News From Terre Haute, Indiana

February 15, 2014

VIDEO: Conserving the Wabash River, Sugar Creek corridor

43,000 acres part of $46 million effort

Howard Greninger
The Tribune-Star

TURKEY RUN — More than 1,200 acres west of Turkey Run State Park along Sugar Creek will be open to the public in April, thanks to Indiana’s Healthy Rivers INitiative.

The state initiative was started in 2010 as a way to restore and protect wetlands, which harbor migratory birds and waterfowl and serve as filters that clean rivers and streams.

The Wabash River and Sugar Creek Corridor contains more than 43,000 acres that the initiative seeks to protect. It starts at the tributary of Sugar Creek at Shades State Park and travels southwest to the Wabash River. It then goes down the river to Fairbanks Landing Fish and Wildlife Area south of Terre Haute.

The program also includes more than 26,000 acres of the Muscatatuck River bottoms in southeast Indiana.

In the Wabash/Sugar Creek corridor, the Department of Natural Resources has purchased 8,208 acres to date, said Angie Tilton, liaison for the program. In addition, another 23,543 acres has been protected through private landowners, as well as public property such as Turkey Run State Park, Shades State Park and the Wabashiski State Fish & Wildlife Area.

“We are halfway there to our goal” of protecting 43,000 acres in the Wabash-Sugar Creek corridor, Tilton said.

The most-recent addition, which opened to the public last April, is 100 acres on the west side of Shades State Park. “It is absolutely incredible. It is not an easy terrain to hike, but the property goes down to Sugar Creek. It has caverns and cliffs,” said Brendan Kearns, program specialist for the Healthy Rivers INitiative.

Currently, Kearns said he is working on five projects in Vigo County to add land adjacent to the Wabashiki State Fish & Wildlife Area. It usually takes six to nine months, from the time a landowner signs a letter of intent to sell, for DNR to acquire land, Tilton said.

“The willing landowner is offered a fair market value based on an appraisal,” Kearns said. “If the landowner accepts the offer, the DNR moves forward with the purchase. As soon as the property transfers, it may not necessarily be open to the public.

Officials must address safety concerns, parking and access points, then “the property is available to recreational opportunities such as hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking, boating and bird watching,” Kearns said.  

The state earmarked about $46 million for the initiative. The largest portion, about $21.5 million, comes from a lifetime hunting license fund. The state no longer sells those licenses, so that fund is slowing being drained, Tilton said.

The remainder of the money earmarked for land buys includes about $10 million from a federal grant through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s wildlife restoration program, funded from a portion of an excise tax on hunting and fishing equipment and motor boat fuel. Another $10 million comes through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, which includes a voluntary set aside program, called the wetlands reserve program, for marginal farmland in a flood plain. Funding for the wetland reserve program will continue with the recent passage of a new federal farm bill.

That program puts the land into a permanent conservation easement, Tilton said. The landowner continues to own the property, but is restricted from developing it. “This is a way that we work with landowners who are not interested in selling property to the DNR but still want to protect their land along the river, which helps us meet our permanent protection goal,” Tilton said.

“We don’t want to necessarily own all 43,000 acres along the Wabash River, we want to protect all 43,000 acres,” Tilton said.

William Maher, a Terre Haute attorney and landowner, first set aside about 2,000 acres in the NRCS’ wetlands reserve program in 2003. The DNR since has purchased that land through the Healthy Rivers INitiative, allowing Maher to obtain farmland outside a flood plain.

“We wanted to do that because we believe in the preservation … and at the same time, provide clean water and hunting for the public,” Maher said.

Other funding for the Healthy Rivers includes about $2.5 million from the nonprofit Nature Conservancy of Indiana and $1 million from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, a federal wetland conservation program administered by Ducks Unlimited. Also, about $700,000 from the Indiana Heritage Trust Program, from the sale of the blue state license plate with a bald eagle. Each time the “environmental plate” is purchased, a percentage is earmarked for Healthy Rivers.

The funding will keep the initiative going for at least five years, Tilton said, and could be longer as the state works to find additional funding partners and sources.

Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached at 812-231-4204 or howard.greninger@tribstar.com.