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DNR names Sawtelle to lead state forest complex

DNR names Sawtelle to lead state forest complex
DNR names Sawtelle to lead state forest complex
Bob Sawtelle of Corydon looks forward to serving as property manager of the Harrison-Crawford State Forest, which includes O'Bannon Woods State Park. (Photo by Jo Ann Spieth-Saylor)

The ever-jovial Bob Sawtelle has taken ownership of his new position as property manager of O’Bannon Woods State Park and the Harrison-Crawford/Wyandotte Complex. It’s a responsibility he’s been working towards since moving to Harrison County 21 years ago.
Sawtelle, who earned a master’s degree in forest genetics from the University of Illinois in 1984, was encouraged by his father to look for a job in Indiana. So when he called the Indiana Dept. of Natural Resources to inquire about any openings, he was told about the assistant state forest manager position at the Harrison-Crawford State Forest.
For the next 10 years, Sawtelle was a fixture at the state property. Then he moved on as manager of the Falls of the Ohio State Park in Clarksville, but Harrison County remained his home. He and his wife, Missi Bush-Sawtelle, live west of Corydon, in the White Cloud area, along Blue River.
Sawtelle would venture to two other positions before returning to the Harrison-Crawford property in early 2003 as the assistant property manager.
‘It was always my hope to return here,’ said Sawtelle, 46, who is happy to be referred to as ‘Ranger Bob.’ It was announced last month that he would succeed Pete Thorn, who retired Dec. 31 and moved to Idaho.
‘This represents 20-plus years of my personal life history, not just time but sweat investment,’ Sawtelle said.
His goal is to continue to make improvements to the 26,000 acres that make up the state property, to make it a ‘destination’ for families.
‘The payoff for me is to see a dad teaching his kid to fish or seeing families climb the fire tower,’ he said.
Sawtelle has outlined a handful of major projects, along with a hundred smaller ones, that he wants to accomplish in the near future.
Topping the list is opening a swimming pool on the property. ‘The goal is to have it open for the 2007 recreational season,’ Sawtelle said.
An olympic-size pool built in 1979 at the forest has been closed since the end of the 2001 season due to costly needed repairs.
The Harrison County Convention and Visitors Bureau has been working with the state to get a pool built. Sawtelle said anyone interested in contributing to fund-raising efforts can contact him or, at the CVB, Jim Epperson or Sean Hawkins.
Other major projects are nearly complete. They include Phase I of refurbishing the fire tower. The original tower was built in 1932 and was replaced in 1941 after being destroyed by fire. Glenn Huber, a DNR carpenter, said it’s taken about three weeks to remove the wire fencing that enclosed the nine levels of stairs and to install steel bars.
‘We’re looking at opening the hut on top, too,’ Sawtelle said. ‘It’s our goal to keep the fire tower. It’s an icon for the property.
‘There are people climbing the tower almost every day,’ he said. ‘We’re just trying to make it safer and more accessible.’
Improvements to the Pine Pond included removing cattails from the water’s edges which had made the pond, built in the mid-1970s, nearly inaccessible to fishermen. The pond has been stocked yearly with catfish; small bass and bluegill will be added.
Jim Portteus from the South Maintenance Crew said he found a lot of bobbers that had been lost in the cattails.
An access road is being put in from the parking lot to the pond to make it easier for the elderly and disabled to reach the 2- to 2-1/2-acre fishing hole.
In preparation of the busy camping season, park employees have been trimming and removing trees, mostly those that are weak or diseased.
Sawtelle said the DNR’s decision last year to use a reservation system has been ‘really successful.
‘It allows us to adjust for future use, and it’s great for the camper, who can be guaranteed a site,’ he said.
Thirty-six campsites in the Class A campground are being dedicated to persons with horses and will have electricity available, a luxury not offered in the past, next year.
To make a reservation at any of the campsites, group camp or shelter houses at O’Bannon Woods State Park, call 1-866-622-6746 or go online to Reservations are made under the ‘O’Bannon Woods’ park name.
Sawtelle expects use of the campsites to increase once the pool is open.
All picnic areas should be ready by mid-April, just in time for an open house at the property on April 22. Sawtelle said special activities will take place that day from noon to 3 p.m. Plans will be announced later.
‘It will be a good time for people to come and ask questions about the property,’ Sawtelle said.
There are also a slew of volunteers who are dedicated to helping, especially in the Nature Center area. A team meets every Wednesday to construct buildings for the Farmstead area.
On Friday, DNR employee Chris Bell was repairing a leak in the water garden near the Nature Center. Inside the center, visitors will see a new exhibit that houses venomous snakes that can be found in the area. The Nature Center is open Tuesdays through Saturdays during the winter months, then expands to seven days a week the rest of the year.
Sawtelle said he still is questioned about last year’s renaming of the park and designating part of the property as a state park.
‘That’s a good thing,’ he said, because as a state park, the property receives more funding and use of state equipment. And about the name change, Sawtelle said there are facilities within the property that are historic in nature, such as Wyandotte Cave, that haven’t changed.
‘We have made a real effort to keep the continuity of our history,’ he said. ‘It’s important to us for the people to know our history.’
O’Bannon Woods State Park has eight employees and is preparing to hire 12 seasonal workers, who will mostly work the gate, upkeep the grounds and maintain trails. Often it’s high school students who are hired, giving them their first jobs.
‘We’re about the community,’ Sawtelle said.
When asked what he considers the most gratifying aspect of his new position, Sawtelle, who considers himself a ‘caretaker,’ said it’s protecting the resources.
‘That includes providing the best services to the community and our visitors,’ he said. ‘I want to see folks come here on a continuous basis to use the facility, and I want to know it’s protected forever.
‘We still have a tremendous amount of work to be done,’ Sawtelle said. ‘We’re not perfect, but we are committed.’
For more information about the Harrison-Crawford property, call 738-8232.