Indiana Loses Conservation Advocate Fr. Damian Schmelz

DNR, NRC officials pay tribute to Fr. Damian Schmelz

DNR Director Cameron F. Clark and others paid tribute today to Rev. Damian Schmelz, a Catholic priest and Indiana conservation advocate, scientist, and educator who died Sunday at St. Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana.


“Indiana has lost an environmental gem,” Clark said. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a more conscientious and dedicated servant. The contributions made by Father Damian to the natural resources of this state will be beneficial to the citizens of Indiana for generations.”


Schmelz, 84, served 33 years on the Natural Resources Commission and often was called its “moral conscience.” The NRC is an autonomous board that addresses topics and establishes rules pertaining to the Department of Natural Resources.


“I was saddened to hear of the passing of Father Damian,” said NRC Chairman Bryan Poynter, who joined the Commission in 2005 and has chaired the group since 2007. “Members of the Natural Resources Commission have the opportunity to work with many distinguished and accomplished experts who contribute meaningful and lasting contributions to the citizens of Indiana. None have been more worthy or substantive than Father Damian.


“I had the privilege of serving with him for many years before his retirement and relied on his unique and challenging perspectives as well as his friendship and counsel. His legacy is enormous.”


Schmelz was the Indiana Academy of Science representative to the NRC from 1975-2008. One of his signature contributions was chairing an NRC committee that studied the impacts of deer at Brown County State Park. The committee eventually recommended controlled hunts as the solution to reducing deer populations in parks, a practice that has restored ecological balance to numerous state parks across Indiana.


Born May 7, 1932 in Harrison County, Schmelz spent most of his life at St. Meinrad, where he attended high school and college, and later taught biology for nearly 40 years.


He was a well-rounded student, earning bachelor’s degrees in philosophy, ecology, natural resource management, and theology before turning his educational pursuits to ecology. He received masters and doctorate degrees in plant ecology from Purdue University, where he worked with Alton Lindsey and fellow graduate student Stanley Nichols. Their statewide research project led to co-authoring “Natural Areas of Indiana and Their Preservation.” Published in 1969, it has served as a guidebook for the DNR Division of Nature Preserve’s efforts to protect areas that represent original Indiana.


“This book described, sampled and ranked 155 natural areas, and served as the impetus for passage of Indiana’s nature Preserves Act in 1967,” said John Bacone, director of the DNR Division of Nature Preserves. “Of these areas, 62 are now dedicated state nature preserves. More importantly, of the 23 areas rated as top priority for protection, 20 have been permanently protected.”


From 1954-2004, Schmelz recorded measurements every 10 years of old growth trees in Donaldson’s Woods at Spring Mill State Park in Lawrence County and Kramer Woods Nature Preserve in Spencer County.  


“This is one of the longest examples of long-term forest sampling in the country,” Bacone said.


An addition to Donaldson’s Woods was name in Schmelz’s honor in 2000.


Awards were a common occurrence. He receiving the Outstanding Service Award from the Indiana Academy of Science in 2003, the Lifetime Conservation Achievement Award from the Indiana Wildlife Federation in 2007, and was named a Sagamore of the Wabash by Gov. Mike Pence in 2015.

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