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April 19, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Ongoing challenge: To keep Mother Nature from getting trashed

Soggy, mud-caked jeans and a formerly white T-shirt were my youngest son’s summertime uniform, as a kid.

He, his buddy next doorand his older brother would disappear for hours, fishing, hunting mushrooms and relaxing in the shade at the creek nearby. The briars, poison ivy and mosquitoes never stopped him. He loved hanging out with Mother Nature in that spot, just as his dad did a generation earlier. He always came home with a dusty grin.

As he grew older, my son began noticing the amount of debris caught in logjams, stuck in the creekbed and mired on the banks. Tires, appliances, rugs, whole bags of trash.

The disappointment was apparent in his voice, as he described the rubbish tossed into the creek by people. Something he and most other folks considered a thing of beauty was seen as a convenient, free dumping ground by others.

Those two conflicting outlooks summarize Earth Day, which arrives this Sunday.

The nationwide observance each April 22 began in 1970 to increase awareness and appreciation of the natural environment. Ideally, Earth Day is a reminder for all of us to treat the land, air and water with respect, and to pick up our own messes. Too often, it boils down to some people cleaning up after other people.

You’ve got to appreciate the spirit of volunteers who scoured the Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area last Sunday. The area is now set aside as a wetlands preserve on the banks of the Wabash River. Two years ago, Wabashiki opened to the public, allowing visitors to hike or bird watch. In decades past, people took advantage of its secluded levee and waterfront to discard stuff they didn’t want to keep at their own homes.

Those volunteers didn’t want that junk, either. In fact, many of the people choosing to gather up garbage heaved into the watershed probably weren’t even living around Terre Haute when those pieces of litter got tossed. Instead, the energetic members of organizations such as the St. Mary-of-the-Woods College Sustainability Club, the Indiana State University Students Athletics Council, the ISU men’s and women’s running teams, and the ISU Environmental Club just wanted Wabashiki to be clean enough to enjoy.

Strangely enough, many of those college students will work and raise families elsewhere in a few years.

By contrast, much of the 20 bags of trash and recyclables, nearly two dozen tires, five mattresses, a couple of couches, meth lab components, food wrappers, cups and bottles was deposited by, yes, longtime residents of this community. Don’t misunderstand — plenty of lifelong Vigo Countians handle the river with care, and spruce it up regularly, including conservation and civic groups, county and city crews, and teams of supervised inmates from the Federal Correctional Complex. Nonetheless, most of eyesores found along the Wabash are left by locals who know where to dump when nobody’s looking.

The situation isn’t limited to Wabashiki, or the river itself. It extends to the tributaries flowing into the Wabash — Honey Creek, Otter Creek, Prairie Creek, Lost Creek, Coal Creek, Sugar Creek and other smaller streams. A bridge on a remote country road can become a routine venue for dumping TVs and broken lawn chairs into the creek below.

Earth Day 2012 coincides with this year’s 40th anniversary of the federal Clean Water Act, a landmark 1972 law intended to curtail the variety of contaminants sent into U.S. rivers, creeks, lakes, oceans and groundwater. With that in mind, this might be a good year for this community to sweat the smaller stuff — the entire Wabash River watershed, from the river to all of those creeks that feed it.

In an interview last month, Purdue University agronomy professor Ron Turco emphasized that the Wabash is basically a reflection of the water quality of its tributaries. “So all those little ditches and streams that come in, the attention should really be on them,” he said.

A mattress hurled over a bridge and into a creekbed illustrates the problem. That single item of litter can disrupt the stream’s path, cause a logjam, trigger sediment buildup and flood nearby crops, and clog bridge supports, said Eddy Adams, Vigo County district conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Keeping the creeks and brooks clear is “just as important, if not more so” than tending to the Wabash, said Rob Jean, assistant professor of ecology at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College. “A lot of those are the immediate contact points that are encountered by kids. People get more exposure to those places than the river itself.”

Jean was among the volunteers at Wabashiki last Sunday, and he’s helped with similar cleanups there in past years. The crews find less trash each time, “but there’s still plenty,” Jean said.

Groups began hauling trash from the area several years ago, when the wetlands project was still in the planning stages. Randy Millar, a veteran of 33 years with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, served as property manager at the Wabashiki site back then. The levee, south of the village of Dresser, now serves as a hiking and running path, often tread on by the ISU cross country teams.

It wasn’t always pedestrian-friendly, so to speak.

“The first time I went down that levee, it was like, ‘Oh, boy. We’ve got a job in front of us,’” recalled Millar, who is now the DNR District 9 biologist, covering Vigo, Clay, Owen, Greene and Sullivan counties.

The volume of trash was immense.

“Before we started, there was something every square foot,” Millar said.

Three-hundred tires were pulled out on the first sweep. Used-up meth equipment, such as plastic buckets, tubes, bottles, fire extinguisher tanks, propane tanks, scuba tanks and syringes. Bedding. Any garbage that would float from the tributaries to the river, and through flooding. Over the years, volunteers have found burned furniture, dog skeletons, soiled underwear, bullet-ridden “No Dumping” signs (how ironic) and burned out cars.

Some people dump into streams because of laziness. Some simply do it because their parents, siblings or neighbors did it. Others can’t afford to (or refuse to budget money) to pay for weekly trash pickup or to pay $34.45 to dump a pickup truck load of garbage at Sycamore Ridge Landfill. The majority don’t use creeks or the Wabash as a disposal. “Ninety-nine percent of the people are doing it right,” Millar said, “but one person can do a lot of damage.”

Though Millar suspects the waterways get trashed less often than 25 years ago, this community can still improve.

Maybe more people need to look at the streams in the same ways as those college students and volunteers … or a kid with a fishing rod.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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