The Oak Heritage Conservancy asked the public for help this summer with an informal survey about conservation.

“We wanted to make sure that we are doing things that the community wants,” Judy Rust, a conservancy board member, said in a news release.

The group’s summer intern, Nolan Wicks, put together the online survey and sought public input.

The hope was that 50 people would take time to fill out the 12 questions, but 121 people from all across southeast Indiana responded, according to the news release.

They included housewives, teachers, construction workers, attorneys, waitresses, a pharmacist and many others. Most (85%) were not members of the conservancy.

“We were so encouraged by the survey,” said Rust, who lives in Greensburg. “This was an informal survey, but the message was clear: All sorts of people from all across southeast Indiana want us to host events outside in nature, and they want us to protect special places.”

Oak Heritage is a local nonprofit that creates nature preserves around southeast Indiana, including Jackson County, and conducts programs designed to get people outside in nature. They are one of 1,200 “land trusts” in the country and one of about 26 in Indiana.

More than 85% of people said that they want Oak Heritage to conserve unique places for the public and for wildlife, places like old growth forests, wetlands, creeks and waterfalls, and pollinator habitat. So far, the group has protected more than 900 acres of habitat. Most of that land has been donated to the group over the last 15 years.

“Property owners get in touch and say, ‘I love this place. It’s special to my family. I want to make sure it’s always a forest or a healthy creek or a wetland,’” said Liz Brownlee, executive director of Oak Heritage. “We spend time getting to know the landowner and the land, and then we work together to protect it as a natural area for forever.”

Brownlee, who lives in Crothersville, said the survey made it clear: Community members want the conservancy to keep working hard on land conservation.

The group also works to connect people to nature. It has always hosted a few hikes and nature walks each year, but recently, Oak Heritage has been putting more energy into nature events. Last year, they hosted more than 20 events for the public, including scavenger hunts, butterfly walks, photo contests and hikes.

“Hosting events takes a ton of time, but it’s so rewarding to see kids finding fossils and holding butterflies,” Brownlee said. “We knew we valued this work, but we wanted to make sure that folks thought this was worth our energy and that we were hosting programs that the community wants.”

More than 80% of people said hands-on events in nature are important or very important.

Last but not least, the survey asked what people wanted Oak Heritage to provide more of. They provided six options, from after-school programs to guided hikes and beyond.

The top answers were more trails on Oak Heritage preserves and easy parking at the preserves.

“Now, we know how to make our preserves more welcoming to visitors,” Rust said. “That’s incredibly helpful.”

The group also knows how to get some of that work done. Several respondents indicated they would like to start volunteering with Oak Heritage or become members. Members join for $25 per year and help fund conservation work.

A Madison restaurant, Off Broadway Taproom, donated a $25 gift certificate to entice people to fill out the survey. One respondent was selected at random. The winner was Greg Fillenwarth of Seymour.
Copyright © 2019 The Tribune