Donation helps expand protection of diverse local forest

In the hilly forests of southern Johnson County, one of the state’s most ecologically diverse areas is thriving.

The Hills of Gold Conservation Area near Trafalgar features rare species such as the state-endangered timid sedge, a type of plant, federally endangered Indiana and Northern long-eared bats, red-shouldered hawk, hooded warbler and worm-eating warbler. Several new-to-science spider species also have been found on the land.

With a new $1 million gift, conservators will ensure that the area remains a pristine habitat for all kinds of wildlife.

The Central Indiana Land Trust has received a $1 million donation from Leonard and Kathryn Betley and their family to help preserve the landscape. The donation is earmarked to support reforestation, tree planting and land protection, as well as establish an endowment for the Hills of Gold Conservation Area.

At the newly renamed Betley Woods at Glacier’s End, vital biodiversity will continue to be protected.

“It truly is special,” Cliff Chapman, executive director of the Central Indiana Land Trust. “It is really, really diverse in plants. When you have diversity of plants, you get a diversity of insects, and it carries on to mammals, reptiles, birds and so on.”

Located just north of the Brown County border, Betley Woods at Glacier’s End sits where a line of glaciers stopped moving southward thousands of years ago. The resulting mix of both glaciated and unglaciated land provides a rich habitat for incredibly diverse flora and fauna.

The Central Indiana Land Trust recently requested a botanical inventory from state officials. On the 300 acres of Betley Woods, the inventory found 484 plant species.

As part of the Hills of Gold Conservation Area, the landscape includes steep bluffs, exposed bedrock, shale-bottom streams and chunks of granite strewn across the valley floors.

Betley Woods at Glacier’s End was created shortly after an adjoining preserve, the publicly accessible Laura Hare Preserve at Blossom Hollow, was formed in 2012. Landowners Tom Johnson, Priscilla Lamb Johnson and Randy Lamb approached officials from the Central Indiana Land Trust and offered the property at a steep discount in 2015.

The Central Indiana Land Trust is an organization dedicated to caring for important pieces of Indiana wild land. Working with communities throughout the area, the land trust connects hundreds of acres of fragmented land, protecting the homes of countless species at the same time.

To be able to set aside such an important piece of natural habitat was exhilarating, Chapman said.

“Our goal there is to have a big, big chunk of forest that is protected forever there,” he said.

The donation by the Betley family carries on that conservation legacy.

Leonard Betley is a retired managing partner of the law firm Ice Miller, as well as the retired CEO of The Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, the Walter Cancer Foundation and the Regenstrief Institute and Foundation. He has served as board chairman of Newfields, Park Tudor and the Indiana Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

Katie Betley has spent 50 years serving as a leader on boards of organizations including Newfields, the Indianapolis Zoo, the Indiana chapter of The Nature Conservancy, the United Way of Central Indiana, Community Health Network, National Bank of Indianapolis and more.

She grew up next to Priscilla Lamb Johnson, and Betley Woods at Glacier’s End provides a unique connection between the two former neighbors, Chapman said.

The gift is also integral in streamlining the land trust’s protective work. With the funds, the land trust is also looking at expanding and acquiring more land to protect in the Hills of Gold region.

“It really gives us wind in our sails. We can work with the right sellers in the Hills of Gold area, and be able to come in with confidence that we will be able to purchase and protect land, and do it quickly,” Chapman said. “This really eliminates the time we have to take to go out and raise funds to purchase land.”

Betley Woods at Glacier’s End is not currently open to the public, Chapman said. But Central Indiana Land Trust officials hope that with the help of a grant they’ve applied for, a trail can be in place in the near future.

“We’re hoping to get a trail built there soon and open it to the public,” Chapman said.

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Ryan Trares is a senior reporter and columnist at the Daily Journal. He has long reported on the opioids epidemic in Johnson County, health care, nonprofits, social services and veteran affairs. When he is not writing about arts, entertainment and lifestyle, he can be found running, exploring Indiana’s craft breweries and enjoying live music. He can be reached at [email protected] or 317-736-2727. Follow him on Twitter: @rtrares