A black oak savanna is something to behold. I stumbled on my first taste of one quite by accident in 1973, and a love affair began that has filled every one of the 42 years since with some of the magic nature offers in these unique ecological niches.
It started, I guess, with a dog. A much-adored Golden Retriever who loved to romp in the outdoors. We (my then-wife and I) had recently moved to Gary, Indiana. I had found a job in the steel mills and we decided to buy a house, but we wanted places to walk the dog and a fence so he could spend time outdoors off leash.
The house we found was perfect in that respect. A three-bedroom ranch-style home, tucked in a subdivision that bordered on what is now called Miller Woods. Our fenced-in yard had a rear gate, and once you crossed some railroad tracks that lay just beyond it, you took a few steps and were in the woods.
One look at that back yard and we made an offer. Lucky for us the folks selling the house were desperate to join the white flight out of Gary, precipitated by the election in 1967 and reelection in 1971 of Richard Hatcher, one of the first Black mayors of a major U.S. city. They sold cheap and thought they were putting one over on us. Heh, heh. It kept me happily sheltered for more than 35 years.
Our pup loved those woods, and he took us on many walks to explore them. Spring came and we couldn’t believe our eyes: Wild strawberries, sand cress, bird’s-foot violets, we began to learn the names of the dazzling array of wildflowers. Louseworts, spring beauties, columbine, hoary puccoon, lupine (my favorite!), Solomon seals, false Solomon seals, Indian paintbrush, prickly pear cactus flowers, butterfly weed, milkweed, asters, bottled gentians, fringed gentians and lots more.
In the fall, the sumac is bright red and the leaves on the oak trees turn red for a few days in some years before fading to their characteristic brown. In early spring the new oak leaves have reddish hairs for a week or so.
At some point we took up cross-country skiing, and the rolling terrain of the matured sand dunes made terrific trails. I’ll never forget the night I came eye-to-eye with a snowy owl, perched on a low horizontal branch, just above the trail. As the kids grew up, they found some nice hills for sledding.
I started working at Inland Steel’s mill in October 1972 and stayed for 18 ½ years. Sometime in the mid-‘70s, I started going to union meetings. I found out that our union, one of the more progressive locals in the United Steelworkers, had an environmental committee. I decided to get involved. Next thing I knew, I was on the board of directors of the Save the Dunes Council, representing our local union.
It was there I learned that the woods behind our house was a fragment of a black oak savanna, and that there was a possibility it could be added to the newly minted Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Park. Save the Dunes was a leader of a feisty and dedicated group of folks who saw the need to save what was left of the Indiana dunes and Lake Michigan shoreline. Huge hunks of it had been developed, and ravaged, by the steel industry and its corporate sidekicks, who wanted to keep the rest of it as buffers, or for future development.
And I found out the history of local conservation efforts. After many years of hard lobbying by advocates for establishing a national park in the Indiana dunes, Congress in 1966 had placed a significant amount of Northwest Indiana land into the hands of the National Park Service. The hero was Sen. Paul Douglas, who famously said, ““When I was young, I wanted to save the world. In my middle years, I would have been content to save my country. Now, I just want to save the dunes.”
But the Save the Dunes folks weren’t sitting on their laurels. There were other pieces of undeveloped land with high-value natural features – beaches, dunes, forests, marshes and bogs, and historical sites – that could and should have been protected. In 1976 an expansion bill was in the hopper and I went to Washington with Save the Dunes to lobby for its passage. That gave me a chance to talk to lawmakers and influential advocates about how special my little section of Miller Woods was and what a wonderful addition it would make.
Did what I did matter? I’ll never know, but that chunk of land did become part of the national park in 1976, never to be developed or exploited, only preserved for generations to come.
Unfortunately the story doesn’t end there. Black oak savannas depend on frequent brush fires to maintain their special ecology. But the city of Gary and other government authorities feared the spread of those fires into residential or commercial properties. And the smoke, in an already much-polluted region, often presented a significant nuisance. So the fires were suppressed.
Other factors, including the vulnerability of any natural area to exotic plant invaders and human misuse, also added to the pressures. Taken together these factors have led to degradation of the savanna. As Save the Dunes points out on its website, “While oak savannas were once abundant in the Midwest, only .02% remain,” so restoring what we have is crucial.
Which brings us to why I wrote this blog entry. Last Saturday, Jan. 24, I went back to Miller Woods (living in Chicago now, I don’t get into those woods nearly so often as I used to) to participate in the Oak Savanna Restoration Project, a joint effort of Save the Dunes, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. The project aims to restore black oak savanna in Miller Woods, Tolleston Dunes, and the Indiana Dunes State Park through prescribed burns, invasive species removal, and native planting. Funding for the project came from a settlement agreement between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Dominion Energy.
So there I was on my old turf, fighting the invaders, one of which is the amazingly rugged honeysuckle shrub, a plant many folks use to decorate their yards. These guys have gained a stubborn foothold in Miller woods and they are wiping out habitat for the native flora and fauna.
You can’t believe how satisfying it was to cut them down to the ground, then call the National Park staffers over to dab on the herbicide. Kill! Kill! Kill! Around 20 of us were chopping down those and other pesky plants. It was fun and a chance to meet a surprisingly diverse group of people who care about preserving natural open space in their community.
Volunteers can participate in the Miller Woods restoration work on the fourth Saturday of each month. Click here for details.