The Beat: A New Leaf

Carpenter nature preserve in Zionsville is the latest example of the nationwide trend toward ”rewilding”
Photo by Jim Carpenter

CO-OWNERS of Wild Birds Unlimited Jim and Nancy Carpenter like to walk on the wild side. That’s why they bought the abandoned Wolf Run Golf Course, located at North Michigan Road and State Road 32, from a developer for $5.5 million in 2020. Their plan for it? Nothing. They simply believed the property should be saved for nature, so they grabbed it without knowing what would happen next. “We just said we’d figure out the details later,” says Jim.

The town of Zionsville has since purchased it from the Carpenters for about $4.5 million, well below the appraisal of $6.2 million, as part of its commitment to creating green spaces. Yes, the couple took a $1.5 million hit because, realistically, the town was not in a position to pay the going rate. The land has since been named Carpenter Nature Preserve.

The golf course closed in 2017 and sat unused, slowly transforming into what many called an eyesore, a patch- work of decaying buildings entangled in weeds, tall grass, and brush. But to the Carpenters, it was love at first hike.

“Wear long sleeves and tuck your pant cuffs into your socks; you don’t want ticks crawling up your legs,” Jim cautioned as I left for Zionsville. I met him, middle-aged with a perfect smile and an unwavering enthusiasm for nature, late in August for a tour of the property. We strapped into his ATV for a ride through the underbrush.

Occasionally, we stopped as Jim listened for the sounds of blue grosbeaks, birds that use the area as a fueling station on their migration to Central America. I was put to work looking for monarch butterfly caterpillars on milkweed plants. Their presence, Jim explained, along with the presence of other leaf-eating insects, was a sign that the land had largely recovered from its pesticide-soaked past.

About an hour into our sojourn, we decided to hike in opposite directions. Jim set off looking up, appearing both wonderstruck and hopeful. I must have cut quite a different figure. I ambled on looking down, practically crawling from plant to plant, leaf to leaf like a myopic nomad. In no time, I was acres away from my guide, lost, literally and figuratively, in nature.

Camouflaged in cockleburs and beggar’s lice, I paused in the tall grass, and for that moment, as cliche as it might sound, I became one with the environment. Adjusting my gaze from the microworld to the landscape, it was easy to imagine Indiana’s wild past, a time when this region was dominated by wetlands and hardwood forests so thick, you couldn’t see the sky through the canopy.

Heather Lusk, author of Hidden History of Boone County, Indiana, wrote of the area, “Only a true pioneer would brave such an unpleasant territory. Mosquitoes, frogs, deer, bears, and other wildlife dominated the area, and much of the land was deemed uninhabitable.” In other words, Lusk told me, it was a swamp.

My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of crickets. That was my ringtone, actually, which explained why I’d missed previous calls. “Where the heck are you?” Jim asked when I picked up, apologizing. Reunited, I happily reported that I had seen many monarch butterfly caterpillars, as well as other insects, munching away.

I also shared my transcendent experience in the wilderness, as it were. “Nature can have that effect on people,” Jim agreed. “That is exactly why we need places like this.”

Emily Styron, a self-proclaimed “child of nature” and the outgoing mayor of Zionsville, first visited the property with its previous owner. “I was stunned by the terrain. I could feel the wind, hear the songbirds. I felt the joy of my Girl Scout days. It was magical,” she recalls. “I knew immediately that we had to save this land.”

Styron knew that she and others within her administration would need to act fast and find the funds necessary to purchase the property to save it from development. “Yes, it’s true, I started calling anyone and everyone who might be able and willing to donate $1 million,” recalls Styron. “Was I concerned people would think I’d lost my mind? Yes,” she laughs. “In the end, destiny won the day.”

Destiny came in the form of the Carpenters. As soon as they discovered the property for sale, they purchased it. But that’s a lot of birdseed. “OK,” admits Carpenter, “there was some hesitation. We really had to think about it. It was a huge deal for us. But, in the end, this is what Nancy and I do. We save land.” The Carpenters have also made generous donations of land and funds to the Brown County Nature Conservancy and Newfields.

Photo by Jim Carpenter

Since being acquired from the Carpenters in September at that deep discount, the land now falls within the responsibility of the Zionsville Parks and Recreation Department. “First comes roads, then trails, parking lots, and restrooms. We hope to welcome our first visitor sometime in 2026,” says parks director Jarod Logsdon.

The Carpenter Nature Preserve will have wetlands, woodlands, and grasslands, as well as a nature center, outdoor classroom, boardwalks, nature viewing areas, and a nature-themed playground. Will paradise be lost? “No,” assures Logsdon. “The amenities will be kept to the perimeter.”

Meanwhile, the land continues its unabated rewilding. On October 5, a dedication ceremony was held at the property, where Jim and Nancy Carpenter were presented with the prestigious Sagamore of the Wabash award by Governor Holcomb.

Nancy, who is founder of the Zionsville Parks Foundation, doesn’t much enjoy talking about the facts and figures of all this. She would rather share the joy she derives from nature. Nancy spent her early career as a naturalist at Turkey Run State Park, but her affinity for nature wasn’t born on hiking trails or in the science classes she taught at Park Tudor. “It came from my grandfather,” she shares.

Her grandpa was, in a sense, an early adopter of rewilding. “He would talk to me about the importance of nature. I would follow him into the uncultivated fields of his farm north of Fort Wayne, where he would use a slingshot to fling acorns out into fields. He told me he was creating forests,” she laughs. “My granddad was right. We should all be creating forests.”


The Four Types of Rewilding

We asked Muncie, Indiana, native Kelly Borgmann, a member of the Rewilding Leadership Council at the Rewilding Institute, to break down the concept of rewilding.


This hands-off approach in letting land return to a wild state allows nature to take the lead in balancing ecological systems. “The Carpenter Nature Preserve sounds like a good example of passive rewilding,” says Borgmann.


Homeowners can rewild their yards by removing invasive plants and trees and replacing them with natives. Planting a pollinator garden counts, too.


Often controversial, this involves intentionally reintroducing imperiled species, including large carnivores like wolves and coyotes, back into their native ecosystems.


Consider this Rewilding, the Extreme Version. Here, the flora and fauna of the last ice age is brought back to life.


The Coyote Connection

Kat Tancock, co-founder of Rewilding Magazine, points to carnivores, especially coyotes, as key pieces of a successful rewilding puzzle.

We’re ahead of the rewilding game in that respect. “Coyotes are present within most, if not all, natural and urban areas of the Indianapolis region,” says Travis Ryan, professor of biological sciences at Butler University. “Some places might even surprise you.” Ryan helps run Indy Wildlife Watch, which documents the density, diversity, and distribution of wildlife throughout the greater Indianapolis region. “We don’t need to bring coyotes back to the Indiana ecosystem, they’re already here,” he says.

Using a network of motion activated cameras, Indy Wildlife Watch captures images and video of wild animals around the city to document how animals travel between pockets of green space. “The Monon trail is perhaps the best example of an urban wildlife corridor,” he says. Within the metropolitan area, the Monon serves as a prime example of how animals avoid hostile infrastructure by utilizing corridors made up of natural terrain that connect wilderness and resource areas. Rewilding more land, especially land that connects forests, can make microhabitats and the paths between them safer for animals. See Travis Ryan and his team’s wildlife images on Instagram: @indywildwatch.