Working with The Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy is protecting what is documented as the third largest subterranean system in the state. When the complete Lost River system is mapped, it might well be the state's largest.

The system can be thought of as a three-dimensional river delta. Depending upon how much water is moving through the system, you could have water in all of the levels. There is no other site in Indiana that matches the Lost River system in terms of the dynamic subterranean hydrology (water movement). The unique and fragile system has global significance.

The cave system beneath a recent acquisition adjacent to Wesley Chapel Gulf, harbors at least 25 cave species - three of which are new to science. Dr. Julian Lewis of the University of Louisville has been researching southern Indiana's cave systems for the past several years, finding and documenting rare and previously unknown species.

"This latest acquisition is a biological hot spot," Lewis said. "With relatively so little known about subterranean systems, it's important that places like this are formally protected in order to study them in their pristine state." The cave species have developed in relative isolation. The species isolated by the geologic conditions of the Lost River have developed unique adaptations. Cave beetles, blind crickets, blind cavefish, and blind crayfish populate this subterranean world.

The complex is not only fragile, but is very dangerous because of its twisting channels and vertical shafts. Flash flooding in the passages is common, which continues the cave's evolution. Water coursing through the shafts causes some to collapse, then the stream winds its way along other paths, carving new channels.

New homes and their corresponding septic systems are the greatest threat to the underground system. The Blanton tract, our newest acquisition in the area, is bounded on three sides by county roads. The recently installed rural water system that parallels the roads had made the property attractive to residential developers, and so increased the importance to protect this land. The Nature Conservancy purchased the property from Orange Circuit Court Judge Larry Blanton and his sister Paula Blanton-Foster. The Blanton family farm has protected the property for many years.

map diagram of Lost River System

Working closely with the U.S. Forest Service and the Indiana Karst Conservancy (IKC) - long time Conservancy partners - the Conservancy was able to secure the property. Once the Blanton family became aware of the scientific importance of what lies underneath, they were very much in favor of this disposition of their property.

Members of the St. Joseph Valley Grotto, a caving organization associated with the IKC, discovered the system four years ago. They have documented many of the extensive, multi-level passages beneath the Blanton tract. The Blanton tract is adjacent to the U.S. Forest Service's Wesley Chapel Gulf, which was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1972 due to its rare geological features.

The gulf-a 12-acre steep walled karst feature-provides a rare glimpse of the Lost River on its path through Orange County. The Gulf has developed from a massive collapse of rock above the underground stream. The soft rock goes into solution and allows the rock to be slowly removed.

Today, waters of the Lost River rise at one end of the Gulf, flow across the floor and sink into swallow holes where the water returns to its subterranean flow. That water flow continues through. the network of cavernous routes beneath the Blanton tract. It is anticipated that in the next year the property will be transferred to the U.S. Forest Service. It will then become an addition to the Wesley Chapel Gulf and a part of the Hoosier National Forest.

The Lost River is one of the largest sinking streams in the country. The watershed is over 200 square miles. The Lost River begins like a normal river in western Washington County. As the stream meanders into Orange County, the water begins to sink into swallow holes in the river bed. Eventually, it disappears entirely into a vast system of water carved passages and caves.

The Lost River, at surface level, meanders as a dry bed for 23 miles. This is about a fourth of the river's 85-mile length. A few times each year the Lost River fills its dry bed as runoff exceeds the capacity of the many swallow holes to siphon off the river's flow. As a subterranean river, it follows a more direct path of only eight miles from where it disappears, to where it rises at two places to make the Lost River flow again. The subterranean portion of the river flows 60' to 150' beneath the surface.

A spring roughly 160 feet deep forms where a portion of the river reappears at the True Rise of the Lost River. One mile upstream, the Orangeville Rise (protected by the Conservancy in 1972) provides the outlet for the rest of the subterranean flow. It then flows along the surface again into southern Martin County eventually reaching the east fork of the White River. The Lost River system is still very much a frontier-with much more to explore, document and learn.

(Article written by Steve Grubbs Land Protection Specialist)