Officials near agreement on JPG wildlife refuge

The former U.S. Army ammunition
testing base now shared by hunters,
Air Guard jets, local businesses

By Don Ward

MADISON, Ind. – Deep in the heart of the densely wooded Jefferson Proving Grounds, a family of wild geese float silently across a peaceful stream. Overhead, a squirrel darts from limb to limb.

A few yards down the gravel road that rings this vast wilderness, a startled deer races for cover. At the foot of a decades-old iron bridge, a black rat snake suns itself on a rock, then slithers into the dark cracks as intruders approach.
This area is also home to beavers, river otters, coyotes, osprey, eagles, blue heron, the rare Henslow’s sparrow and the endangered Indiana Bat. JPG also harbors impressive two- and three-arched limestone bridges that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and stand as relics of Ind-iana’s early 1900s attempt to improve its road system.
Civil War history buffs still relish the stories of John Hunt Morgan and his raiders, who rode across the JPG property in 1863 with Union soldiers in close pursuit. Three of Morgan’s men were captured at a location that is now off limits because of depleted uranium and ordnance contamination. Nevertheless, a stone marker identifies the site.
Hard to believe that this bastion of nature, wildlife and historical sites exists a mere four miles from Madison’s city limits and spreads across three Indiana counties. Hard to believe that the U.S. Army tested artillery and exploded bombs here over a 54-year period, from 1941 until the base closure in 1995.
Perhaps even more astonishing has been the odd co-existence of the tools of modern warfare with the docile sights and sounds of Mother Nature. The guns have long fallen silent here at this 55,000-acre former Army ammunition testing base, but the wildlife and natural wonders endure.
A not-for-profit group of 50 conservation-minded citizens are working to preserve the history of JPG and eventually establish a museum on a parcel of land near the main entrance. The museum would house oral histories and documents from those who worked at the base or once lived on the farms before the government took over.
The group’s sole employee, Kay Sudhoff, already is busy transcribing oral histories at an office in the Venture Out Business Center in Madison. They hope to obtain a parcel of land near the JPG entrance to build the museum.
In addition to an $8,500 grant from the Community Foundation of Madison and Jefferson County, the group is applying for other grant money to build the museum. They also plan to sell T-shirts, hats and other items over the Internet.
“Our organization brought them on as an affiliate to give them a nonprofit structure so they could apply for grants,” explained Gary Conant, coordinator of the Versailles, Ind.-based Historic Hoosier Hills. “Once we established the structure – subcommittees and officers – our first priority was to get these oral histories, because many of these people are now 75 to 95 years old.”
Meanwhile, the USFWS has been negotiating with Army and Air Force officials to establish a 51,000-acre refuge, to be called the Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge.
USFWS has been managing the natural resources at JPG since 1996 as part of a cooperative agreement with the Army. The Service supports a five-member staff based across the hall from JPG site manager Ken Knouf, one of the three last remaining Army employees from the once 387-strong civilian staff. Air Force Maj. Bill Nolen and eight others operate the bombing range.
In addition to monitoring and managing wildlife habitats, the USFWS has directed various seasonal programs that allow hunters into areas north of the firing line to harvest deer, quail, rabbits and other game.
“What makes this place so neat is the variety – you have flat lands, creeks, hilly land, rock ledges, anything you want,” said group member Mary Ellen Munier of Madison.
Although the Army closed the base five years ago, JPG has been shared by Army officials and the Indiana Air National Guard, which has used the bombing ranges in the far north end since 1977 for practice runs. Every week, Air Guard jets scream overhead as pilots from bases in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio drop inert practice bombs on range targets.
The Guard conducts about 2,100 training missions a year. Despite the establishment of the wildlife refuge, Guard officials say they will continue to use the 1,083-acre bombing range. Pilots fly at 16,000 feet and higher, similar to the altitude of today’s real missions.
Also nestled on a 90-foot limestone bluff in the north end of JPG sits Old Timbers Lodge, a unique two-story structure built from 1930-1932 by Cincinnati industrialist and conservationist Alexander Thomson. The lodge, which features 14-inch-thick limestone walls and exposed ceiling timbers inside the main room, can accommodate up to 75 people and is still used by Army military and civilian employees and retirees for parties and special events. Currently, the lodge is empty and awaits renovation.
Thomson died in 1939, just seven years after the lodge was completed. His son, Chilton Thomson, wrote a book about his family’s life at the lodge until the government took it over in 1940, amid bitter feelings by the Thomsons.
At the southern end of JPG, encompassing about 4,000 acres, 15 commercial businesses employing 200 people operate in abandoned warehouses and buildings south of the firing line. About 150 residents occupy the houses and test buildings that once housed military families and operational units.
“I love it out here,” said JPG Heritage co-chair David Lee, who lives in one of the houses. “It’s like a big family.”
Both groups rent from developer Dean Ford, who currently is leasing the south end from the Army, with exception of a 400-acre tract that awaits unexploded ordnance cleanup, scheduled for this summer. Jefferson County has asked that the tract be transferred to it to be managed as a natural area. Ford and county officials are negotiating the future control of that land.
Ford purchased the southern end property in 1996 from the government for $5.1 million, but Army officials have delayed transferring the property until it has been cleaned up.
Ford, who owns a farm equipment dealership in Dupont, has been farming 900 acres but has had several offers to develop various parcels for commercial use. The most notable – a garbage landfill and a go-cart track and entertainment complex – both failed for various reasons. Ford says he has received several offers from other businesses.
Just inside the south entrance off Hwy. 421, meanwhile, a 220-acre tract has been donated to Jefferson County for creating a park around Krueger Lake. Fishermen already use the lake, but ballfields, a campground and picnic tables may some day be added.
“It’s been really interesting out here since the base closed down, but mostly it functions as a refuge, regardless of what they call it,” said Knouf, an Ohio native whose job is uncertain.
“No matter what happens, the Air Force is going to continue to use it, and wildlife will continue to thrive. But because of the liability the Army retains for unexploded ordnance, the question is, who is going to stay around and guard it?”

• Visit the JPG Heritage Partnership website at: www.jpgheritage.org.

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