Dan Corkery: Indiana Dunes could soon be C-U's closest national park

Dan Corkery: Indiana Dunes could soon be C-U's closest national park

There may soon be a national park within a short drive of East Central Illinois.

Last week, the U.S. House unanimously approved renaming the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore — on the southern end of Lake Michigan, just east of Chicago — by dropping "Lakeshore" and inserting "Park."

If the Senate approves the legislation and the president signs it, the Hoosier State will have its first national park and the U.S. will have its 60th.

Because the bill does not enlarge the National Park Service site's footprint, the proposal apparently has no opposition.

"Designating the dunes as a national park would give the area the recognition it deserves, attracting more visitors and helping further grow the economy in northwest Indiana," Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., said in a statement of cautious optimism.

National-park status would bring full circle to more than a century of efforts to protect this unique ecosystem.

Starting in 1899, University of Chicago botanist Henry Cowles brought attention to the dunes and the dense concentration of flora and fauna. Other supporters, seeing land competition from America's growing industrial base, sought to preserve the lakeshore from exploitation.

In October 1916, Stephen Mather, the National Park Service's first director, began efforts to protect the dunes from Gary to Michigan City by designating the area a national park.

But U.S. entry into World War I the next spring scuttled those plans. It took another 10 years before backers were able to establish a smaller park: Indiana Dunes State Park.

Where preservationists saw a natural wonder, industry saw raw ingredients and transportation.

At 200 feet high, Hoosier Slide, outside of Michigan City, was the state's tallest dune. But you can't see it now; nearby glass companies (Ball Brothers in Muncie and Pittsburgh Plate Glass in Kokomo) mined the sand. By the 1920s, the site was flat.

In Gary, more dunes were levelled for steel mills. And other industry was to come. Many officials wanted a port beside the factories, to take advantage of the Great Lakes' route to the Atlantic.

With the help of Illinois Sen. Paul Douglas (whom some called Indiana's third senator), a compromise was reached in the 1966. The Burns Harbor could be built if the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was established.

The National Park Service land is not a continuous arc hugging the shore of Lake Michigan; it's a patchwork of parcels.

Wedged between Gary and Burns Harbor is a pieced-together set of properties. East of the port, federal land wraps around two residential neighborhoods (Dunes Acres and Beverly Shores) and the state park.

As a national park, the Indiana Dunes would feel different from most of America's parks — because civilization is always nearby. Smokestacks, ships, railroads, houses and highways. Interstate 94 is less than a mile from the lakeshore's visitor center; I-80/90 about 2 miles.

Easy highway access means both the national lakeshore and the state park are already well-visited destinations: about 1.4 million to 2 million people each year, mostly to play on the broad beaches.

Will changing the name make both parks even more crowded?

Maybe not.

According to property manager Brandt Baughman, as the Indiana Dunes State Park fills up on busy summer weekends, his staff controls the traffic coming in.

"Whenever five cars leave, we let five cars go in," he said.

He recommends visitors come on weekdays during the summer. Want to camp? Get a reservation.

Bruce Rowe, public information officer for the national lakeshore, said managing larger crowds means redirecting visitors to less-visited areas, such as the west beach area between Gary and Burns Harbor.

"Over the last two years, we have experimented with a beach shuttle bus from a South Shore Line train station to encourage more use of mass transit by local visitors," Rowe said in an email. "This is something that we may look at expanding should visitation increase significantly."

As has happened at other parks, we the public can love our natural areas too much.

At the national lakeshore, a huge sand dune called Mount Baldy bears the scar of human activity. Over the decades, visitors have trampled the native grasses, robbing the dune of its natural protection against wind erosion. As a result, strong winds off the lake over the decades have been moving the dune south at about 6 feet per year.

Access to Mount Baldy is now restricted, and grasses have been planted in an attempt to slow the erosion.

Dan Corkery is a member of The News-Gazette's editorial board. His email is dcorkery@news-gazette.com, and his phone is 351-5218.

Sections (2):Columns, Opinion