When several hikers arrived at the Tecumseh Trail in Morgan-Monroe State Forest earlier this month, they weren’t prepared for what lay ahead of them.
The hikers could only walk for a couple of minutes before they ran into trees that had been sawed down and a section of trail that had been widened significantly from its previously narrow width.
Diana McClure was one of these hikers. McClure said she has been hiking in Morgan-Monroe nearly every other week for 25 years. What she saw when she went to the trail Feb. 6 alarmed her, she said.
“They bulldozed our trail,” McClure said. “It’s just utter devastation.”
The Tecumseh Trail was originally a hiking trail — no pavement, no gravel and room enough for only one person to walk in either direction. She said the hikers had not expected to see changes to the trail that were this significant, although they had heard a bike trail might be put into the forest.
On Thursday, she surveyed the changes.
“It’s widened,” McClure said. “Two cars could easily pass each other here.”
She stopped walking and shrugged. A tree with a white guide mark stood next to a pile of trees that had been bulldozed.
Even if the trail would have been walkable in that condition, she said she didn’t know where the next marked tree was because it too had been taken down.
She and other concerned hikers reached out to the Department of Natural Resources after Gary Boehle, the leader of a central Indiana hiking group, sent a message urging them to do so.
“DNR has to hear from the people that the changes aren’t welcome,” Boehle said in an email to the group.
McClure said Assistant State Forester Dan Ernst called her when he found out she had been calling the department.
She said Ernst told her the DNR failed to obtain permits for the project.
“We feel like this is an inside job,” McClure said.
The DNR told the hikers the trail would remain in place — just widened and paved in parts so bikers could use them, McClure said. That turns hikers away from ever using the trail, she said.
“Hikers have a relationship with their trails,” McClure said. “Hikers know every turn, every tree. We seek these places out. It’s easier on the knees, legs and the back to go on natural surfaces.”
State Forester John Seifert said the DNR was in a “tough situation” regarding the trail.
“We build trails all the time,” Seifert said “Our objective is forest management.”
Seifert said the development of the new bike trail wasn’t meant to destroy the Tecumseh Trail or any other hiking trails. It just happened to overlap at points on three different trails, Seifert said.
Some of the apparent tree destruction near the trail was just part of the management of the forest, he said.
“We have to remove trees before April 1 because of bats,” Seifert said. If foresters disturb bats in trees before then, the bats will have nothing to eat, as their main food source, bugs, aren’t really around until spring and summer months.
“We have all these constraints we have to work under,” Seifert said.
Seifert said he did not know about a lack of proper permits for the project and said people’s concern that development was being funded illegally was misguided because it was funded internally and the DNR was using their own employees for the project.
Tom McGinnis, another long-time hiker of the forest, said he’s not sure what’s really going on with the project. His forestry background should help him make sense of what the DNR is doing, but so far it hasn’t, he said.
“I see forest activity, and I have a different perspective,” McGinnis said. “I see (this) and I’m trying to compute it into forestry management and it’s not quite right,” McGinnis said.
McGinnis, who lives in Indianapolis, said if the Tecumseh Trail is paved, a lot of hikers will lose the only place relatively close to Indianapolis where they can truly walk a hiker’s trail, and walk it legally after dark.
“On a weeknight, you can justify an hour drive,” McGinnis said. “The only other place you can hike after dark is another hour and a half away in Deam Wilderness.”
For McGinnis, the project still won’t be justified if the DNR had or would have obtained proper permitting or funding. McClure said it won’t justify the removal of the trails to her either, but she still wanted to know.
“Personally, I’d like to see another foot-hiker trail built south of this one,” McClure said. “I believe that would be appropriate.”
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