News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

March 8, 2014

MARK BENNETT: New public-access point begins quest to create more spots to experience river

TERRE HAUTE — Fairness holds no power over the Wabash River.

The waterway floods where and when it pleases. Its speed and volume take no account of humans using it for recreation. It receives trash from a litterbug in northern Indiana, carries the refuse downstream and deposits the garbage on a sandbar maintained by folks who are careful not to pollute the stream.

The Wabash is neither just nor unjust. It simply is. Wildlife incorporates with the river; man struggles with that concept.

From that perspective, it’s hard to complain that one stretch of the Wabash features far fewer public-access sites than another. Perhaps the river just won’t allow a closer connection with people in certain places. Indeed, the Wabash’s greatest distinction is its untamed nature, flowing undammed for the final 411 of its 474 miles — the longest free-running segment of any river east of the Mississippi.

Still, the Wabash can benefit from higher visibility. While somewhat pristine, its most remote regions, shielded by nature, are also vulnerable to numerous forms of illegal dumping. Access sites, with boat ramps, let the public become its watchdog. Nothing infuriates outdoorsmen like a 44-ounce, gas-station soda cup floating into their fishing line. Families posing for a riverside picture don’t want a car tire, caught on a log, in the background.

The more people learn and experience the river, the more they’ll protect it.

So, it was great news last month when the Indiana Healthy Rivers Initiative announced the purchase of a 40-acre site in Sullivan County.

It is positioned beside the 3,475-acre Fairbanks Landing Fish and Wildlife Area — the southern anchor of Healthy Rivers’ Wabash River Conservation Area, a region of protected wetlands and bankside grounds extending from Fairbanks Landing north to Shades State Park.

Most important, those 40 acres includes a road, running along the rim of the property down to the river.

It will become the first public-access point created under Healthy Rivers and fills another significant void. Currently, the only public-access site on the Indiana bank of the Wabash between Fairbanks Park in Terre Haute and Ouabache Trails Park in Vincennes — a stretch of 83 river miles — lies in Merom, at the base of its scenic bluff. The new public-access point at Fairbanks Landing in Sullivan County (not to be confused with Fairbanks Park in Vigo County) shortens that gap. Fairbanks Landing is 31 river miles south of the Terre Haute point, while Merom is 48.

On the Illinois side, Hutsonville has a public-access point 41 miles south of Terre Haute. The tricky part is crossing the river. Hutsonville also has the only bridge between Terre Haute and Vincennes.

The river’s southernmost miles are the most beautiful and the least accessible for Hoosiers. That 200-mile segment south of Terre Haute contains just 18 of the 49 total access sites scattered along the entire length of the Wabash. Seven sit on the Illinois bank. One occurs on private property and is only reachable by driving dirt roads, undetectable on a GPS locator. That leaves just 10 places for people to get onto the Indiana side of the Wabash in its final 200 miles.

By comparison, Tippecanoe County alone has nine access points. (Two are privately owned.)

The crew at Healthy Rivers and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources understand the Wabash’s accessibility problem. As Healthy Rivers announced its purchase of the 40 acres beside Fairbanks Landing, DNR director Cameron Clark released a statement saying, “One of HRI’s goals is to provide public access to the Wabash River every 10 river miles.”

Longtime river advocate and Merom resident John Gettinger described that same goal last summer. River banks often are on private property, but once a boater launches, the river surface is public. A public-access point creates that opportunity. “The river belongs to the people because once you’re on it, your free,” he said. “But you have to get on it.”

Creating an access site can be complex. “It seems like it should be easy. You find an ideal point, and you put in a boat ramp,” said Angie Tilton, Healthy Rivers liaison, “but it isn’t that easy.” The process requires a landowner willing to lease property, funding for Healthy Rivers to acquire it, funding for the infrastructure (a ramp, road and signage), permits for work in a floodplain and archaeological studies.

“It kind of takes an alignment of the stars,” Tilton said.

The Indiana Public Access Program, established in 1953, is supported by the state’s portion of the federal Sport Fish Restoration Fund, drawn from an excise tax on motorboat fuel and fishing equipment. Those funds “are very limited,” said Jamie Smyth, DNR fisheries staff specialist. Plus, the Wabash is only one natural resource needing public access attention. The equipment, machinery fuel, labor and materials needed to build one access point cost $50,000 to $60,000 on average, Smyth estimated.

And, “the southern end [of the Wabash] tends to be more difficult because of all the levees and flooding concerns, availability of land and road access,” Smyth said.

In spite of the obstacles, the state remains committed to providing access points every 10 miles along the Wabash. “We may never reach that goal, but it’s one we’re going to try to achieve,” said Phil Bloom, DNR director of communications. Healthy Rivers’ Fairbanks Landing project “is a start for us,” he added.

The effort deserves applause. Healthy Rivers, established in 2010, combines state, federal and environmentalist agencies aimed at turning 70,000 acres along the Wabash and Muscatatuck rivers, and Sugar Creek, into permanently protected wetlands and recreation areas. Access points, especially on the Wabash (the state river), lets people experience that wildlife atmosphere.

It would be heartening to see central and southern Indiana legislators join the mission to get public-access points every 10 miles on the Wabash. Each site would add to Hoosiers’ appreciation of their state and enlighten visitors.

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

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