Indiana University Research & Creative Activity


Volume 31 Number 1
Fall 2008

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IU golf course
Photo courtesy of Indiana University Athletics

Keith Clay
Keith Clay
Photos courtesy of Indiana University

Bill Jones
Bill Jones
Photos courtesy of Indiana University

Everything in its Space

by David Bricker

We’re on the verge of winning a 100,000-year-old battle against nature.

Humanity’s predators have become zoo objects for our education and entertainment. We’ve replaced our habitats with artifices that improve mobility and quality of life. We’ve developed technologies that allow us to live in lifeless deserts, frigid icelands, even 200 miles above the surface of the Earth where there is no air. When humans finally figure out how to mix and match our own genes, our species will have transcended even evolution by natural selection.

Yet, strangely, we find we are not conquerors but caretakers. Unspoiled, unbridled nature is becoming scarce, and many of us feel increasingly compelled to avert its oblivion.

Standing at the edge of Indiana University’s golf course in Bloomington, it is easy to imagine a battle taking place between humanity’s relentless expansion and the wild’s last stand. On one side, grassy footmen. On the other, wooden centurions.

Despite a virtually endless list of development options, however, the forest here is unlikely to be struck down. University planners have instead decided lands bordering the golf course should serve a different kind of purpose--as a living laboratory that is a resource for IU scientists and their students. Called the IU Research and Teaching Preserve, the land between the golf course and Griffy Lake to the north is a model of modern conservation, a balancing of human purpose and wild lands.

Conservationist DNA

The preserve is part of a 135-year tradition of conservation at IU.

A large aerial photograph of Dunn’s Woods hangs outside the office of IU Vice President for Administration Terry Clapacs. The image is faded, but the arrangement of the Student Building, Maxwell Hall, Kirkwood Hall, and other bastions of IU Bloomington’s central campus are recognizable. Between them, trees are bereft of leaves, a familiar sparseness following colder months. But looking closer, it’s clear that there are fewer trees in this mid-20th-century Dunn’s Woods than exist today.

"What you see today isn’t preservation, exactly, but shows what happens when you simply let the land develop on its own," Clapacs says.

The woods were purchased from Moses F. Dunn in 1883 in preparation for the university’s move to its present location. While most of Dunn’s 20 acres have been developed, university leaders decided early on that a portion of the original land should remain (more or less) undisturbed. And indeed, the remaining eight acres have been so undisturbed, they are now a glorious wilderness.

Many IU faculty, staff, and students admit they take a longer-than-necessary route to classrooms, offices, or businesses just to feel a moment’s peace in the woods.

Is it possible this conspicuous shrine to nature influences the way walkers think about conservation?

"Oh, I think so," Clapacs says. "The fact that university planners made a conscious decision to leave the woods alone, and the character of the woods ... it’s affecting. The protection of nature is in our culture here in other ways, too, I think. It’s almost as if conservation is in our DNA."

Paradoxically, a number of IU’s "natural" resources are actually the result of human management. Dunn’s Woods is protected by IU’s 19th-century bylaws, signifying a deep commitment to the stewardship of the natural world. Herman B Wells had an opportunity to overwrite or overlook his predecessors’ will in 1955, as developers looked for a place to build a bigger School of Law. Instead, Wells championed an unconventional design for the building, leaving Dunn’s Woods southwest corner completely intact.

"An increasingly urban America needs the breathing space of natural green areas," Wells wrote in 1974, the year our species reached four billion people. "Succeeding generations of alumni, faculty, students, and staff have here united in a determined effort to keep intact our natural green quadrangles and to provide for new ones as the campus expands. To cut a tree unnecessarily has long been an act of treason against our heritage and the loyalty, love, and effort of our predecessors who have preserved it for us."

The two lakes north of IU Bloomington’s main campus have a few things in common with Dunn’s Woods. University Lake and Griffy Lake appear to be natural accumulations of stream water, but they are not. Both lakes were built by engineers in the early 20th century as reservoirs, and both currently receive protection. University Lake is wholly administered by IU; most of Griffy Lake is administered by the City of Bloomington, but IU and Monroe County also contribute. Like Dunn’s Woods, Griffy Lake has admirers. A survey of area residents by the City of Bloomington showed overwhelming enthusiasm for Griffy Lake and surrounding lands for outdoor recreation.

Preserving the balance

As human populations grow, so does the pressure to develop. There is pressure to turn undeveloped land into city or infrastructure, and there is pressure to use already assigned land with greater efficiency. Both pressures emerged in the late 1990s when the trustees of Indiana University announced an interest in expanding IU Bloomington’s golf course.

University leaders did not know then that IU Bloomington biologist Keith Clay and others were using land in the area for ecological and geological research. IU owns thousands of acres of land -- much undeveloped -- across the state, but at the time, no one was responsible for keeping track of how IU’s vast, undeveloped land holdings were being used. The Lilly-Dickey Woods, for example, a 550-acre parcel south of Bean Blossom, Ind., was bequeathed to IU by the Eli Lilly family in 1942 with the stipulation the land be managed as a botanical and artistic resource. Until recently, no one at the university was responsible for ensuring the Lillys’ will.

Soon after a proposal for developing the golf course was made public in September 1999, Clay, who studies the dynamics of ecological communities; Bill Jones, a School of Public and Environmental Affairs researcher; and the late Dan Willard (also SPEA) approached the university, at first merely curious as to whether any scientists had been consulted in assessing environmental impacts. "We went out and interjected ourselves into the process," Jones says. "Later on, we toured the area with a representative of the university, and although we had concerns, they didn’t seem insurmountable."

Of course, Clay was also interested in whether the golf course expansion would affect his academic work. Jones, a specialist who studies lakes and other bodies of fresh water, and Willard, who utilized the wetlands surrounding the lake, had their own concerns.

In early 2000, university leaders abandoned their controversial plans to expand the IU golf course. Many people believe the university was simply unwilling to brave the ire of faculty, students, and other area residents, but to see things that way ignores a more fundamental conflict -- namely, how best can we use our land?

"As financially beneficial as the course may have been, ultimately the question we had to ask ourselves was, ‘Is it appropriate?’" says Lynn Coyne, who was the assistant vice president for real estate representing the university’s interests at the time.

The establishment of the preserve was not an alternative to the golf course expansion. Indeed, the two entities could have existed side by side. But the golf course controversy exposed a gap in IU’s land management administration, impelling faculty researchers and university leaders to discuss solutions. "The Research and Teaching Preserve was new territory," Coyne says. "No one was managing this land."

Neither Clay nor Jones recalls exactly whose idea it was to formalize the land as a preserve for university research and teaching. A series of conversations involving Clay, Jones, Willard, geologist Michael Hamburger, Coyne, Vice President Clapacs, and others took place. In May 2001, the IU trustees approved a 440-acre preserve, initially encompassing Griffy Woods, to the southeast of Griffy Lake, and Moores Creek, an undeveloped tract of land west of Lake Monroe. The preserve later added the Lilly-Dickey Woods; Kent Farm, due east of Bloomington; and Bayles Road, just north of Bloomington. The preserve now administers 1,150 acres. Keith Clay was selected as the preserve’s first and, to date, only director.

"And did you know, he golfs?" asks Coyne. Coyne is an ex officio member of the preserve’s executive committee. "I am a big supporter of the preserve," he says.

Clapacs says he is, too.

Clay says credit for creating the preserve is owed also to former IU Bloomington Chancellor Ken Gros-Louis, former Dean of Faculties Moya Andrews, and former IU Bloomington Chancellor Sharon Brehm, all of whom voiced crucial support or provided key advice as the initiative took form.

The idea of the preserve might not have succeeded had Clay and others not made a compelling argument for its existence. It would not have been enough, Clay says, to have gone before university leaders and said, "There are people using this land. Please don’t build things."

Instead, Clay championed a different point of view that proved considerably more persuasive. "Many other universities have natural land holdings for ecological and geological research, environmental sciences," he says. "Having these sorts of resources available to faculty and students is just as important as having laboratory spaces."

In making that argument, Clay appealed to university leaders who want, above all, to broaden and deepen the tools faculty have at their disposal. A wide variety of research and teaching resources -- from powerful nuclear magnetic resonance imagers to sprawling natural lands -- support the research of faculty members and provide the university with a compelling recruitment tool. The preserve also makes it easier for researchers to persuade grant application reviewers. So far, the preserve has helped to attract hundreds of thousands of dollars in external research funding.

"Keith realizes how these holdings can improve research at the university," Coyne says. "The land has added value to the university because it is bringing in grant money."

Dozens of faculty use the preserve for teaching or research. "I take students out to University Lake," SPEA’s Bill Jones says. "I teach students research skills and limnology [the study of biological, chemical, and physical features of lakes]. Some of my colleagues use the preserve to teach about wetlands. And I’ve been looking at how best to manage Griffy, keep the [Brazilian pest plant] Elodea out, that kind of thing."

The preserve also hosts students and scientists from around the country, including visitors from Indiana State University, University of Connecticut, and Rice University in Texas, as well as journalists from USA Today, the BBC, and National Geographic. IU also gave the preserve a "Commitment to Excellence" grant to study the cycling of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and water through local ecosystems.

The preserve has been so successful, in fact, that IU trustees have approved the construction of a 6,000-square-foot, low-impact field research building that will offer classroom and wet and dry lab space. Construction should be complete before the summer of 2009.

The sustainable oxymoron

"Sustainable development doesn’t really exist," says Clay, who served on the City of Bloomington’s Sustainable Development Task Force from 2006 to 2007. "Ultimately, growth is not sustainable because we will run out of land, water, and fossil fuels. The whole idea of sustainable development is an oxymoron."

Instead, he says, what we confront is an unending struggle to assign how space is used. "There are two extremes when it comes to conservation. One extreme is that nothing should be developed. Ever. Not one bush disturbed. Not one animal harmed. The other extreme is developing whatever, whenever, however," he says.

The Research and Teaching Preserve presents one kind of balance. People enter the preserve and use it, but use it in a way that causes minimal change while bringing considerable aesthetic, academic, and financial value to Indiana University.

Clay, who shares a widespread fondness of Herman B Wells, sometimes sounds a little like the IU patriarch when he reflects on the preserve he helps to steward.

"Ultimately we -- and I mean all of us, the university included -- must try to maintain or improve our quality of life without endangering the quality of life of future generations."

David Bricker is a science writer for Indiana University.


For more information about the IU Research and Teaching Preserve, visit