I must admit, it has not been easy for me to be here. For the last 4 months, I was an intern with The Nature Conservancy through the Student Conservation Association (SCA). I am paid $70 a week plus free rent to spend seven hours per day cutting and spraying invasive woody brush in Sand Dune and Swale (linear ponds) habitats. I get a half hour lunch where we sit in the truck near a busy highway. The winds are cold at this time of year, often below zero in temperature. The sky remains grey throughout most of the winter. Surrounding our little nature preserves lies aging steel mills, trash and litter, the odor of smog, and miles urban sprawl and blight. The constant hum of traffic on truck-filled Interstates makes even interior parts of the nature preserves feel out of place to me.
The supervisor that I spend the most time working with is a grim, quiet man in his 40s who has spent much of his life in the region. Car ride conversations with him are often negative, his voice filled with remorse and a hint of sadness. He drives me each morning to the preserves with a straight face as we gaze at endless strip malls, deal with bad drivers, and brace ourselves for the frequent stop lights.
The road we take to get to most of our preserves, Cline Avenue, is a rusting concrete expressway. It passes through hundreds of acres of a highly dangerous and flammable invasive reed, Phragmites australis. This plant is one of the few plants in the world that can tolerate (and maybe even thrive) in contaminated soils. Cline Avenue itself is not in good shape, either, with many bumps and potholes and wobbly bridges and overpasses.
The outlook for the conservation work in the nature preserves over the next few years looks ominous. Funding is tight, and only seems to be getting tighter. All of the organizations that I worked with on this program are underfunded and severely understaffed. I have tried to help them with their battles against invasive species, illegal dumping, deer over browse, and broken equipment.
I have tried to enjoy myself here. Reasons I chose to work in the environmental field include being outside in nature, working with enthusiastic people, learning about ecosystems, and making natural places even better for both nature and people. But everything I enjoy about this sort of work does not seem to hold up well for me Lake County, Indiana. There is no pleasant scenery, no sense of community or sustainability, and not much to look forward to at the start of the week or at the end of the day*.
Lake County in general has many serious problems, as outlined in my earlier blog post. Unless serious and drastic changes are made, conservation and the environmental education of its people will remain everything but impossible.
It is my hope that The Nature Conservancy can continue its work on its three nature preserves in Northern Lake County: Ivanhoe State Nature Preserve, Beamsterboard Preserve, and Dupont Nature Preserve. These areas, especially Ivanhoe, are managed surprisingly well given their locations next to industrial wasteland. Dozens of orchids and prairie wildflowers abound in these hidden back areas, as well as many animals. The eastern prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa) remains one of my favorites, since most people do not realize that a species of cactus (cacti?) grows natively in Indiana.
Nevertheless, Lake County, Indiana is not a place that I wish to do conservation and environmental education. The challenges are too numerous, the scenery too bleak, and the funding and attention that is needed to such a hard-hit region is simply not there. I’m not stupid – I know that conservation is a crises management field. However, I pick and choose my battles, and this will not be one of them.
One of the last remaining steel mills in operation in Portage, Indiana, as seen from the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
*There were times that I had fun, learned a lot, and felt productive. Therefore, this statement and others only reflect how I felt most of the time.