By Doyle Irvin, American Forests

American Forests and Alcoa Foundation searched for on-the-ground local partners who were approaching the environment in a thorough, comprehensive manner; partners who were doing important work in the regions that needed it most. We wanted partners who had a proven track record, and were acting with long-term impacts in mind. We knew we had found the answer when Ann Connors from the Sycamore Land Trust suggested that we consider a project at the Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge (PRNWR) in southern Indiana. Ann collaborated with Bill McCoy, Refuge Manager, and Nancy Gehlhausen, President of the Friends of PRNWR, and together the three presented us with a very compelling project.

Bill McCoy has been planting trees along the Patoka River for 23 years, bringing an inexhaustible methodology to conservation. As Manager of the PRNWR, he, with the help of others, incrementally increases the scope of their conservation efforts every year. They know that conservation is not something that you can just do once, check the box, and then move on to other parts of your life.

“The refuge now consists of 9,007 acres,” he says, which is less than half of the planned total acquisition area of 22,473 acres. To another organization these figures might be daunting, but to McCoy and his comrades at the PRNWR, such lofty goals are only inspiring. The refuge is “one of the most significant bottomland hardwood forests remaining in the Midwest,” McCoy says.

Credit: U.S. Forest Service

Every year they take another step towards their ultimate goal, and the fruits of their perseverance are easy to see. The PRNWR has planted more than 500,000 hardwood trees to date, providing vital reforestation for a region that houses an incredible amount of biodiversity. The refuge is an important habitat for migratory birds, who use the area to rest, nest and feed. Another featured creature is the marbled salamander, a species that — similar to salmon — shows strong ties to specific breeding ponds, meaning that habitat loss especially alters its ability to survive.

This project is particularly interesting to us at American Forests because of its multifaceted approach to restoration efforts. Invasive species are a serious problem at the Columbia Mine Preserve, which is inside the PRNWR, owned by the Sycamore Land Trust and managed by the Refuge. The invasives must be removed to restore the habitat and allow native oaks and pollinators to thrive. The removed vegetation is then repurposed — it is bundled with cables and placed in adjacent lakes, which are in dire need of habitat structure to improve the aquatic biodiversity. The project will also be reclaiming retired farmlands — farms that were built on floodplains — which includes a whole host of benefits. They will also be planting more than 16,000 trees of 17 different species in specifically chosen areas that will fill in the gaps in the river refuge.

Alcoa employees from the Newburgh, Ind., plant volunteer with the tree planting, establishing an important connection with the reserve. “These habitat restoration efforts could not take place,” McCoy says, “without Alcoa and American Forests.” He added that the help will assist them in their goal of reforesting 5,000 acres. On top of all of its’ environmental benefits, the PRNWR provides important wildlife education and recreation opportunities, and we couldn’t be more excited to help protect it.

This is the first project highlight out of a series of 11 projects we are conducting this year with Alcoa Foundation.