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Indiana

Restoring America's Heartland Takes Heart

Stephanie Frischie works at the Conservancy's Kankakee Sands Restoration in Newton County. Working with her co-workers, Stephanie is helping to restore native prairie and wetland to Newton County. Stephanie once described her job as "building a sand prairie with seeds, herbicide, fire and love." Her efforts have not been in vain, as the restoration now boasts over 600 different native plant species. The Kankakee Sands restoration site also harbors 130 species--either insect, bird, reptile, amphibian, vascular plant, or mammal species--and plant communities that are designated as rare, threatened or endangered in Indiana.

One of the most exciting successes has been with the Henslow’s sparrow. Listed as either endangered, threatened, or species of concern in 16 states (and Canada), the Henslow’s sparrow has been known to be in steep decline over the last 50 years. This has been mostly due to loss of habitat, as prairie and grasslands were converted into agricultural lands. However, since restoration began at Kankakee Sands, we’ve seen a huge increase in our Henslow’s sparrow population. A survey conducted in 2008 provided us with a count of over 300 pairs, and subsequent surveys have estimated that we are holding onto that population.

Recently Jeff Manes of the Post-Trib interviewed Stephanie.

“Everywhere, we beheld the works of God in nature ... I have been in France and Germany; I was raised in England, but I have never seen anything in those countries that equaled the beauty of this western prairie.”
— Thomas Rogers Barker

Tom Barker was describing the Beaver Lake area in what became the northern portion of Newton County when he spoke those words at the Iroquois Old Settlers’ Reunion in 1879.

Stephanie Frischie, 38, is a single vegetarian who grew up in Kentland and now lives in an unincorporated area between Mount Ayr, Morocco and Rensselaer. She graduated from South Newton High School and Purdue University in West Lafayette.

Stephanie works for The Nature Conservancy’s 8,000-acre Kankakee Sands project in northern Newton County. She is plant materials and conservation programs coordinator.

And you can bet your sweet-smellin’ Matricaria matricarioides Steph knows the scientific name of every form of flora growing on the property.

Jeff Manes:

Are you a farmer’s daughter?

Stephanie Frischie:

My dad was a vocational agriculture teacher at South Newton High School; he also did some farming.

Jeff Manes:

What was your degree in at Purdue?

Stephanie Frischie:

I began as a botany major and graduated with a degree in international agronomy

Jeff Manes:

Was this your first job after college?

Stephanie Frischie:

No, right after college, I was an intern with Pioneer Hybrid at a soybean breeding facility in Napoleon, Ohio. We picked through a lot of beans.

Jeff Manes:

Then what?

Stephanie Frischie:

I joined the Peace Corps and was sent to southeastern Bolivia.

Jeff Manes:

Your workmate, Alyssa Nyberg, also was in the Peace Corps.

Stephanie Frischie:

Yes, Alyssa was in Nepal while I was in Bolivia; we didn’t know each other at the time. Alyssa oversees the nursery and greenhouse, and I harvest the ripe pods and seeds.

Jeff Manes:

What did you do when you returned to America?

Stephanie Frischie:

I worked at a wheat research lab and a sorghum lab. Then, I went back to Bolivia on my own and did some watermelon and potato farming. Then, I came back to Indiana in the summer of 2001 and started volunteering here. Eventually, I became a full-time employee.

Jeff Manes:

When did TNC purchase this land?

Stephanie Frischie:

TNC bought the land in Newton County in 1996 and started its first restoration planting in ’97.

Jeff Manes:

Steph, are there old-timers who believe this ground should be planted in corn and beans rather than wet prairie or black oak savanna?

Stephanie Frischie:

There are as many opinions as there are people. In general, people are polite and respectful, and we can agree to disagree. There are reasons for farming and there are reasons for not farming.

Jeff Manes:

Explain, please.

Stephanie Frischie:

This is an area with really sandy soil and a high water table, which is not ideal for corn and soybean production. It is a wonderful habitat for many plants and animals.

Jeff Manes:

You get to work outside a lot, which I know you enjoy, but inside the seed barn is really cool, too. It sure smells good in there with all the different seed heads and pods. Tell me about the machinery you have in there.

Stephanie Frischie:

We have a hammer mill, a stationary thresher and two fanning mills that still are made by the A.T. Farrell Co.

Jeff Manes:

What are your major tasks?

Stephanie Frischie:

I determine the plants that are native to this area and get them to grow here. That involves a lot of research and visiting other local remnants or preserves. I also collect the seeds and get them ready. We’re primarily here for conservation purposes, but the property is open to the public for hiking and nature.

Jeff Manes:

How many threatened or endangered species of flora and fauna are thriving at Kankakee Sands?

Stephanie Frischie:

More than 130 species.

Jeff Manes:

That’s remarkable. How long can a seed remain in the soil and still germinate if given the chance?

Stephanie Frischie:

Some seeds don’t live very long at all; they need to germinate and become a plant. But there are some seeds that can last in the soil for decades.

Jeff Manes:

What are a few of the state-endangered or threatened species of animal life found at Kankakee Sands? Common names, please.

Stephanie Frischie:

The Henslow’s sparrow, the plains pocket gopher, and we have something that’s really neat called a slender glass lizard. It’s a legless lizard that looks like a snake; it thrives in sandy soils and black oak savannas. We also have many types of insects. Certainly, one of the most spectacular is the regal frittilary. The caterpillars of the regal frittilary will eat only the leaves of violet plants. We’ve planted a lot of violets here.

Jeff Manes:

Rare plants?

Stephanie Frischie:

We have the Carolina woolly white or old plainsman on the property. Some of our St. John’s wort species are really rare. It’s always fun to find a rare plant that you’ve read about or heard about. It’s probably like a bird watcher spotting a bald eagle for the first time.


One-tenth of 1 percent of the world’s black oak savanna remain today.

Thomas Rogers Barker is considered the father of Newton County; he died in 1899. Some say he wasn’t meant for the 20th century.

But I like to think Barker is smiling down on the Kankakee Sands from that big blue stem and blazing star-filled prairie in the sky.

And, in my reverie, I envision him nodding his head in approval regarding the restoration work being done by the likes of Stephanie Frischie in the 21st century.

Learn about other Nature’s Comeback Heroes and how you can become a hero, too!

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