A report looking towards the future of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore calls for stronger partnerships to help the lakeshore flourish, and better visitor resources to draw users deeper into the lakeshore and give them a greater appreciation for it.
“The thing is, here’s this park that’s 35 miles from the nation’s third-largest city, and you don’t see it reflected in the park. You see it in terms of visitation," said Lynn McClure, Midwest Region director for the National Parks Conservation Association, which released the report this morning.
“Everybody goes to the beach. That’s where the numbers come from," she explained Sunday. "And I think they don’t realize they’re in a national park when they use the beach.”
The 48-page report, The Future of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, makes a number of recommendations, ranging from stronger support from the surrounding communities and universities to restoring existing trails, adding new ones, and improving access to Indiana Dunes, which hugs the shore of Lake Michigan.
Though the national lakeshore already draws more than 2 million visitors a year, the NPCA study reached the conclusion that there's a lack of overall awareness of what Indiana Dunes offers visitors. To help increase that awareness, the report recommends a stronger National Park Service presence leading from Chicago to the lakeshore via a series of historic and natural sites.
With its rich collection of natural resources, the lakeshore should also gain the attention of the region's researchers, Ms. McClure said.
"That park just does not pull on the resources that Chicago offers -- there are a ton of research universities within a five-hour drive -- they’re just not connected. It’s like the park was established and they all turned away from it," she said.
At the same time, the lakeshore needs a strong advocacy group to step forward and work to develop philanthropic resources to the lakeshore's betterment, the report said.
Many of the problems faced by Indiana Dunes stem from the way its boundaries were drawn after the lakeshore was authorized in 1966. Falling within those boundaries are a steel mill, a shipping port, Indiana Dunes State Park, and private holdings.
“It’s a mess. It’s a mess. That park’s boundary is a mess," Ms. McClure said. "It’s a mess because when the park was created it was called the park of compromise. At the same time the enabling legislation for Indiana Dunes went in, so did the legislation for the Port of Indiana."
While the NPCA report calls for a realignment of the lakeshore's boundaries, Ms. McClure doesn't expect that to happen overnight.
“Here we are launching this report that calls for a number of actions that are tied to money, and we are in this fiscally austere time, so it isn’t going to happen quickly. And it’s going to take a lot of support to get a boundary study done,” she said.
Among the recommendations the report makes:
* Establish a strong coalition of advocacy organizations and individuals that will defend Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and work in a coordinated way on its behalf.
* Empower a park partner to take the lead in raising money, providing educational programs and supplementing the park staff.
* Strengthen the base of dedicated, reliable volunteers to enhance park programs and projects and help offset declining staff positions.
* Work with partners to develop and implement a land acquisition strategy and complete land acquisition within the new park boundary.
* Manage Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Indiana Dunes State Park through a cooperative management agreement.
* Actively manage healthy natural communities and make ecological restoration a high priority for the more degraded areas of the park.
* Restore wetlands and reconnect watersheds to be a natural filter where water flows into Lake Michigan.
At Active Transportation Alliance, Steve Buchtel said it's important that alternative means of access be established for Indiana Dunes.
“People are drawn to our nationally significant natural areas. Every road widening and every new parking space to accommodate the vast majority of visitors paves over a little more of what they came to see,” Mr. Buchtel said in comments prepared for release of the report. “Finding alternative ways for getting to the park, such as improving bicycle and walking routes from South Shore train stations and allowing bicycles to board the trains, would benefit the park, the visitor's experience, and people's lives.”
Along with the physical, on-the-ground needs of the lakeshore, climate change presents its own challenges. Current projections show the lakeshore will see less snow and ice, and heavier rainfall and flooding.
“The parks land, water, wildlife and plants are fragmented by park boundaries, leaving the park’s fragile resources vulnerable to encroaching development and other harmful threats such as climate change and pollution," said Laurel Ross, urban conservation director for The Field Museum in Chicago. “The adjacent state park, scientists and resource managers must work together to protect the park against such threats. We recommend that an official boundary study of the park be conducted to redraw park lines that could eliminate some of the disconnected park fragments."
The bottom-line espoused by the report is that today's generations need to step forward to guide the lakeshore into the future.
"Having a national park designated in northwest Indiana more than 40 years ago was a testament to far-thinking, action-oriented people who understood how special this area is," said Stephen Wolter, executive director for the Eppley Institute for Parks and Public Lands at Indiana University.
“Now is the time for the next generation of far-thinking park stewards to contribute by helping Indiana Dunes become what it was meant to be for the environment and sustainability, for the economy and the people of Northwest Indiana, and all Americans.”
You can find the entire report at this NPCA site.