest and protected by Central Indiana Land Trust (CILT), where Chapman serves as the executive director. He led a captivating program, which explored this unique and rare preserve through lenses of ecology, poetry, and theater, and brought the multi-layered history of the woods to life. Chapman has worked as an ecologist for Indiana’s Nature Preserves system, The Nature Conservancy in Olympia, WA, and previously founded the Oak Heritage Conservancy in southeastern Indiana. He is the former president of the Natural Areas Association and the Indiana Land Protection Alliance.  

BEN VALENTINE: I find that most people working in conservation have a story of how they came to this field, what’s yours?

CLIFF CHAPMAN: I grew up on the near eastside of Indianapolis, but my parents took me on road trips to national parks out west. My dad was a painter, not the artsy kind —  houses and apartments. He took his work van, built a bed in the back, and we slept in it in rest areas along the way. When home, I rode my bike and explored Pleasant Run Creek, between living on the East and South sides of Indy, I rode my BMX bike from the White River to I-465 along the creek —  my parents never knew that.

VALENTINE: What is CILT’s vision for Indiana?

CHAPMAN: We want to play a role in ensuring that every high-quality natural area, places that are a looking glass to thousands of years of history, are preserved for future generations. Any natural area that is lost, is lost forever.

VALENTINE: What strikes me about your work, and that of all good land trusts, is the timescale in which you operate. For example, CILT is committed to plant one million trees to expand upon and create new healthy forests, which you won’t personally see realized in your lifetime. It’s a commitment to generations to come. Talk about that amazing decision of a private landowner to protect a spot, forever, and how CILT continues to shepherd that decision into the distant future.

CHAPMAN: I took pictures this spring of my two children with trees planted this year that were hickory nuts, acorns, or fruits when my youngest was in diapers. I look forward to seeing them grow as my children do and hope they will bring their children and grand-children to see the forest mature. Someday, visitors of the preserve may not recognize where extant forest and the trees planting blend together. That is a dream of mine. 

So many businesses have five year plans they base their work upon. It reminds me of what I studied about the Soviet Union and their planning — we all know how that worked out. We plan on a 100-year time scale. It is exhausting and refreshing at the same time, but if we don’t think about how our actions today will affect the world 100 years from now, we all lose.

VALENTINE: You say CILT relies upon a science-driven approach to find and preserve the most important remaining natural areas. How does science guide your decisions as an organization? 

CHAPMAN: The Central Indiana Land Trust is a not-for-profit business based on sound science.  So our decision making is two-fold: we operate as a business looking at income and expenses and making sure we are sustainable for the future.  The root of our work is real estate —  we buy and protect land and use the same caliber of vendors as a real estate developer would to ensure the permanence of our work. Where we work is determined by science —  particularly ecology. We are guided by a strategic conservation plan based on the most up-to-date science  to save natural communities and features. I always say, we are not trying to save individuals of species, we are saving populations of species.

VALENTINE: Indiana is 65% farmland, and I greatly admire organizations working to make our agriculture less harmful to the environment. Small shifts in land-use can have dramatic impacts. Why is it so important to go even further and completely take areas out of production, as CILT does? 

CHAPMAN: We support agriculture and the families who provide for us in Indiana. However, we believe there are a small number of areas across the state that are exemplary examples of natural Indiana that deserve to be expanded so they can be sustainable. Often that expansion means restoring agricultural land back to natural landscape to buffer these rare high-quality natural areas.

VALENTINE: What do you say to all of us interested in protecting biodiversity, but without a big enough or significant enough property for a land trust? What can we do to help? (plant pollinators, not using invasives, volunteering…

CHAPMAN: The easiest thing to do is not plant invasive species and if you have any in your yard or property, eliminate them. There is ample information on the internet to help identify invasive species, ways to control them, and alternative native species to replace them if desired. Of course, volunteering with a local land trust is incredibly helpful as well as becoming a supporting member.