The Blue River of southern Indiana rumbles and tumbles swiftly and surely through Washington, Harrison and Crawford counties fed by cool underground springs and small surface tributaries. Its meandering path takes it from Salem to Milltown and White Cloud and through the richly wooded hills of Harrison-Crawford State Forest. The Blue then unceremoniously spills into the Ohio River near Leavenworth, Indiana.
The Blue River Project Area encompasses 720 square miles and contains 375,000 acres of rugged hardwood forest and rural terrain. Three interrelated features make this area unique: (1) a high quality river which is predominately fed by springs; (2) large tracts of forest land as well as glade and cliff communities that support globally rare and endangered species; and (3) an underpinning of limestone bedrock interspersed with caves, sinkholes and underground rivers that support a poorly known assemblage of very rare cave animals.
The steep, rugged topography in the lower one third of the watershed results in a high-gradient stream within a nearly seamless forest. This high stream gradient creates many riffles in the river where fish like the spotted darter congregate. The hellbender salamander is also at home in Blue River, the only stream in Indiana where this species still occurs. The Blue River basin is underpinned by limestone bedrock. This limestone is interspersed with caves, sinkholes and underground rivers that deliver cold, oxygen-rich water to Blue River. Not only do these karst waters create habitat in the aboveground portions of Blue River, the underground rivers and caves support numerous globally rare cave invertebrates.
The Blue River basins’ geographic and geologic features interact to benefit the federally endangered Indiana bat. While the river and surrounding forests provide boundless autumn foraging area, several large caves support one third of the Indiana bat population, which hibernates here each winter. Some Indiana bats migrate hundreds of miles to do so.
The Blue River basin also contains rare karst plant communities such as limestone glades, chert barrens and upland sinkhole swamps. The Nature Conservancy continues to search for rare, threatened and endangered plant species by commissioning local botanists to perform surveys each growing season. Yellow lady-slipper orchids, Dwarf ginseng and Synandra are a few examples of plants that have already been identified in and around the basin. A recent ecological survey uncovered one of North America's rarest plants - the endangered Short's goldenrod - near the town of Corydon. This finding is one of only two areas in the world known to harbor wild populations of this specific goldenrod.
What The Nature Conservancy is Doing in the Blue River Area
The Nature Conservancy is working closely with the people who live in the Blue River basin, including the many landowners along the river’s path. In partnership with them, the Conservancy is working to conserve and protect this area's unique and valued natural resources.
One way the Conservancy shows its commitment to the basin - as well as the lands and landowners surrounding it - is through the Forest Bank. Used primarily in areas that are near, but not within, “core” conservation sites such as glades, streams, and public lands, the Forest Bank allows the Conservancy to actively manage forest for those ecological attributes that best advance our mission and the health of Blue River.
Encouraging the adoption of best management practices both in terms of forestry and agricultural pursuits is a hallmark of The Nature Conservancy’s work. The Conservancy has partnered with over 40 landowners to reforest riparian areas along Blue River and its tributaries. The Forest Bank program has helped over 20 landowners apply for and receive funds for timber stand improvement. A real boon to Blue River came when the City of Salem decided to upgrade their water treatment facility. The Nature Conservancy paid the difference in cost between a standard chemical treatment and a UV treatment system that eliminated the need for chemicals that posed a threat to humans and the aquatic life of Blue River as well. To learn more, please visit www.nature.org/indiana.