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Indiana's only federal wilderness area faces misuse problems

The Charles C. Deam Wilderness is close to 13,000 acres just south of Lake Monroe where people can wander outdoors in relative solitude whether they’re boating, hiking or riding a horse — and officials are concerned that it’s being misused by some.

Posted: Nov 16, 2020 9:58 AM
Updated: Nov 17, 2020 12:24 PM

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — The Charles C. Deam Wilderness is close to 13,000 acres just south of Lake Monroe where people can wander outdoors in relative solitude whether they’re boating, hiking or riding a horse — and officials are concerned that it’s being misused by some.

With more people looking for places to be safe but active during the current pandemic, the wilderness area is getting heavy use and some people aren’t following the best practices, known as Leave No Trace, that the Hoosier National Forest requests visitors use.

The main area of concern is in the northern portion of the wilderness, along the peninsula area that extends into Lake Monroe and is closest to Ind. 446 and other recreational areas surrounding the lake.

“That’s what we consider the hot spot,” said Stacy Duke, district recreation and wilderness manager for the Hoosier National Forest. “It has access to Monroe Lake and it’s a decent distance for a day hike.”

Duke said that area has received heavier use for several years but it’s been more noticeable this year. Makeshift campsites along the shoreline, which are not allowed, along with people moving stones and portions of historic buildings and cutting down live trees for campfires have all taken a toll.

The National Historic Preservation Act protects the land from people taking artifacts or destroying any cultural heritage sites.

While taking artifacts is a concern, Duke said camping issues are the main problem.

“There’s a huge demand for the public to camp. Their preference is along the shoreline of (Lake) Monroe.”

There are only a few designated campsites along the shoreline in the Deam wilderness. Those are shown on maps and have signs at the campsite. All other camping in the Deam wilderness must be at sites more than 100 feet from any water source and 100 feet from any trail.

The Charles C. Deam Wilderness was designated as wilderness by Congress in 1982. It’s the only wilderness area in Indiana, a state where public land is just 4% of its total area. Although the current wilderness had 81 homesites with more than 50 miles of roads in the 1930s, those were gone long before it became the Deam.

Since it is a designated wilderness, Duke said the USDA Forest Service is mandated to follow certain protocol and practices to maintain it. That includes no use of motorized or mechanized vehicles or equipment — for both visitors and staff. It also means leaving archaeological sites of former farms and indigenous people as they are, where they are.

“Everyone who visits the Charles C. Deam Wilderness loves it,” Duke said. “It’s really important that folks help us minimize those impacts on the ground so people can enjoy the wilderness the way it’s intended.

“That means don’t develop campsites, don’t have huge bonfires. Don’t cut standing live trees ... it takes quite some time for trees to grow back.”

Duke advises anyone who plans to visit the wilderness area or any other part of the Hoosier National Forest to do some homework before they head out. In the Charles C. Deam Wilderness, there’s a group size limit of 10 people. That’s part of the wilderness regulations, and doesn’t apply to other portions of the Hoosier National Forest. Information about all of the areas can be found at the Hoosier National Forest website, as well as on its Facebook page and by calling the office.

“These are public lands and we want people to come out and enjoy them,” said Marion Mason, public affairs specialist with the Hoosier National Forest. “We just ask that they do it in a responsible way. If the area is full, people should have another area in mind. There’s no reason to have everyone descend on one area.”

One activity that is allowed in the Deam wilderness as well as the Hoosier National Forest is hunting. The firearms deer hunting season begins Nov. 14 and continues through Nov. 29. The archery deer season is already underway. Duke suggests anyone who enters the forest to wear hunter orange and to stay on designated trails. She also said the opening day of firearms season is often a busy one for hunters and suggests people pick a different day to visit.

While hunting is allowed in the Deam wilderness, target shooting is not. That helps maintain the solitude of a wilderness area, she explained.

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