A bird watcher counted 40 blue herons gathered there at one time. On a day
last winter, five bald eagles in different stages of development could be
seen on the property. One to three pairs of sandhill cranes have
consistently nested there for several years. Jim Phares has even found
traces of the endangered eastern massasauga rattlesnake on his restored
wetland at Burdick Road and C.R. 575 E in Pine Township.
Phares, a lifelong outdoorsman, taxidermist, and son of a self-taught
naturalist, began restoring the wetland on his 42-acre property with the
help of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service nearly 30 years ago. In
2011, it was entered into the Wetland Reserve Program, under the purview of
the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).
Phares said he’s spent more time than anyone could imagine maintaining the
property--mowing, clearing fallen trees and beaver dams, unplugging
culverts, planting native species, controlling invasives, and planting new
trees and prairie grasses----because he loves wildlife and grew up with
stories of what has been lost here in Northern Indiana.
“I had family here when the Grand Kankakee Marsh and all that was still
here. I had family in Porter County in the 1800s, when it was still
wilderness,” Phares said. For a moment he trailed off in thought. “To think
that years ago it was ‘let’s conquer nature’ instead of live with it...”
Due to new regulations and storm water systems, the fate of Phares’ wetland
will be up for debate at the next meeting of the Porter County Storm Water
Phares said a lot more water has been coming into the system on his property
in the last few years. That, along with wear and tear, has caused a control
structure that regulates the volume of water feeding into his marsh to fail.
The NRCS needs to build a new one that can handle more water.
According to Phares, his neighbors have historically been okay with some
runoff from his property crossing over onto theirs, and some of his
neighbors are even in the process of restoring their own wetlands as well,
but the NRCS says new policy doesn’t allow them to install a control
structure that lets water out onto other properties, even with permission
from the affected landowners. Exacerbating the issue is the fact that his
property is home to a lot of beavers that create blockages in Bedenkoff
ditch and nearby culverts, causing runoff to flow over C.R. 575 E instead of
Bedenkoff ditch is a county-regulated drain bisecting Phares’ property. The
county has an easement that extends 75 feet on either side of it. Near the
south boundary of the County’s easement, the NRCS conservation easement
begins. The work the NRCS wants to do on the new control structure is under
the County’s purview, as the structure will be on the ditch. Phares said the
control structure would have to be set an elevation lower than or equal to
the lowest culvert that feeds the marsh--which is a culvert feeding
Bedenkoff ditch constructed years after his restoration on the wetland
The new culvert that must serve as a guide for the control structure,
running under C.R. 575 E, is nearly nine inches lower than the next lowest
culvert. Nine inches is a big difference, as Phares said the marsh is
essentially “20 acres of knee deep water.” The lowest culvert is also lower
than any part of the marsh, so using it as the cutoff line for the control
structure would drain the marsh almost entirely, reducing Phares carefully
managed wetland habitat by up to 90 percent. The NRCS has told Phares that
it could excavate parts of the marsh to help mitigate this problem, but it
wouldn’t stop much of the reduction.
Two other solutions exist--the issues up for debate at the County level. The
County could either agree to raise the road and the culvert to meet the
correct elevation to maintain the average water level in Phares’ marsh, or
it could agree to have an elbow-shaped tailpiece added to the low culvert
that would bring the outflow up to the right elevation.
Executive Director of the Izaak Walton League, Porter County chapter,
Annette Hansen wrote in an email to the Chesterton Tribune that
Phares’ property is bordered to the north and south by Izaak Walton property
that would also see an imbalance in the future if Phares’ wetland is
reduced. She also wrote that such a dramatic reduction “would be a
devastating blow to Phares’ act of conservation and to the public that
enjoys these conserved lands for outdoor recreation and appreciation of
Hansen urged the public to show up on Monday to show support for maintaining
Phares’ Wetland. “We just want supporters in the audience to show that
wetlands are important to our community. They don’t even have to raise their
hands,” Hansen said.
Phares hopes that he can continue doing his part to preserve the wetland
habitat that is a small vestige of the sprawling swamps and marshes that
once enveloped most of this area. “These areas are important because a lot
of them have disappeared,” he said. “It’s small, but it’s very important.
Every little bit we can keep helps.” His travels as a hunter have also
influenced his perspective on water stewardship: “I’ve spent a lot of time
in Africa, where water is precious, and here we can’t get rid of it fast
The Storm Water Advisory Board meeting will be held at 5 p.m. on Monday,
June 11, in suite 205 of the Porter County Administration Building, 155
Indiana Avenue in Valparaiso.