At first, it was just some pizza boxes and beer cans — nothing like the steer carcass, mattresses and glass shards there now.
A 20-acre land preserve along South River Road just west of County Road 600 West in rural Cass County is in danger of being closed off because of persistent dumping that’s plagued the land’s owners for several years.
“I went out there last winter, and there was a dead steer, a 1,500-pound steer was dumped,” said Ron Haston, stewardship manager for the land trust. “That has to be somebody local with a tractor and a loader.”
But it’s not the first time that large items have been left just out of sight of drivers on South River Road. Dumping at the site has been a problem since before Haston joined NICHES about two years ago.
“It’s out of hand,” he emphasized. “We’re at the point right now, it’s critical mass. We don’t like to do it, and we haven’t had to do it before, but we will close that property down if we have to and prosecute anybody who goes onto that property.”
Currently, the land is open for anyone’s enjoyment. Unique ecological traits such as surface bedrock and Dolomite prairie made it a desirable acquisition for NICHES, said Haston. Local residents often use the area as a convenient fishing spot, he added, and others have been known to camp there.
The Ervin family is among the campers.
The family of avid outdoorsy types found their favorite camping spot near a pullover on the Justice Farms property by accident six or seven years ago, said Monica Ervin. She and her husband have camped there with their children and some extended family every fall since.
“There was some trash out there when we first found it,” she said, “but it was more like household trash. Beer cans, plastic bags, that kind of thing.”
Each year before their family campout, she and her husband, Rae, take at least one evening and clean up the litter around the firepit, disposing of it in their own household trash soon afterward.
But it’s gotten worse, Ervin said.
They’ve found tires, a couch, broken glass and dead animals.
“There have been times when we went out there, and there were eight dead deer carcasses,” said Ervin.
And last fall, the family found dead raccoons along with glass shards and other litter. She estimated that they filled about 15 bags with the the trash they found there last year.
They’ve driven by the spot six or seven times since last fall to check on it, and “the trash just gets worse,” she said.
Last Monday, they saw several mattresses, a carpet roll and a toilet.
The items hid nearly all the steer carcass, but one hoof was still visible under a mattress. It’s too much trash for them to clean up themselves, said Ervin.
Racial slurs and swastikas have been found spray-painted onto trees and rocks in the area, too.
“It makes me really mad — it makes me sick that people do that,” Ervin said.
The property, stretching along the riverbank side of South River Road from County Road 600 West until the Georgetown bridge, is known as the Justice Farms. Brothers Courtney and David Justice donated the family parcels in 2002 to Lafayette-based NICHES, which stands for “Northern Indiana Citizens Helping Ecosystems Survive.
It’s the easternmost property that NICHES owns. NICHES also manages another 226 acres owned by the brothers, but that area is not open to the public.
Haston says the Justice Farms site is the only NICHES property that battles persistent dumping.
Cass County conservation officer Brenda Louthain said it was one of the two sites she monitores most closely because so much dumping occurs there. She’s made two arrests this summer related to dumping on the Justice Farms property.
Dumping there is “continuous,” she said, “especially right there at the curve of the road. There’s a little cliff there and a little pullover. They have a tendency to pull over and dump stuff over the cliff.”
People can dump trash there without being seen, Louthain said, because there are no houses nearby.
“They take advantage of that situation and really mess up a beautiful area along the river,” she said. “That’s one of my pet peeves, to destroy the natural beauty by doing stuff like that. And again, the only way to stop it, really, is continuous monitoring of the site.”
Haston said the organization’s leaders were mulling “what to do about Justice” as late as after last Monday’s board meeting.
“If we don’t get somebody involved and the dumping considerably slowed down, we’re on track to close the property down probably by this time next year,” he said. “I’m willing to do anything at this point to keep from closing the property. That’s the last resort, but that’s where we’re at.”
Haston said he had tried working with local law enforcement and conservation officers, but they and NICHES staff can only do so much.
He has also pleaded with local residents to keep an eye out for anyone dumping trash on the property. So far, though, he’s had no takers.
Cass County Sheriff Randy Pryor said his department had responded to a couple of reports related to dumping at the property, but nothing recently.
“When dumping is reported to us, we treat it like any other crime,” said Pryor.
Deputies try to ascertain the owner of the trash by looking through it for any scraps of paper with names or other identifying information.
“It might be a brand name on a certain article that’s sold by a business locally,” Pryor said. “We might follow up with the business, see when that article was bought, things like that.”
Some violators wind up being prosecuted if property owners want to file charges, but in other cases, deputies work with violators to make sure the litter gets cleaned up.
Dumping falls under the state littering ordinance, which stipulates that anyone “recklessly, knowingly or intenionally” leaving refuse on another person’s property may be charged with an infraction and subject to up to $1,000 in fines.
Haston and other NICHES representatives have discussed what other means could be used to deter dumping. He welcomes ideas from the public as well as volunteers to help keep the area clean.
Law enforcement officers “do what they can,” said Haston, but the group needs local volunteers to take on some of the policing and light maintenance work the land requires.
“We can’t be there all the time,” he said. “And unfortunately the bad seeds have kind of taken over the place.”
That’s just what angers Ervin.
“The trails here are a gold mine for people that like outdoor activities,” she said. And for camping, “there are other places, but this is the primo place right here. It’s a beautiful place ruined by dumpers.”
• Sarah Einselen is news editor for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at 574-732-5151 or email@example.com.