Outdoors: Skip Hess
Loss of Minnehaha no laughing matter
February 6, 2005
In October of 1985, Indiana signed a 20-year lease with a Sullivan County coal mining company to rent about 12,000 acres of abandoned strip mine property that the state would use for public recreation.
The rental agreement with the Department of Natural Resources was laughable -- $100 a year for 20 years. But in a way that made it appropriate.
The mining company called its site "Minnehaha," a Native American term meaning "laughing waters," and the DNR named it the Minnehaha Fish & Wildlife Area.
Through the years, the property has changed ownership from mining company to mining company, and about 4,000 acres of it has been sold.
The lease agreement remained the same -- a hundred bucks a year -- but there is a clause that allows the owner to give the DNR a 90-day notice to vacate.
, the FWA's first and only property manager, said that off and on during the first 19 years there were rumors that the landowner would terminate the contract and the FWA would close.
"I was nervous about that for the first couple of years, waiting to see what would happen," Ronk said last week.
The nervousness eased but never went away because of the vacate clause. "It's been a tedious situation," he said.
With the end of the 20-year lease approaching, Ronk said it got even more tedious.
"Last summer I brought it up to the Indianapolis (administrative) staff. I said the lease is up next October and we need to get a new lease or get the attorneys talking," he said.
"I got a response in the fall that the lease was not going to be renewed . . . I thought, well, I'd better pack my bags and get ready to move."
As it stands now, Minnehaha will close in October.
Ronk would like the state to buy the property, which has attracted more than a million visitors in two decades. They came to fish 600 acres of water, hunt game, view wildlife and hike the trails.
How and where the state gets the money to buy the property is "way beyond me," Ronk said. That would be up to the governor and legislators.
But he said there are some things about the FWA that should be known before it's lost to possible commercial development or future mining.
"I'd like people in Indianapolis to understand that this is not just a place for people in Sullivan County," he said. "Only 18 percent of the visitors are from Sullivan. Thirteen percent are from Knox County, nine percent from Vigo County and six percent from Greene County," Ronk said.
"The other 54 percent come from as far away as Lake County to the north and Evansville to the South. Of the 57,000 visitors a year, 17,300 come to fish and 5,900 come to hunt."
It's not like Ronk is campaigning to save his job. If anything, it would ease his workload if the FWA were to close. The Minnehaha staff also manages neighboring Chinook, Hillenbrand and Fairbanks Landing FWAs. Those areas, along with Minnehaha, total 23,000 acres.
Here's what's disturbing about the possible closing of Minnehaha.
Three months ago, with great fanfare, former Gov. Joe Kernan announced the opening of the 8,000-acre Fairbanks Landing that straddles the Vigo-Clay county line along the Wabash River.
He said it was a commitment to Hoosiers to continue adding public recreation areas. What he failed to say is that Indiana was on the brink of losing 8,000 acres.
There's a new governor and some new legislators in town and the General Assembly is in session. If you want to save "laughing waters," you should let the governor and lawmakers know.