Most people know the difference between a county park and a county landfill.

But confusion or disregard of that difference has emerged when it comes to Anderson Falls County Park near Hartsville in eastern Bartholomew County.

“Some people consider this beautiful park a dump,” said Julie Lowe, executive committee chair of the Winding Waters Group of the Sierra Club.

During a recent visit to the 44-acre park on County Road 1140E, Lowe found bags of trash piled up in a parking area, as well as multiple tires with rims lying by Clifty Creek, she said.

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While performing monthly water testing at the park’s 100-foot-wide waterfall, Lowe has been picking up garbage left by others for about five years.

“But now, you can’t bring a big enough bag to pull all the garbage left there every day,” Lowe said.

The Bartholomew County Parks Department, which has overseen Anderson Falls since 1979, will consider proposals that attempt to solve some of the park’s problems.

Early next month, a special public meeting will be conducted on an action plan for Anderson Falls that could lead to significant improvements, extension educator Kris Medic said.

The board will take an hour before its regular meeting to review early proposals developed through a Purdue University program called “Enhancing the Value of Public Spaces,” Medic said.

Participants have been meeting for about a year and a half to consider ways of improving Anderson Falls, with sessions held in Hartsville, Hope and Columbus, Medic said.

The group has identified potential short-, medium- and long-term steps, she said.

“Very little has been implemented as of yet, and items only go forward with park board approval,” Medic said.

The special public meeting is scheduled for 3 p.m. Dec. 7 in the Bartholomew County commissioner’s chambers at Third and Franklin streets.

Protecting an asset

You don’t have to be an environmentalist to share Lowe’s concerns or appreciate the assets, county parks board member Dave Apple said.

The late Republic columnist and county historian Harry McCawley described Anderson Falls in 2004 as “the most beautiful landscape in Bartholomew County.”

Almost everyone can enjoy the 13-foot-high falls dropping from a limestone bed into a pool within Fall Fork of Clifty Creek, as well as the surprising number of rugged trails through the diverse forest, Apple said.

“The problem is the location,” he said. “There just aren’t people around all the time to keep an eye on it.”

Anderson Falls is located about 13 miles east of Columbus, a 20-minute drive by car, just shy of the Bartholomew-Decatur county line.

A pattern of vandalism, drug and other illegal activity, and dumping has been evident for several years, parks board member Dennis Pierce said.

“Typically, when we have issues, someone calls the (Bartholomew County) Sheriff’s Department and deputies patrol Anderson Falls for a couple of months,” Pierce said. “When the problem goes away, the patrols stop because it’s so far out of the way. Then, the problems suddenly come back.”

While the level of vandalism has remained steady for several months, that’s only because there are few amenities left to tear up, parks board member Jim Mahoney said.

Despite primitive conditions, Anderson Falls Park attracts hundreds of nature lovers and environmentalists annually — often from universities located throughout the Midwest, local tourism officials say.

With 200 types of plants, including rare specimens and an array of wildflowers, and a wide variety of woodland animals and birds, Anderson Falls has been a designated state nature preserve since 2004.

Remote location

There’s no argument the park’s remoteness has allowed its natural setting to remain untouched through several generations, parks board president Bob Harden said.

But for those with what Medic called “destructive tendencies,” remoteness creates its own temptations.

Located several minutes off State Road 46 East, Anderson Falls has often fallen victim to reckless behavior over the decades.

In the late 1990s, park restrooms were extensively vandalized before an arsonist set them on fire.

Since then, there have been a few attempts to reopen them and keep them in usable shape, but none have been successful, Apple said.

Compromises have failed. After a portable toilet was recently placed at Anderson Falls, it wasn’t long before someone pushed it over a bank and into Clifty Creek, Apple said.

“I refuse to put another one out there,” Apple said.

Uncertain steps

Parks board members admit they don’t know what to do. With a 2018 budget of $198,000, they can’t afford to hire a parks patrol.

Although three new road patrol deputies will be hired, money to pay their salaries won’t become available to the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department until next year.

Due to a mandatory training period for new deputies, new officers won’t be allowed to make solo patrols until 2019. And even then, those deputies will — and should be — focused on higher-priority assignments, Apple said.

What the Purdue-sponsored action plan will likely propose are steps aimed at attracting more responsible users to Anderson Falls, Medic said. That might include activities such as regular organized and guided hikes, she said.

“The more responsible they are, the more likely they will keep their eyes on the park,” Medic said.

Although the action plan will not call for full development, Medic believes it will call for making pedestrian crossings over Clifty Creek safer and easier at Anderson Falls.

If such efforts are undertaken, parks board president Bob Harden said he worries more human traffic in the fragile ecosystem east of the river could damage the area’s delicate balance and beauty.

While agreeing Harden’s concerns are valid, expertise from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources is always available to prevent such problems from getting out of control, Medic said.

Although money is limited, it’s been one year since the Bartholomew County Parks Foundation was created, Medic said.

With a purpose to accept and manage tax-deductible gifts and donations, the foundation allows donors to select areas of interest such as projects, youth scholarships and endowment funds.

Judging by the large number of nature lovers who travel annually to see Anderson Falls, Medic said she believes individuals and organizations across the Midwest will want to make contributions.

If you go

What: A special public meeting before the Bartholomew County Parks Board to discuss recommendations of an action plan to improve Anderson Falls Park.

When: 3 p.m. Dec. 7.

Where: The chambers of the Bartholomew County Commissioners, located on the first floor of the Bartholomew County Governmental Office Building at Third and Franklin streets.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.