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Ranger Bob retires from dream job

Ranger Bob retires from dream job
Ranger Bob retires from dream job
Bob Sawtelle (facing camera) talks with friends during a retirement open house in his honor. Photo by Jo Ann Spieth-Saylor
By Jo Ann Spieth-Saylor, Editor, [email protected]

When he was about 9 years old, Bob Sawtelle decided he wanted to be a forest ranger when he grew up.

“I was blessed to go on month-long vacations,” he recalled of his childhood, noting his parents took the family “everywhere,” from New Hampshire to Colorado and through the Appalachian Mountains. “We had such wonderful park rangers with evening programs.”

The dream stuck with Sawtelle, who majored in forest services at the University of Illinois and he later attended graduate school.

“I got to be a cowboy in Idaho,” he said of one of his early endeavors.

It was during a stop at home to visit his parents in Terre Haute that his father suggested he apply for a position with the Harrison-Crawford State Forest located west of Corydon. Sawtelle was hired in 1984.

“I’ve made a lot of great friends through the years,” he said.

That “wonderful collection of friends” isn’t just from Harrison County. Sawtelle also worked for a time at the Falls of Ohio State Park and for The Nature Conservancy before returning to Harrison-Crawford State Forest, managing what would become the O’Bannon Woods State Park.

He served as assistant manager under Pete Thorn until his retirement in 2005.

Through the years, Sawtelle was involved with water-quality issues with the Blue River. He speculates it was this work that earned him the Sagamore of the Wabash honor from then-Gov. Frank O’Bannon. (His wife, Missi Bush-Sawtelle, also received a Sagamore; she continues to serve on the Blue River Commission.)

Ranger Bob, as Sawtelle is often referred as, said he knew it was time to retire as he had less energy, especially following a knee injury a while back.

“You can stay too long,” he said.

Sawtelle’s official last day as a state employee was April 30. He spent the time driving and walking the property, visiting the Nature Center and sitting in the park office “for a bit” to talk with staff.

He sang the praises of those who “have blossomed so well” and remain at O’Bannon Woods.

“Stanley (Baelz) is so dedicated,” Sawtelle said of the man who has been the assistant property manager for a number of years and is likely to be Sawtelle’s successor.

Sawtelle called Jarrett Manek “the best naturalist in the area” and said Heather Kintner knows “the ins and outs” of the park better than anyone.

“The labor staff never quits,” Sawtelle said. “They do (the work) every day, and they do it well.”

With less than 10 full-time employees, Sawtelle said they run the place.

And the many programs and activities that take place at O’Bannon Woods are possible thanks to the numerous dedicated volunteers, Sawtelle said.

It’s all of these people who make O’Bannon Woods more of a “community park” rather than a state park, he said.

When asked about his accomplishments during his tenure at O’Bannon Woods State Park, Sawtelle put “saving Blue River” at the top of the list. Clean-up work was a partnership that dates back to when Gary Geswein was the FFA adviser at North Harrison High School. It also includes the conservation officers, The Nature Conservancy, Cave Country Canoes, the Soil & Water Conservation District and the other high schools, he said.

“It’s the last river clean enough in Indiana to have an endangered species (the hellbender),” Sawtelle said.

Blue River is also home to otters following a release program with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife in the late 1990s.

“I hope the community realizes what it has (with regard to Blue River),” said Sawtelle said, adding that, after he’s had some time to “catch up” on some other things, he plans to return as a more active steward of Blue River.

Sawtelle also cited the restoration of the group camp of a task he is proud of under his watch. That was accomplished mostly with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Harrison County Community Foundation.

“People came in and volunteered and helped rebuild the place,” he said.

Also completed under Sawtelle’s watch was the aquatics center, which opened in June of 2007, after the original swimming pool was deemed inoperable.

Sawtelle said he retired with some unfinished business, such as restoring the Wyandotte Cave complex.

“I wish I had more time,” he said before focusing on other things that were accomplished and emphasizing how the 30,000-acre property offers pretty much something for everyone, to include backpacking, hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, swimming and fishing.

Fishing is a favorite pastime of Sawtelle’s and something he plans to do more of now that he’s retired. He’s a member of Derby City Fly Fishers.

“I fish a lot and in a lot of different places,” Sawtelle said.

Some of those places are local, while others are out of state and even in Canada.

“I have so many opportunities amongst friends to hunt, travel, fish and tour,” Sawtelle said.

He was looking forward to Memorial Day weekend, to spend time with his wife, saying it would be the first holiday weekend he’d had off in about 40 years.

Sawtelle knows he left O’Bannon Woods in good hands, saying it’s “immaculate, organized and beautiful.”

“Wow, what a gift,” he said.