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Frank Gray

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Campsites’ closing is death of a ‘tradition’

Another few weeks and it will be spring, practically warm enough to go camping and even do a little fishing.

But just in time for warmer weather, the Department of Natural Resources has announced that on March 1 it will close the primitive campground at the Pigeon River Fish and Wildlife Area in LaGrange County.

The announcement hasn’t exactly caused an uproar, but a handful of people are upset that the decades-old campground, whose only creature comfort is a permanent Port-O-Let, is closing.

The people at the DNR expected some reaction to their decision, but they say they are surprised at how little reaction there has been.

The people who are calling various DNR officials to complain are mostly upset because the little campground – not much bigger than a large rural lot and a hidden gem, as the reader who contacted me called it – has been the spot where they or family members have camped for decades.

“People’s main hang-up is, it’s been a tradition,” says James Kershaw, public lands program manager with the DNR. “They’ve been going there for 40 years,” and a tradition is dying.

News that the campground would close was announced this year on the DNR website, but a formal news release didn’t go out until Tuesday.

I spoke to Kershaw and Nate Levitte, the property manager for the 12,000-acre Pigeon River wildlife area, about the decision to close the campground.

There isn’t just one reason, Kershaw said. It’s a combination of factors that even people who have called to protest can understand, he said.

When the primitive campground was established years ago, Kershaw says, it was just about the only campground available.

That’s changed. There are now about 40 commercial campgrounds in the area, some as little as a mile away, that offer everything from primitive campsites to Class A campsites, which have electrical connections, running water, showers and so on.

The result is that the DNR’s primitive site has gotten less and less usage. Its busiest weekends are usually the summer holidays, Memorial Day, July 4 and that, but recently the campground’s 44 campsites hasn’t even been filled at those high-traffic times.

It costs $8 a night for a campsite, but in the last year, revenue from the campground has been only about $12,000, which amounts to only a handful of campers per night on average.

So starting March 1, the small site, which covers only about seven acres, will convert to a wildlife area.

“We’re trying to focus our resources on what we do best,” Kershaw says.

People will still be able to go to the area to fish, Kershaw and Levitte said, and conceivably hunt when the hunting season is on. They just won’t be able to pitch a tent.

In a way, one does wonder why you can’t just pitch a tent anywhere you want. In a way, the image of a tent next to a lake with not another soul in sight is the typical romantic view of primitive camping. But realizing that people do need water and a place to go to the bathroom and facilities for all the other things they do, one does begin to understand.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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