As early as the 1920’s, European ecologists ranked Cowles Bog on par with famous North American natural features such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. Cowles Bog was declared a National Natural Landmark on December 2, 1965. Named for Dr. Henry Cowles, famed botanist from the University of Chicago who made pioneering studies of ecology and plant succession on the Indiana Dunes at the turn of the century, the area’s unique floristic, geologic, and hydrologic features won it international acclaim. When the bog area was threatened with being drained in 1953, Save the Dunes Council bought 56 acres. The Council voted in 1967 to offer the property for inclusion in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and worked with the Izaak Walton League of America to acquire adjacent parcels (also for eventual transfer to the Lakeshore).
The Cowles Bog Wetland Complex (CBWC) represents 80 hectares of the westernmost extent of the Great Marsh, including the graminoid fen known as Cowles Bog, degraded marsh, and forested wetlands. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the floristic integrity of the CBWC remained intact. At first slowly and then rapidly, twentieth century stressors have stripped the CBWC of its floristic grandeur. Orchids, sundews, and other floristic marvels are no longer found. Stressors include fire suppression, landscape alterations, chemical inputs, biological pollutants, lumbering, hydrological alterations, and haying. These stressors, documented in studies conducted in the early 1980’s, have led to Cattail (Typha spp.), Common Reed (Phragmites australis), and shrubs that displaced the unusual plant communities present during the early twentieth century. Less than 1 hectare of sedge meadow remains today, compared to 56.4 hectares in 1938. A botanist meandering through Cowles Bog now needs a vivid imagination to replicate the sensory experience of those early local international botanists.
Scientists of the National Lakeshore recognize that Cowles is sick and in need of resuscitation. They also recognize the intense undertaking necessary to recover some portion of the integrity of the original ecosystem. A full restoration of Cowles bog demands work on the entirety of the headwaters of Dunes Creek. A minimum of ten years will be necessary to implement a plant community reversal. The National Lakeshore, led by botanist Dan Mason, will begin this process this spring. Together with Noel Pavlovic (Plant Ecologist, USGS), and Paul Labus of The Nature Conservancy, and other institutions (Iowa State University, North Carolina State University, the Wetlands Initiative), the Lakeshore has obtained a $101,000, three-year grant entitled Restore the Biological Resources of the Cowles Bog Wetland Complex: Phase I-Inventory. The funds have been awarded through the National Park Service’s Natural Resource Preservation Program.
An inventory of present-day resources at the CBWC and an investigation of the best methods for cattail eradication will provide data for developing a guide for restoration work. Data will be collected on surface and ground water, water chemistry, soil chemistry, seedbank composition, and plant communities levels. Since drowning the cattail and prescribed burns are not feasible, three methods of herbicide application will be explored. Results from these investigations will be used to develop restoration and management guidelines for the next phases of restoring and managing the CBWC.
Save the Dunes enthusiastically welcomes the dedication of significant resources to restore and protect the CBWC as part of America’s natural heritage. Tom Anderson and Sandra Wilmore of Save the Dunes met with Mason and Pavlovic on February 7th to discuss the details of the plan, which have been fully researched and well designed. We look forward to the eventual return of the splendor of Cowles Bog and adjacent wetlands – to the level that once inspired the area’s historic and spiritual importance to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.