Photograph by Steven Higgs

Professor Paul Rothrock is chair of Taylor University's earth and environmental science department and an advocate for protecting the Newport black-soil prairie. The U.S. Army refused to require the prairie be protected before closing the base and transferring ownership to a local reuse authority.

NEWPORT, IND. – Environmental activists in west-central Indiana have lost the first round of their ongoing struggle to protect a patch of endangered black-soil prairie on the U.S. Army's Newport Chemical Depot (NECD). On Sept. 15, the Army is scheduled to transfer the 7,100-acre base to a quasi-governmental group, with no protections whatsoever for the prairie and several endangered species that frequent it.

The restored, 336-acre prairie's fate rests with the Newport Chemical Depot Local Reuse Authority, whose five members are appointed by the Vermillion County Commissioners. So far they have refused to commit either way and at times have been downright hostile toward the preservationists.

Phil Cox, who, as one prairie advocate noted, "knows every blade of grass" on the depot, oversaw the Newport prairie for the Army and has led the fight to save it. He said one board member argued at a public meeting that the acreage could be leased for agricultural use and told the advocates to start raising money. Cox paraphrased his comments:

"If you people care so much for the prairie, you need to come up with $100,000 a year because that's what we can rent it for."


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The Indiana prairie's last best chance



The black-soil prairie at Newport, also called a tallgrass prairie, is a remnant of an ecosystem that in antebellum America stretched from the Wabash River watershed in west-central Indiana to the Great Plains. In the Wabash Valley Audubon Society's December 2010/January 2011 newsletter, Nature Notes & News, Cox described the site's location and topography.

"NECD is located in Vermillion County between two natural regions of west-central Indiana – the Grand Prairie and the Central Till Plain," he wrote. "The Grand Prairie is characterized by its dark and fertile soils, and the Central Till Plain is known for its nearly flat to gently rolling land." In Indiana, he continued, grasslands now occupy less than 0.1 of 1 percent of the state, with Newport's acreage the largest.

In March 2009, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) noted: "At one time 14 percent of Indiana was covered with prairie grasses. Today, in the 21st century, prairies and the grassland animals dependent upon them are considered globally threatened."

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It's in large part thanks to the DNR that the Newport prairie exists. The agency's Division of Nature Preserves issued a 1993 report on the depot's natural areas and endangered species that put the prairie's significance in context. "A restoration this large (1,900+/- acres) in this part of the Midwest is an exciting opportunity," state natural resource experts wrote. "There are no remnants in Indiana of the size of this potential restoration."


Photograph by Steven Higgs

Phil Cox managed the Newport prairie before the Army decided in 2005 to close the base. He has led the movement to save it.

Spurred by that DNR report, the Army launched the prairie restoration project in 1994, dedicating to it 336 acres that historically had been leased for crop production. Newport's contract property manager, Mason & Hanger Corp., retained Peter Schramm, a retired Knox College professor who had pioneered prairie restoration techniques over a 40-year career. From 1994 to 2005, the project successfully converted the area to pre-settlement prairie conditions.

Driven largely by the prairie restoration, Cox wrote in the Audubon newsletter, Newport won the U.S. Army Environmental Security Award for Natural Resources Preservation in 1996 and again in 2003. "Now, the Newport Chemical Depot is home to the largest contiguous black-soil prairie in the state of Indiana (by far)," he wrote, "with room to potentially expand to over 2,000 total acres if the prairie reconstruction is continued on pre-settlement prairie soils and beyond."

Lenny Siegel, executive director for the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, visited Newport in 2004 as part of a National Academy of Sciences panel advising the Army on base closures. In a June 2011 white paper, he wrote the Newport prairie "provides year-round habitat for dozens of grassland wildlife species, including the following state endangered species: peregrine falcon, northern harrier, Henslow's sparrow, sedge wren, and Virginia Rail."

In its 2009 request, the DNR asked the Local Reuse Authority for 5,747 acres of the Newport base, including the restored prairie, for "natural ecosystem protection, hunting and fishing, and other compatible public uses," Siegel reported.

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The Newport Chemical Depot is located on State Road 63 in far west-central Indiana, 30 miles north of Terre Haute and 30 miles east of Danville, Ill. It's just west of the Wabash River.

The installation's origins date to World War II, when the 22,000-acre Wabash River Ordnance Works was established in 1942 to produce explosives for the war effort. Through the years, the facility has been variously known as the Newport Army Ammunition Plant and Newport Chemical Activity. In the 1940s and '50s, the base also produced "heavy water" for the Manhattan (atomic bomb) Project.

In the 1960s, Newport was downsized and began producing and storing VX nerve agent. Some of the 4,400 tons of the deadly substance produced there was shipped offsite, but the bulk was stored at Newport in one-ton containers in underground bunkers. TNT explosives were briefly produced there in the 1970s.

Between 1998 and 2006, the Army dismantled the VX production plant and neutralized what VX was still there. Most of it was shipped to Port Arthur, Texas, for incineration.


Photograph by Steven Higgs

Ross Brittain, Indiana director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society, says the Newport prairie provides year-round habitat for several state endangered species.

According to the Army's October 2010 Final Environmental Assessment on the Newport Chemical Depot (NECD) transfer, "The facility now occupies an area of approximately 7,136 acres (including the Ranney well and eastern railroad spur parcels) with easement rights in effect for an additional 1,400 acres. NECD leases about 2,900 acres of agricultural land for crop production and for grazing. Forest land, wildlife areas, prairie restoration, and wetlands constitute about 3,500 acres."

The prairie restoration project ended in 2005, when the U.S. Base Realignment and Closure Commission designated the Newport base for closure.

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Given the Army's role in restoring the prairie and the recognition it received for the effort, Cox saw the military as the best chance for its long-term, permanent protection. But rather than agreeing to a legal stipulation that would have protected the prairie restoration area in perpetuity, the Army snubbed the public and abandoned the project.

As negotiations with the reuse authority dragged on, for example, the Army denied requests from different groups for tours, Cox said. It wasn't until Aug. 12, when the reuse agreement negotiations were finished, that the Army finally allowed the public to see the prairie.

Paul Rothrock, a Taylor University professor and chair of its earth and environmental science department, said the Army historically opened the base for hunters. But it denied a request from one of his graduate students to spend two hours on the prairie.

Siegel, who received the EPA 2011 Citizen Excellence in Community Involvement Award, detailed the prairie's predicament in his June paper.

"Other than requiring the protection of the endangered Indiana bat, the Army says the Depot's future is up to the Local Reuse Authority," he wrote in June. "The Reuse Authority, still awaiting land transfer, cautions that 'plows aren't waiting.' That is, it is not in a rush to destroy the prairie, but it wants to preserve its options."

Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.