Conflicts over nature play in protected areas may become more of an area of conflict in the future. I’ve had natural resource property managers question encouraging the public to “play in the woods” because of the impact that can have on sensitive natural areas. As natural resource managers, we need to do a better job of communicating the differences in rules between different types of properties and why those rules exist. We also need to identify less sensitive areas where children can play freely. However, it boils down to doing your homework, knowing the rules of the property you are visiting and being a good example to your children.
Even, as in this case, if the area had been open to free play types of activities in the past, conditions change. Nature Preserve properties are set aside because they contain some unique or rare feature that is to be “preserved” and protected. For example, there could potentially be an endangered mussel that was discovered in the stream that could be harmed by stirring up the bottom sediments. Also, water conditions change. Unfortunately, before you jump into a creek in Indiana, it is always a good idea to check IDEM’s list of impaired streams. You can’t tell what is in the water by just looking.
The Department of Natural Resources has a wide variety of Divisions who manage land for different reasons. Nature Preserves are the most heavily protected because of their rare features and are not a good choice for nature play. However, state forests will allow you to go off trail, collect nuts, berries, mushrooms, and even, with a permit, collect firewood and would be a much better choice for “wandering Indiana”. I don’t believe you can pick wildflowers on any state property. State Parks, Reservoirs and Fish & Wildlife properties all have their own sets of rules. These rules for state properties are spelled out in state law in the Indiana Code 312 IAC 8-2-10.
Richard Louv recently posted an article on his Facebook site on these types of legal issues and parents trying to allow more nature time for their kids. As we try and walk the line of preserving fragile natural areas and at the same time encouraging people to get out and enjoy nature, it points out the need for more greenspace and nearby nature which are not just the few remaining rare and endangered spots, but “common” natural spaces where kids can play and get to know the natural world. – Warren (email@example.com)
Note: Warren has passed this on to the Divisions of Nature Preserves and Law Enforcement so they are aware of the issues.