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December 23, 2012

Daniels leaves an unlikely legacy

INDIANAPOLIS — After eight years in office, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels may be best known for his aggressive efforts to fuel Indiana’s economy, but he’s also left an unexpected mark on the state’s conservation efforts.

During Daniels’ tenure, Indiana has added more than 50,000 acres of protected wildlife habitat and 3,000 miles of hiking and biking trails.

And, using $21 million from an untapped pot of state money that had been accumulating for years, Daniels has leveraged private and federal money to embark on the biggest land preservation projects in Indiana’s history.  

The Republican Daniels came into office tagged with the nickname, “The Blade,” for the sharp knife he wielded as the President George W. Bush’s federal budget director.

But Mary McConnell, head of the Nature Conservancy in Indiana, says Daniels’ efforts to conserve land for wildlife and recreation has earned him a new title: “He’s the Teddy Roosevelt of Indiana.”

Daniels is flattered by the analogy; Roosevelt, a fellow Republican, set aside more federal land for parks and preserves than all his predecessors combined.

But it’s not what conservationists had expected to be saying about Daniels, a pro-business booster who’s been a tough critic of federal environment regulations.  When he took office in 2005, Daniels inherited an $800 million deficit and eight previous years of unbalanced budgets. The fear was that Daniels would turn large swaths of state land back to the tax rolls for development.

Instead, the new governor was persuaded by state Department of Natural Resources officials to push forward on a project that had been lingering for almost 50 years: The acquisition and restoration of 8,000 acres of critical wetlands, known as Goose Pond in southwest Indiana.

The quick success of Goose Pond — in bringing back migratory birds, multiplying the species, and attracting human visitors— so impressed Daniels that he told the DNR staff to work with the Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups to come up with even bigger, better projects.

Shaping his vision at the time, he said, was a book given to him by DNR parks director Dan Bortner, called “Last Child in the Woods.” It chronicles the increasing disconnect between children and nature and links that disconnect to childhood obesity, anxiety and depression.

“Modern life doesn’t give kids the opportunities to enjoy the wonders of nature,” Daniels said. “(The book) brought that home to me in a forceful way.”

Another book with impact: Douglas Brinkley’s 1,000-page tome on Roosevelt, called “Wilderness Warrior.” In it, Brinkley details how Roosevelt came to believe that America’s wilderness belonged to future generations of Americans as well as to the past.  

“I think by the time I was done reading it, I was even more intrigued by the value and the satisfaction of protecting nature and being able to hand it on to future generations,” Daniels said.  

It helped that Daniels could tap into a $21 million pot of money that had been created years ago for conservation efforts. Daniels knew it was money that could be used to leverage many more millions in federal and private dollars.

“We decided we didn’t want to spend it in dribs and drabs,” Daniels said. “We wanted to spend it on something big.”

In the summer of 2010, Daniels announced what that “big” would be: The acquisition, restoration, and preservation of 43,000 acres of land along the Wabash River in western Indiana and another 25,600 acres along the Muscatatuck River in southern Indiana.

Beyond providing large swaths of critical habitat for wildlife and resting places for migratory birds, the projects are also designed to protect communities downstream from flooding and open up more public land for fishing, hiking, hunting, bird-watching and canoeing.

McConnell, of the Nature Conservancy, said the size and scope of the Wabash and Muscatatuck projects are historic. Especially, she said, when coupled other noteworthy efforts, including Daniels’ doubling the funds for a trails program that aims to put a hiking trail within 15 minutes of every state resident by 2016.

“This is one of his lasting legacies as governor,” McConnell said.

On a wall in Daniels’ office in the Statehouse is a portrait of conservationist Richard Leiber, known as the father of the Indiana state parks. In 1916, unable to wrestle money from the legislature, Leiber used privately donated funds to buy the land to open Indiana’s first two state parks. He billed them as a gift to celebrate the state’s first centennial.

Leiber is inspiration for Daniels’ final conservation project: The Bicentennial Nature Trust, a state-supported effort to expand the public parks, trails, and wildlife refuges all around Indiana, in advance of the state’s 200th anniversary in 2016.

“What better thing to do,” Daniels said, “than to protect for all future generations a part of your past?”

Maureen Hayden can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com

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