Did Ronald Reagan’s political ideology kill the DNR’s 1979 White River enhancement plan? Or was it just the usual Hoosier legislator resistance or bureaucratic disinterest?

Last month we uncovered a copy of a July, 1979 report by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources titled The Recreational Potential of the White River.   Two volumes were produced— one covers the portion from Noblesville south to Martinsville and the other covers Muncie to Noblesville.  This was a major undertaking— the reports included public surveys, needs projections and assessments, and extensive recommendations for new resource areas, corridor acquisitions, and public access sites.  It was likely an expensive undertaking.  Here are the 5 main recommendations from the DNR’s Muncie – Anderson plan:

“1.   The Department assume responsibility for the entire project from Cabin Creek to Martinsville.

2.     A management plan to establish the philosophy and policies to guide the Department in the task be prepared by July, 1980

3.    A conceptual master plan of the location, size, and appropriate uses for each resource area and corridor be prepared by July, 1980

4.    The funds needed to accomplish this project be requested in the Department’s 1981-1983 biennial budget

5.    The Department work with local park and recreation agencies to coordinate this project with the implementation of local master plans.”

Recent inquiries about the implementation of the plan were made to Dale Brier who directs the DNR’s Stream and Trails section of the Division of Outdoor Recreation.  After checking for files and with other staff, he reported that he has no explanation for why the 5 point plan for the Muncie-Anderson-Noblesville section was not implemented.  The division’s records had been discarded and the institutional memory of existing staff did not extend back 35 years.

Here are his email responses:

“Unfortunately there aren’t any records from that far back in the office.  This division has turned over a couple of times and moved to a new building since that plan was written.  I don’t believe this plan was ever intended to be something that the DNR was meant to accomplish. It was a plan to explore the potential of the White River corridor.  Back in those days the division did other plans as well.  It appears that potential recreation and planning was high on their priority list.  I am sorry, but at this point there is nobody left in DNR to ask why no real action was taken on a 35-year-old plan.”   (May 29 email)

And, in a subsequent May 29 email:

“The Recreational Potential of the White RiverAnderson to Muncie was a study done in 1979.  It was not a plan that was legislatively or otherwise implemented.  While there has been development in the White River corridor over the years, none of it was done as a direct action from the old plan.”

So we’re left to speculate as to why the plan was shelved.  I’d surmise that one reason for the non-action was the onset of the Reagan era in which overreaching, overspending government was treated as our biggest national problem.   President Reagan took office in 1981 (as did Governor Robert Orr) and it’s very likely that the political platform of the Republican party at the time was hostile to any major state efforts to acquire public land in pursuit of realizing the potential of the White River in east central Indiana. Also, the White RiverState Park in Indianapolis was undergoing development at that time, which was a major commitment of financial resources which likely foreclosed other alternatives in other areas of the state.  There might have been other factors as well.

Here we are, 35 years later.  The planned dam now threatens the very existence of the river and its high quality, arguably irreplaceable, ecological environs.  What would the White River corridor, and nearby areas look and function like if the DNR’s plan had been implemented with its recommended corridor acquisitions, its 5 recommended public resource areas (ranging from 200 to 2000 acres in size), and its 5 recommended public access area sites (of 25 acres each)?   Certainly, area residents and visitors would have enjoyed a wider variety of outdoor options.

Would plan implementation have also have stimulated economic development and redevelopment in the area.  It’s impossible to know.  But considering what we now understand, within the past 20 or so years, about the high value of trails and greenways and the desire of the so-called “creative class” of workers for high quality natural amenities and recreational options, it’s likely that, if these public lands investments had been made, the Muncie-Anderson area would now appear more attractive for economic development and the attraction of new businesses.

Downtown Indianapolis has greatly benefited with its big-ticket White River State Park, but little else has been done along the White River corridor except for a few access sites constructed by the DNR’s Division of Fish and Wildlife.  And urbanization to the north and east of Indianapolis continues to rapidly expand.

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