Sunday, July 4, 2010

New wetlands offers nature more exposure, protection

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, Indendence Day, 2010

Is Gov. Daniels Indiana’s Teddy Roosevelt?

Last month, Daniels announced a plan to purchase 43,000 acres of bottomland and wetlands forming a continuous corridor beginning about where Route 234 crosses Sugar Creek (Deer’s Mill) to the Wabash River (about five miles north of Montezuma) south to Fairbanks Landing in Sullivan County. This project would form the largest contiguous riparian habitat in Indiana and perhaps in the Eastern U.S.

I’ve paddled nearly all this corridor with the exception of the last three miles of Sugar Creek (below the West Union covered bridge) and the seven miles from Darwin’s Ferry, Ill., to Fairbanks Landing. Those who currently use this proposed corridor for recreational purposes surely are happy with the governor’s decision. And those who don’t, I hope they come to recognize how important it is to set areas like this aside to preserve their natural character.

The fragility of this corridor can easily be seen by tracing the path of the waterways using Google Earth. What looks like a vast wilderness from the water is more often just a very narrow band of trees growing on the bank of the waterway. Agricultural fields, abandoned mining operations, industry, and some settlements lie just beyond the narrow line of trees.

On the Wabash section of the new management area, two electrical generating plants use the Wabash’s water to cool their coal-fired turbines. Abandoned factories and a train trestle near Terre Haute add some interest to a leisurely paddle from Tecumseh.

I read that the Wabash and its tributaries are among Indiana’s most biologically diverse. When I introduce someone to paddling the Wabash or Sugar Creek, typically I am asked what kind of wildlife we will see. I never promise anything other than we will see something. Two weeks ago I paddled Sugar Creek from Deer’s Mill to Cox Ford Bridge, a 15-mile stretch. We saw at least one bald eagle, several red-tailed hawks, many turkey vultures, many kingfishers, spotted sandpipers, swallows, we heard yellow-billed cuckoos, saw a beaver, dragon flies, butterflies (one hitched a ride on my straw hat for a while), turtles, and two other people (until we hit Turkey Run State Park). I don’t think I have ever paddled Sugar Creek when I didn’t see at least one eagle.

Conserving this area should prevent further degradation of both water quality and the surrounding habitat, which is important for the life cycle of migratory waterfowl, among other things. Duck and geese hunters appreciate the importance of that. But game fowl are not the only migratory species that benefit. For instance, I live about 1.5 miles from the Wabash River. In the fall and spring I can hear the hundreds, perhaps a thousand, sandhill cranes that roost in the bottomlands on their migration. I’ve seen the roosting sandhills from my kayak. This new wildlife habitat means those areas are going to be protected.

Some have responded to this plan with sarcastic remarks about “swamps.” This is just proof of how culturally disconnected we have become from natural areas. What we lose in common sense about nature does not alter our biological (and some might argue spiritual) connection to it. The stretch of Sugar Creek from Deer’s Mill to The Narrows in Turkey Run State Park is startlingly beautiful, easily rivaling waterways I’ve seen in the Appalachian, Smokey, Ozarks, and other areas with a reputation for natural beauty. With tall sandstone walls and cliffs, it is hard to believe you are in Indiana. Indeed, there is more than corn in Indiana.

I’ve paddled these waters in every season, even during a snowfall. I think too few people utilize the Wabash River for its recreational possibilities. In some ways, I benefit, because I often paddle and never see anyone else. But I hope that with increased interest in this legacy to Indiana’s natural history, there will be some access development.

Having said that, I hope those charged with the management of this new habitat will adopt sustainable practices as some others states with beautiful and sensitive natural areas are beginning to do. One problem with fragile ecosystems — too many seeking a “back to nature experience” — can eventually ruin that which is so special.

I’ve heard that a paddle trail is to be part of the new Wabashiki Wildlife area. A great way to introduce people to the Wabash would be a loop trail so they could have a quiet, natural encounter with an eagle, a great blue heron, a river otter … who knows?
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