Here in Michigan, we are proud of our national parks and national lakeshores. Isle Royale National Park has its unique cachet as a remote wilderness island with wolves and moose, not to mention designation as an International Biosphere Reserve. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was voted “Good Morning America’s” Most Beautiful Place in America in 2011. And Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, with its towering cliffs, rock formations and waterfalls on Lake Superior, has become a premier Midwest travel destination.
All three are National Park Service treasures, and we are fortunate to have them. The difference between labels, that of being a national park or national lakeshore, for me, is inconsequential.
But that’s not the case in Indiana. Congress is considering bipartisan legislation to change Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore into a national park. One bill, H.R. 1488, introduced in March 2017, passed the House of Representatives unanimously and was sent to the Senate where it was referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. A Senate version, S. 599, also was introduced and sent to the committee. Both seek to rename the lakeshore Indiana Dunes National Park.
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is extremely popular; it also is one of the most biologically diverse properties in the national park system, according to the NPS. Its abundance of rare plants and animals include numerous orchid species, a plethora of birds, mammals and diverse natural habitats. Its 15,000 acres hug 15 miles of southern Lake Michigan shoreline. It is close to Gary, Indiana; Chicago; and the Michigan border. More than 2 million visitors were recorded in 2017.
Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, held hearings in Chicago in 1916 about his plan to create “Sand Dunes National Park” at what is now the national lakeshore. More than 400 people attended, according to NPS history. No opposition was heard, but Mather’s plan was abandoned with the onset of World War I and shifting national priorities. The lakeshore was eventually dedicated in 1966 after years of contention between economic/industrial interests who wanted the sand and to build the “Port of Indiana” there, and conservation interests who wanted to save the dunes.
Proponents of renaming it a national park say doing so will add prestige and further stimulate local economies. The change would not provide any more, or less, protection to its species and habitat. Critics have argued, however, that the term “national park” should be reserved for only the best of lands, that IDNL lands are too fragmented, too altered from Mather’s time, to be a national park.
“I’m sure the numbers would go up. National parks do generate more tourism than national lakeshores, and there are people who make it a point to visit all national parks.”
— Lynn McClure
Lynn McClure, senior Midwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, a national nonprofit that advocates for national park protection, said changing the name likely would boost visitation. Her organization remained neutral about the name-change legislation because the bill didn’t do more to protect the lakeshore environment. NPCA wanted a boundary study to clearly delineate park land from private where there is suspected encroachment by private landowners; they wanted the park to have first right of refusal when adjacent private land came up for sale. Both would provide more protection, she said. But neither was in the cards.
“I’m sure the numbers would go up,” McClure said. “National parks do generate more tourism than national lakeshores, and there are people who make it a point to visit all national parks, with a capital P (for park). … If Mather had been successful, there might be far less private land (interspersed). Growth there has been exponential; there is so much development pressure.
“Maybe being a national park would be an easy way to protect it; maybe being a national park would result in the public having a higher reverence for the land, which could help defend it against the onslaught (of development).”
That alone, of course, might be reason enough to change the name. None of this will matter, though, if the pursuit of an economic boost isn’t balanced by the work and due diligence needed to protect the land and that cherished natural environment.
Photography Courtesy Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
Howard Meyerson is the managing editor of Michigan BLUE Magazine.