We lost our wetlands once. Let’s not do it again.

The following includes an excerpt from Aaron Helman’s book, An Incomplete History of St. Joseph County, Indiana

On February 16, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed Indiana State House Bill 1383 into law, further reducing an already eroded set of protections for Indiana’s already diminished wetlands. For many Hoosiers, it might not seem like a big deal. Cruise the state for long enough and you’ll start to wonder just what wetlands there are to protect.

Aaron Helman

And that’s exactly the point.

Since attaining statehood in 1816, Indiana has destroyed 87 percent of its native wetlands. Only Ohio, Iowa and California have lost more. Fewer than 4 percent of Indiana’s acres remain as wetlands and it appears that legislators have decided that that’s too much. Ecologists, environmentalists, naturalists and 94 percent of Indiana voters are in favor of stronger wetlands protections, not weaker ones.

Scientific objections may have fallen on deaf ears, but there’s power in historical appeals too; and I promise that history does not and will not look favorably on the people who fought against the environment instead of for it. After all, this isn’t the first time this has happened:

Map showing the expanse of the Grand Kankakee Marsh in 1850.

Once upon a time, the Grand Kankakee Marsh was one of the three largest swamps in North America, trailing only the bayou of Louisiana and the Florida Everglades. Its biodiversity was nearly unrivalled. Believe it or not, the headwaters of the Marsh began just west of downtown South Bend.

In the 1800s they called the place the Everglades of the North. It was a paradise for hunters and naturalists and wildlife. Presidents and titans of industry came to the marsh for their hunting expeditions. King Edward VII crossed the Atlantic Ocean just to get there.

And then, by the late 1800s, The People Who Were in Charge of Things incomprehensibly decided that the Grand Kankakee Marsh simply shouldn’t exist anymore.

The Swampland Acts of 1849 and 1850 provided the legislation that stripped the protection of Indiana’s wetlands and that was the beginning of the end. They dredged the Kankakee River and drained a half-a-million acres of thriving wetlands. Evidently, some asshole looked at a map of Indiana and decided there wasn’t enough room in the state to plant corn.

Steam shovels dredge the Kankakee River in the 1870s.

Typically, when man tries to redirect the course of nature, it ends in different degrees of unplanned disaster, but not this time. This disaster was entirely planned. They knew what they were doing and they did it anyway. By the time it was done, the 250-mile Kankakee River had been turned into a 90-mile drainage ditch. 500,000 acres of the best wetlands in North America were wiped out, and the wheels were turning on what may have been the largest part of the largest extinction event in North American history.

In the 1600s, the passenger pigeon was the most prolific bird species throughout North America, maybe throughout the world. It’s impossible to conduct a historical census, but ornithologists suggest that a single flock of passenger pigeons could number into the billions. These flocks were enough to darken the sky, a wildlife eclipse that could have lasted for hours.

The Grand Kankakee Marsh was among the favorite breeding grounds for the passenger pigeon, and it’s not difficult to draw a straight line from the dredging of the marsh to the death of Martha, the last surviving passenger pigeon. She succumbed to a stroke while in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. The scope of the extinction is equally impressive and terrifying. It took fifty years to turn some five billion birds into zero.

But it’s not just the passenger pigeon that was lost. The Grand Kankakee Marsh was once home to the largest Black Oak Savannah in the world. Elk used to roam the marshlands and much of northern Indiana. Countless mammal, bird, fish, tree and flower species were wiped out in the effort. It is not wrong, nor is it hyperbole to suggest that the dredging of the Grand Kankakee Marsh was an ecological genocide.

I need you to know, as I write this paragraph, that I am angry and I am sad and I am a little drunk. This was supposed to be the most important and most enduring wetland in the northern half of the United States, but they murdered it. They murdered it and it’s not coming back.

Aaron Helman is an author, historian and adventurer from South Bend. You may have seen him around South Bend drinking coffee. His books are available at aaronhelman.com