Indiana needs to go big, just like it did during centennial celebration

State parks system report: Time to double up?

A pair of mountain bikes lean up against a picnic table at Hesitation Point in Brown County State Park.
A pair of mountain bikes lean up against a picnic table at Hesitation Point in Brown County State Park.

The temperature at McCormick’s Creek State Park in Spencer transcended the word “chilly” on New Year’s Day 2016.

“It was freezing cold,” recalled James Madison, “but we had a wonderful time.”

Madison and his wife drove from Bloomington to join a winter hike through McCormick’s Creek, celebrating both the park’s 100th anniversary and the start of Indiana’s bicentennial year. They weren’t alone. In fact, so many hardy hikers turned out for the event that the Madisons walked on their own, just to enjoy the solitude.

The beauty of the state parks peaks in winter, from Madison’s viewpoint. He should know. The 71-year-old historian, author and Indiana University professor of history emeritus has trekked through all 25 Hoosier state parks.

Those parks cover more than 100,000 scenic acres. Indiana has room for more park lands, according to the Indiana Bicentennial Visioning Report compiled by more than 150 Hoosier leaders and thinkers. In fact, the group concluded that Indiana should double the size of its state parks system by 2055. Such an expansion would improve residents’ lives and give outsiders a reason to live, work, raise families and start build businesses here, the group concluded.

State parks “are part of our economic future. They’re part of our future as Hoosiers having good lives in Indiana,” said Madison, who was among the visionaries working on the report for the Third Century Project, co-chaired by former congressman Lee Hamilton and former Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann. Their goal was to craft “big ideas” to positively impact the state on the way to its tricentennial. An expanded state parks system would do just that.

“We don’t have mountains and beaches,” Madison said, “but we do have fantastic state parks, and I think we can sell that [appeal] to families.”

The opinions of state politicians and like-minded residents would have to change, though. Indiana has added only two state parks in this century — O’Bannon Woods near Corydon and Prophetstown at West Lafayette, both in 2004. State funding to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management accounted for 1.5 percent of the state budget in 2002, the Gary Post-Tribune reported last year. That slice has dwindled to 0.7 percent of the budget for 2015-17, according to current state records.

Budget cuts have IDEM and the DNR to “operate on bare minimum” levels, the Hoosier Environmental Council website states.

In its historical account of the Indiana state parks’ first 100 years, the state of Indiana highlights its theory of maintaining a relatively small number of high quality parks. The state also promotes the philosophy of Richard Lieber — father of the Indiana state parks system — who said people using the parks should be charged a fee, and that those funds would defray the cost of operations.

Using bold letters, the state historical account then adds, “This philosophy continues to this day, and Indiana is one of the leading state park systems in terms of self-sufficiency.” Indeed, nearly 70 percent of the state parks’ operating costs are funded through user fees, with only 30 percent paid for by taxes.

The Third Century Project’s pitch to double the size of the state parks system asks Hoosiers to consider those outdoor havens as both quality-of-life assets and drivers of the future economy. An expansion could let the parks become hubs for a broadened network of trails positioned near homes and workplaces, an attraction to new residents and business.

“People increasingly choose places where they wish to live before looking for employment,” the project report states, “and outdoor recreation opportunities are a major consideration in quality of life for many.”

Additional parks could be built and maintained through a youth jobs program, the report adds.

Madison, whose books include the 2014 “Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana,” has spoken in communities around Indiana about the state’s first 200 years. He understands residents’ thinking and senses two obstacles to a expanding the parks system.

“Hoosiers tend to be a little more pessimistic at things. The motto tends to be ‘good enough is good enough,’” he said. “And the second thing they say is, ‘It’s going to cost too much money. We’re going to have to raise taxes.’ Well, I think both of those arguments are fallacious.”

A focus needs to be on younger generations of Hoosiers. “We’ve got to convince young people to stay,” he said, rather than moving after college to hot spots for lucrative jobs and cultural activities.

The potential locations of new and expanded parks are many. “They’re all over the state,” Madison said. The state parks are currently concentrated in southern Indiana, and he thinks more could be added in the northern and central parts of Indiana. The river regions could accommodate more parks, too.

There are no state parks along the vast stretch of the Wabash River between Lafayette and New Harmony, for example. “That area is ripe for that,” Madison said.

When Lieber and others launched Indiana’s state parks, beginning with nearby Turkey Run, the system became a model for other states. “Indiana created maybe the greatest state parks system in the United States,” Madison said.

The danger is “taking them for granted,” he added, and “not realizing how special they are.”

Indiana thought big in 1916. It needs to do the same in 2016 and beyond.

Mark Bennett is a writer for the (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.