- Associated Press - Saturday, December 13, 2014

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) - As a boy, Ben Hess spent his early years in Fort Wayne and frequently visited Fox Island County Park and its nature preserve on the southwest edge of the city.

Now the city native coordinates the nature preserve’s management as the new east-central region ecologist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Nature Preserves, The News-Sentinel reported (https://bit.ly/1wnPns2 ).

Hess, 35, who lives in Fort Wayne but works from an office in Geneva, gradually has been meeting landowners and staffs at nonprofit conservation groups in his 14-county region, which includes Allen County.

Hess said he’s been interested in nature and plants since boyhood.

When he was about age 10, his family moved from Fort Wayne to North Webster. He spent a lot of time there enjoying the Ball Wetlands Nature Preserve in Kosciusko County.

While studying horticulture at Purdue University in West Lafayette, he spent a summer working with Heartland Restoration Services in Fort Wayne, which offers ecology restoration and other services. Nate Simons, a co-owner of the company at the time, inspired him to make conservation a career, Hess said.

Simons later left the company to found Blue Heron Ministries, a Christian-based land trust near Angola, and he remains a valued resource, Hess said.

After graduation from Purdue, Hess worked for Heartland for nearly 12 years, managing its seed and plant nursery and working on other projects. He started his DNR job in July.

His main responsibilities include coordinating the ecological health of nature preserves in his region, he said. He also will assist nonprofits and landowners with land protection and restoration and with plans for habitat and land management.

The latter includes helping landowners remove invasive species from natural areas, such as honeysuckle, reed canary grass, garlic mustard, teasel and Japanese knotweed. If unchecked, invasive species can take over and squeeze out native plants, which support a more diverse population of insects, birds and animals.

“The more diversity of plants, the more diverse the ecosystem,” Hess said.

He also will try to identify undisturbed natural areas and work with the owners of those parcels to preserve the site and possibly to connect it with other nearby natural areas, he said.

Hess said his strong background in restoration of natural areas will be a major asset when working with two large restorations in his region - Eagle Marsh Wetland Preserve on the southwest side of Fort Wayne and the Loblolly Marsh Wetland Preserve near Geneva.

Eagle Marsh, which is managed by the Little River Wetlands Project, covers 716 acres and currently includes a shallow-water wetland, sedge meadow, prairie, mature forest and young trees. Some of those plant communities will change next year, when a large, earthen berm will be installed to prevent invasive species, such as Asian carp, from using the marsh during floods to cross between the Maumee River system, which empties into Lake Erie, and the Wabash River system, whose water eventually flows into the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico.

The berm work will require extensive replanting of native plants and some trees, previous news reports have said.

Little River Wetlands is “thrilled” Hess is the DNR’s new ecologist for this area, said Betsy Yankowiak, the organization’s director of preserves and programs.

“He has so much knowledge about wetland restoration,” Yankowiak said. “He is an expert in the field.”

Hess also helped with past restoration on the property, she said, including helping select native plants and doing controlled burns to help native plant species thrive.

Loblolly Marsh, which is managed by the state, includes about 465 acres of restored wetland in land once part of the Limberlost Swamp, a state brochure said. Additional land owned by the state and nonprofit groups results in a combined total of about 1,650 acres restored or under restoration, Hess said.

Hess also hopes to work with scientists or groups who want to do research at area nature preserves. Research data can be helpful when deciding how best to restore or manage a property, he said.

In addition, just as he did as a boy, Hess hopes to encourage people to visit nature preserves and to enjoy the natural beauty that once covered Indiana.

“I like to get people out and see areas and get them excited about it,” he said.


Information from: The News-Sentinel, https://www.news-sentinel.com/ns

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