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Tool for monitoring long-term ecological progress in region takes root at IU Northwest

With database, NIRMI plants the seed for future restoration success


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Emily Banas
Office of Marketing and Communications
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Northwest Indiana Restoration Monitoring Inventory

In the summer months, a corner laboratory in Indiana University Northwest’s Marram Hall bustles with activity as young ecologists come and go, depositing their muddy boots at the door and dropping lab notebooks smudged with earth on the countertops.  Following an afternoon in the field, their sweat-covered faces peer into computer monitors as they pour data from the day’s work into an Internet database.

This scientific sanctuary, located on IU’s Gary campus, is the headquarters for the Northwest Indiana Restoration Monitoring Inventory (NIRMI), which is fast becoming a valued resource for those who have a vested interest in the booming business of ecological restoration. Here, detailed records about Northwest Indiana’s numerous restoration efforts are archived and available to guide scientists for generations to come as they continue the heavy work of restoring natural habitats that have been sacrificed to development and industry.

Launched in 2010, NIRMI is now an expanding database that land managers, researchers, educators and the general public can use to learn about the various species of plants and how well they are thriving in the various restoration sites being monitored by the NIRMI team. Currently, the NIRMI team is monitoring 28 sites, with more added every year.

“It is going to tell us how much the restoration in this region is benefitting the region,” said IU Northwest Assistant Professor of Biology Pete Avis, Ph.D. “If you didn’t have these ways of looking at it, you wouldn’t know if the (land being restored) is healthy or not.”

Despite its longstanding reputation as an environmentally challenged region, Northwest Indiana actually is undergoing a “restoration revolution.” Such was the topic of a paper by local environmentalist Lee Botts in 2006, and that paper ultimately resulted in the birth of NIRMI.

In her report, commissioned by IU Northwest’s Center for Urban and Regional Excellence (CURE), Botts identified 166 restoration projects that were underway in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties. While the report demonstrated that natural habitats are being restored in the region, questions remained about how to move those efforts forward.  Botts pondered how the progress of the restorations could be effectively documented and be used to drive future success.

With these questions in mind, Botts approached Avis, a plant and fungal community ecologist, who was familiar with the agencies that could fund such an enterprise. He also had a pool of eager students with great ideas who could perform much of the work.

Avis called first on student Jason Palagi, who is credited with building the framework for what NIRMI would become. Now an IU Northwest alumnus, Palagi is pursuing a doctorate at the University of Illinois at Chicago and continues to serve NIRMI as an advisor.

The monitoring process involves plotting out a 50- by 20-meter portion of the restoration site and identifying the plants, a process overseen by Botanist Gayle Tonkovich, who serves as NIRMI’s procedural manager. Students and NIRMI staff frequently measure the density of vegetation as well as how much area they cover, the chemistry of the soil and more. The data are put into a database, a process managed by Wyatt Gaswick, a field ecologist and computer scientist.

Avis said that, without access to a tool like NIRMI, the entities charged with restoration projects have few resources to draw upon over the long term in any real, systematic way. Doing so is a real challenge, especially given the fact that getting a true picture of success could take decades, he said.  

Avis also said that it’s quite a task to retain grants to pay for the ongoing project, which grows more valuable with each passing year. To date, financial support has come from such entities as Indiana’s Lake Michigan Coastal Program, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, ArcelorMittal, and the Lilly Foundation.

The restoration project going on in IU Northwest’s backyard is one example of how NIRMI records will contribute to restoration success. Associate Professor of Biology Spencer Cortwright, Ph.D., has been personally caring for the Little Calumet River Prairie just north of campus since the late 1990s. He described NIRMI as a tremendous tool that is now on the cusp of being able to provide meaningful guidance. It will allow him to objectively view patterns that emerge over time.

For example, Cortwright said he is confident that natural prairie grasses will expand and someday overtake the common lawn grass now growing in the prairie, but NIRMI might one day show data that proves such is not the case.

“(The NIRMI experts) can see things in an objective way that other people might see in a subjective way,” Cortwright said. “That’s how they can wake us up to things that we thought were going our way but may not be.”

Avis likes to compare restoration monitoring to visiting a doctor for an annual checkup. If you went to the doctor every year, he explained, but had no previous records to consult, how would that doctor be able to manage your health?

“Cortwright is like the restoration surgeon,” Avis said. “I am like the checkup doctor.”

Cortwright embraced that title, especially since he cuts into the prairie’s soil frequently, giving it one-on-one personal care to help it thrive. This is something that larger restoration projects can’t possibly keep up with, thus making the NIRMI data that much more essential.

Another benefit to housing the database, Avis said, is the unique hands-on opportunity that students enjoy as they explore ecology as a career. He noted that there are many jobs to be had in ecological restoration, especially in this region.

“For a long time, people thought of Northwest Indiana as an environmental wasteland, but here, we have very clear metrics, very clear data on how it is not,” Avis said. “The pollution is decreasing and the restoration is increasing and those restorations are good.”

Visit the Northwest Indiana Restoration Monitoring Inventory (NIRMI) at www.nirmi.org.