When Nature Is Off-Limits – Thoughts on My Run-in with the Law at a Nature Preserve

When Nature Is Off-Limits. Rain or Shine Mamma.

Published on June 5th, 2015 Updated on January 10th, 2023 By Linda McGurk

Last week I wrote about being fined for letting my kids play in a creek at a nature preserve managed by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. The post set off a firestorm of comments, shares, and discussions about children’s access to nature versus the need to protect it, in a way I never would’ve imagined. Clearly, what I wrote struck a nerve. Out of concern for my family and because it was an ongoing issue, I took the original post down. But the response made me think it’s an important debate that we still need to have. When Nature Is Off-Limits. Rain or Shine Mamma.

After my story broke, the locals that know the preserve first-hand overwhelmingly sided with me, and many testified to having done exactly the same thing. Naturally, that doesn’t make it legal, but it tells me that we weren’t out of line for believing that letting our kids get into the creek was OK.

One woman shared her frustration over being fined for having a picnic with her family at the same preserve, another offered to help me pursue a change of the rules. A third, a mom who’s let her kids play in the creek too, said she won’t go back after learning about our fine. I have a feeling she’s not the only one, and that’s too bad.

Many wondered if there were any “No Swimming” signs at the preserve (the answer is no), but that doesn’t even matter. The statute that we allegedly violated, Indiana Administrative Code 312 IAC 8-2-9, more or less makes it illegal to swim (and apparently wade) in the water at any state nature area, unless it’s a “designated swimming beach or pool,” or you’re doing it from a boat. If there’s no sign explicitly saying that it’s allowed, the presumption is that it’s prohibited.

Some commenters were less supportive. One woman suggested that I should’ve “checked my sense of entitlement at the gate” before I entered the preserve. Maybe. I know that attitude stems from my upbringing in Scandinavia, where people’s access to nature is actually considered an inalienable right.

In Sweden, where I grew up, the protection of natural areas relies on an honor system that simply can be summed up with “Do not destroy, do not disturb.” Nature preserves have stricter rules, but even there people are allowed to have picnics, leave the trail and usually pick common flowers, as well as forage for mushrooms and berries. And no, nowhere would children playing in a creek be considered a crime or a threat to the environment. Similar rights and responsibilities apply in the other Scandinavian countries.

Interestingly enough, Scandinavia is recognized internationally both for its pristine natural areas and for excelling in environmental protection. I’m sharing this because it tells me that nature can thrive despite – or maybe because of – a more complex code of ethics than the “look, don’t touch!” approach.

David Sobel, author of Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education, is on the same track when discussing environmental education in this Orion Magazine article. “Ironically, this ‘take only photographs, leave only footprints’ mindset crops up in the policies and programs of many organizations trying to preserve the natural world and cultivate children’s relationships to it,” he writes.

The US is not Scandinavia – I get that. The US has different traditions and rules, as well as some unique challenges. The most popular national parks get millions of visitors every year, and high traffic areas need special protections, so they don’t get loved to death. In addition, the US has the dubious recognition of being the most sue-happy nation in the world. Better then to hedge your bets and have too many rules than not enough, the thinking seems to go.

At the same time, we need to offer ways for young children to interact with nature in a meaningful way. While adults may be contented with walking on a trail and taking in the scenery, anybody that has young children knows that this doesn’t normally cut it for them. They want to see how high they can climb in that tree, pretend that those rocks just off the trail are a dinosaur cave, collect colorful leaves from the forest floor and yes, stick their feet in the water. More often than not, this is not allowed.

“Too many parents and people in authority have embraced rules that their own parents would have scoffed at,” said Michael Lanza, author of Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks and The Big Outside blog, in response to our incident. “Unless we push back against this trend, we risk raising a generation of children who don’t value outdoor time or even preserving places like this, where kids can’t even play in a creek.”

Yes, the rules are the rules are the rules. But when do the rules go to far? I agree with the spirit of Leave No Trace, but by enforcing it indiscriminately we also miss a great opportunity to raise children who have a true bond with nature.

Fighting our fine in court would cost many times more than to pay the fine outright, and would likely come down to whether there was enough signage or some other technicality, rather than make a bigger point about children’s access to nature. Regardless of the outcome I have a feeling taking this to court would only result more signs detailing various bans. And believe me, that’s really the last thing I want. For that reason, we’ve decided not to contest the charge in court.

Done right, I think it’s possible to both meet families’ desire for outdoor recreation and protect nature, for example by allowing children to play freely in less sensitive areas and  pick some common flowers, as former ranger Matthew Browning suggests in this excellent Slate article. As the rise of the Children and Nature movement has proved, people are waking up to the fact that kids who grow up playing freely in nature are the ones that will love and care to protect it later in life. Or as Richard Louv puts it: “…the human child in nature may well be the most important indicator species of future sustainability.”

And by treating nature like an outdoor museum where everything is off limits, that human child in nature may well become extinct.

29 thoughts on “When Nature Is Off-Limits – Thoughts on My Run-in with the Law at a Nature Preserve

  1. Dawn Suzette says:

    I really agree with your thoughts on this, Linda.
    Thank you for sharing your experience and responding to the storm in a thoughtful and gracious manner.
    The more we can encourage families to get out there, the quicker these things are going to change and gain new perspective.

  2. Sarah says:

    I agree that although we do need to preserve our wilderness, there needs to be a balance between preservation and being able to actually enjoy the experience (especially for children!)
    Thanks for a thoughtfully written post on the topic 🙂

  3. Heather Dent says:

    Yes! Kids should be able to use all five of their senses when interacting with nature. It should not be treated like a museum. Thank you so much for this post and all of the great references to other interesting books and articles.

  4. Terry Friedrich says:

    Too bad the politicians and insurance companies now know more than what citizens is best for our children. It’s ironic that none of this was mentioned when I camped there and swam in damned up creek when it was a Boy Scout Camp. I have many fond memories of camping there as a youth. I just hope my grandsons will get to see the beauty there before someone decides we can’t visit it.

    • Linda McGurk says:

      I’m know you’re not the only one that has great childhood memories from that place, Terry. Back when it was a Boy Scout camp the rules were less strict, but when it became a preserve things changed and a lot of things that used to be allowed aren’t permitted anymore.

  5. Max E. Keller says:

    Linda….As you learn more about our country, you will most likely find out that we have law enforcement officers that forgot any classes they may have had on “common sense” and explain to you and the kids that creek wading is prohibited in this area as most would do. Sorry you had to run into one that would not trade places with the Governor of Indiana. A pleasant warning would have been sufficient and fulfilled his duty.

  6. Laura says:

    I have learned that almost always, when there are conflicts, what is at the heart of the conflict is not the surface issue but a perceived lack of empathy and respect. We often ascribe terrible motives to others without taking the time to suspend judgment and listen. How much more appropriate it would have been for the park ranger to put aside their negative assumptions about you and simply tell you about the rules and ask you respectfully to comply, without shaming you and fining you in front of your kids. That implies to your children that their perfectly healthy desire to embrace and explore nature with all their senses is somehow wrong and makes you all feel less welcome there. If they had tried just politely explaining, you would probably have left feeling disappointed about the rule. But not feeling reluctant to approach the Dept. of Natural Resources about a need for nature play areas because you were already on their naughty list! My son was once yelled at for trying to skip rocks into a river because he “might harm macroinvertebrates”. I wondered at the time how that person justified walking across grass!

    • Linda McGurk says:

      Laura, thank you for your thoughtful comment. Yes, I think the situation could have been handled differently, even though I understand he was doing his job. What frustrates me is the lack of public space where kids can really be kids. I can’t believe somebody yelled at your son for skipping rocks! That’s just going waaaaay too far!

  7. Michele @NaturePlayTrips says:

    Your story makes me sad, Linda. Thanks for writing about it.

    Did you read Rich Louv’s post about a “The Permission Society”?

    And thought you might relate to a post I wrote on a similar topic over a year ago. Not the same exact situation, but the same feelings with links to other articles.

    Sometimes it helps to know you’re not alone.

  8. Maureen says:

    I’m in WA, but we have a local creek here that my older kids grew up wading in. Now, with my youngest, kids can no longer play in it. It supposedly is to protect the salmon. Kind of a bummer though….

    • Linda McGurk says:

      That is a bummer:o( I understand the need for environmental protection but I really don’t feel like playing children is the main threat to the planet. It seems like a lot of these rules do more harm than good, as they prevent children from having meaningful interactions with nature. Thanks for reading!

  9. Leslie Talarico says:

    I loved this writing of yours! I am trying to find my own outdoor philosophy for my family that will help them learn to love and respect nature and hopefully become “leave no trace” adults by choice. I feel like kids need to interact with nature when they are young to learn to appreciate it. I somehow feel like saying, “you can’t explore that” in nature will not really bring about the same kind of understanding that allowing them to handle nature and explain it to them or have them witness it will be.

    • Linda McGurk says:

      Thank you, Leslie:) I do believe that kids need to be hands-on with nature and experience it with all their senses if they are to become truly attached to it, and in the vast majority of places their rampages are not an issue. I wish there were a way to make natural places more accessible to children in the US overall, but access to public lands varies greatly from state to state, and on private land they’re often not welcome. Definitely a challenge we need to tackle!

  10. Jim Schuck says:

    I guess it depends on which DNR property you visit in Indiana. Some are much more user friendly than others. If I may mention specifics I know of two that don’t enforce anything like this. On Lake Monroe, Fairfax State Recreation Area has a designated beach, but beyond it is a large peninsula with a concrete boardwalk. People go back there and swim all the time. They carry rafts and inner tubes right past the “beach monitor” who says nothing. Often the park workers will drive back there and if they take notice of me at all it’s simply to wave. they also tend to not enforce the beach’s season of Memorial Day to Labor Day there either. People come in the middle of May if it’s warm enough and I’ve seen them there as late as October during a late warm spell.

    Another place like that is Leiber State Recreation Area on Cagle’s Mill Lake. It also had both a beach and an aquatic center, but there is a short trail that leads down to some rocks that are perfect for jumping off into deep water. One day, and this was even after the beach officially closed, I went down there with my inner tube to float and rock jump. One of the maintenance people started cutting weeds at the other end of the trail where my car was parked. I walked right up to him carrying my tube and in soaking wet blue jeans. We even chatted for a while.

    Now all these encounters have been with park employees. I think conservation officers work under a different mindset. They just want to write tickets.

      • Jim Schuck says:

        Just out of curiosity, were you at Shades or Turkey Run? Both of those parks became very strict several years ago after a drowning. People used to play in the creek all the time until then and no one said anything. The irony is a lot of commercial businesses offer tubing and canoeing right through the parks. They caution you that as long as you aren’t inside the park boundaries and it’s not posted “No Trespassing” it’s all right to stop and swim. In the park though, you can’t get in the water, even if your rear end is already hanging in it through an inner tube.

        I thought of a couple of other nice kid-friendly places you can go if you don’t want to go to a big lake like the others I mentioned. One is Anderson Falls east of Columbus, IN. It’s run by the county parks and not the state. Swimming is not only allowed under the falls, but encouraged. There are trails that are all on the opposite side of the creek from where you park, so part of you is getting wet no matter what.

        The other is Cascades Park on “Old 37” in Bloomington. One of the parking areas’ entrances fords Cascades creek and the creek changes elevation down a concrete spillway. Kids (and at least one big kid **wink**) slide down that spillway all summer long. If you follow the trail that parallels a tributary that spills into Cascades right there a short ways, you’ll find a VERY kid-friendly waterfall that offers a refreshing shower unless it’s been really dry. If I’m working in Bloomington when it’s hot, I’ve made the trip home from there in wet clothes (or just boxer briefs if I’m really feeling adventurous), many times. I am with you. We need to get rid of many of the laws that “protect us from ourselves”. I know the risks associated with swimming in non-guarded natural areas. If I want to take them, it’s my business.

        Here is a great web site I’ve found that lists these great natural places to have fun with your kids all over the country. http://www.swimmingholes.org/

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