At just five years old, Jason Kissel vowed to spend his life working with trees. He meant it. Kissel earned degrees in forestry and ministry, served as curator of trees at the North Carolina Zoo, and natural resources administrator for the city of Indianapolis. Now, Kissel has served as executive director of ACRES Land Trust (ACRES) since 2006. ACRES is Indiana’s oldest and largest locally-based land trust — founded in 1960 by twelve members with $5 each, it has since grown to permanently protect over 7,000 acres across 100 properties, with 56 trail systems free to the public, year-round. Kissel was kind enough to take the time to walk me through his work.
BEN VALENTINE: How does a land trust work, and what makes ACRES unique?
JASON KISSEL: Land trusts are nonprofits that protect land. What type of land they protect and how they protect it varies among organizations. The two primary tools land trusts utilize to protect land is conservation easements and land ownership. ACRES is unique in several ways, we are the oldest local land trust in Indiana, we protect land primarily (99%) through ownership rather than easements, and we guarantee to never sell, trade or otherwise transfer land that we protect. Conservation easements are great tools, ACRES just prefers to own the land we protect — since it’s the highest level of protection. We are lucky to have partner land trusts within our service area to refer landowners wanting conservation easements on their land.
VALENTINE: How do you decide on an area to focus your conservation, and where is your big focus now?
KISSEL: ACRES will consider protecting any land within our service area. We prioritize acquisitions that expand existing properties, that contain unique natural features/systems, and land within what we call “conservation areas”. Conservation areas are places where ACRES and other land-owning entities determined are worthy of pooling efforts. They are large areas that accommodate natural communities to thrive at a landscape level — they are forests rather than woodlots, wildlife corridors rather than fragmented habitats, extensive wetland systems instead of isolated wetlands. Our office is located within one of the conservation areas — the Cedar Creek Corridor.
VALENTINE: What are some unique natural treasures that can be found on the lands you protect?
KISSEL: In addition to a lot of forests and wetlands, ACRES owns several unique natural features and systems. There is Hanging Rock National Natural Landmark – a remnant portion of a Silurian coral reef formed when Indiana was covered by a warm shallow sea. We also have Seven Pillars of the Mississinewa, with 25-foot limestone pillars carved by ages of water movement and revered for their beauty as far back as oral tradition goes. Furthermore, there is Quog Lake — a rare quaking bog home to carnivorous plants and rattlesnakes, Grass Lake — contains what is believed to be the largest marl flat in Indiana, and also several properties with ancient bogs and waterfalls.
VALENTINE: You have just started a “short term” 200-year study of a property combining art and science, can you share about that?
KISSEL: ACRES promises to protect the land we own forever. As a result, we always take the long view. To highlight the tension between our notion of time versus nature’s notion of time, we started a short-term, 200-year study of one of our properties. It’s part of a national effort called “ecological reflections” where changes to a place are documented through science and art over an extended period of time, in our case, at least until 2217. If history is a guide, we know a lot will change in 200 years, this project will help us document these changes.
VALENTINE: It is increasingly clear to me that agriculture and conservation must collaborate more. Indiana is 65% farmland, and I understand that your organization has farmers within it, and live within a largely farming community. What is that relationship like?
KISSEL: Our relationship with the farming community is varied. We are part of the farming community, cash renting out about 500 acres of ag land each year. Many of our members are farmers or from farming families. Many of our land donors were farmers. We try to ensure at least one of our board members are farmers. Farmers love and understand land so most have an affinity for what ACRES does. But not all. Some view ACRES restoration of agricultural land as increasing competition (and therefore price) on the remaining ag land. And some view nature preserves as a “waste” of land since products are not harvested/sold from them. Overall though, the farming community respects ACRES as a fellow land manager appreciates ACRES preserving the rural character of their county, and that ACRES provides a way to ensure the land they have worked on and loved for generations remains intact.
Currently, all of ACRES agriculture lands are part of or adjacent to ACRES’ owned nature preserves. These fields will ultimately be converted back into their natural state (typically forest or wetland). However, ACRES is eager to help families protect their agricultural land by owning land that will stay in active production.
For agriculture land that ACRES transitions back to nature, we start by studying it — letting the land reveal its past. The soils give the most information — indicating whether the land was forest, grassland, or wetland before being converted to agriculture production. We also use historic aerial photography, surrounding natural cover, and drainage maps. Once the habitat type is selected, we enroll the field in government programs that provide cost-share for the restoration or facilitate mitigation projects to complete the restoration. Then, in a mere hundred years it’s a mature, natural system once again.