Touring the Newport Depot prairie - 08.12.11

Text and photographs by Steven Higgs

NEWPORT, IND. -- More than two dozen environmental advocates got a rare, up-close view of a restored tallgrass prairie on the the west-central Indiana Newport Chemical Depot during a two-hour tour of the facility on Aug. 12. The 7,100-acre Army base offers the best chance to preserve a globally endangered ecosystem that once stretched from the Wabash River in Indiana to the Great Plains.

Citizens attending the tour had unsuccessfully urged the U.S. Army to include permanent protection for the base's restored, 336-acre prairie and a broader restoration area when the installation is closed and transferred to a local, quasi-governmental Reuse Authority, expected to occur on Sept. 15, 2011. The prairie's future is in the hands of the five-member Newport Chemical Depot Reuse Authority.

The following photographs were taken during the Aug. 12 tour.

For more on the prairie and the conflict over its fate, see the Alternative series "The Indiana prairie's last best chance."


Twenty-eight citizen advocates attended the Aug. 12 tour of the Newport Chemical Depot, including, from left, David Erickson, Wabash Valley Audubon Society; Mike Siddens, Quail Forever; Joe Staub, Sycamore Trails RC&D; Joan Samuels; Peggy Foster, Friends of Turkey Run & Shades State Parks; Marjorie Hays, Covered Bridge Gateway Trail Assoc.; Margie Fultz, Purdue Cooperative Extension - Vermillion County; Nancy Swaim, Friends of Turkey Run & Shades State Parks; and David Burns, Ouabache Land Conservancy.


Permission must be obtained from the U.S. Army to pass the gate at the Newport Chemical Depot. The base has been used since World War II to produce and store weapons, most recently VX nerve gas. From the 1960s through the late 1990s, Newport produced 4,400 tons of deadly VX and stored most of it onsite in bunkers.


Buildings were a rare site along the two-hour tour. The Newport Chemical Depot Reuse Authority has plans to develop much of the base. Among the ideas put forth for some of the 7,100-acre base is a coal-gasification plant.


Roughly 14 percent of Indiana was prairie in pre-settlement days. Today, it occupies less than 1 percent of the state. The 336 acres of restored prairie on the Newport base is the largest tract.


Taylor University professor Paul Rothrock led discussions about the prairie's flora. He chairs the university's earth and environmental science department.


While Taylor's Rothrock explored the prairie's plant life, Ross Brittain, center, the Indiana director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society, listened for endangered species.


Phil Cox managed the prairie for Newport's contract operator and has led the struggle to save it. He led the tour and videotaped the event.


The National Audubon Society's Brittain heard the call of a Henslow's Sparrow, one of several state endangered species that benefit from the Newport prairie.


Henry Tamar from the Wabash Valley Audubon Society was among those who attended the tour.


Clara Walters, national director of the Izaak Walton League of America, has brought national attention to the Indiana struggle.


Roughly 2,900 acres of the Newport depot has been leased to local farmers for agricultural production, mostly corn and soybeans.


More than five dozen grass and plant species have been documented on the Newport prairie.