MONROE COUNTY, Ind. – It’s the only place in Indiana designated a wilderness. Just shy of 13,000 acres bordering Lake Monroe near Bloomington, the Charles C. Deam Wilderness area has been set aside as a place where nature can thrive.
The Deam Wilderness is also part of the Hoosier National Forest and has become a popular spot for hikers who walk the miles of trails within its boundaries. They would have to look closely to see a landmark that’s become the focus of a fight here.
Four miles in, on a trial that was once a road, the Hays Family Cemetery is slowly being swallowed up by the wilderness. The worn headstones of some of Indiana’s first settlers barely peek up from the brush.
Kenneth Hays, 81, has led family trips to their cemetery for years. He and other members of the Hays family had an arrangement with the Hoosier National Forest to drive them in department vehicles on the often hazardous trail.
“Sometimes, there’s eight, ten, sometimes there’s more than that on occasion that went with me,” said Hays.
But all that changed earlier this year when the local forest supervisor decided the guided trips would have to end. That cut off access for someone as old as Kenneth Hays.
“Suggesting he ride a horse or walk the four miles through the forest to get to his family graves is an insult, I think,” said Hays’ grandson Joseph Reynolds.
Forest Service officials say the trail to the cemetery has just become too dangerous.
“I think most people who go out there would not recognize it as a road at this point,” said Supervisor Michael Chaveas.
Officials contend the trail has gotten so overgrown, it’s too hazardous for their crews to keep it open. They also say the Hays family is the only one who wants access.
"So to continue that clearing I have to decide to send my employees to do dangerous work to allow one person access to the cemetery by vehicle,” said Chaveas.
But that’s not how the Hays family sees it. They’re watching part of their family history slowly disappear.
"I don't consider the cemetery growing up in brush and weeds to be nature. I consider it neglect,” said Kenneth Hays.
The family has appealed the decision to the Department of Agriculture.