On Nature column: Indiana Dunes could thrive as national park

The Herald Bulletin

Indiana could soon join the ranks of the 28 states that are home to at least one national park.

In March 2017, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, seeking to change the designation of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to Indiana Dunes National Park. On Nov. 1, 2017, H.R. 1488 passed in the House and now awaits a vote in the Senate.

Located on the southern shore of Lake Michigan between Gary and Michigan City, the 15-mile stretch of coastline has been the object of preservationists for more than a century. Stephen Mather, the first director of National Parks, proposed the idea of creating Sand Dunes National Park in 1916. Yet, the establishment was delayed throughout the course of the 20th century, first by World War I, then The Great Depression and later by battles between large-scale industry and environmentalists.

Named for its large dunes along the shoreline of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes draws visitors to more than just sandy beaches and the 126-foot-high dune called Mount Baldy. Within the boundaries of the park, visitors can enjoy 50 miles of hiking trails, wetlands, prairies and rivers running through forested areas. Indiana Dunes is also an excellent place for birding, offering the opportunity to view rare species of migrating birds.

Today, the establishment of Indiana’s first national park has bipartisan support from U.S. Senators Joe Donnelly (D) and Todd Young (R). Congressional members from both the House and Senate argue that the establishment of the Dunes as a national park would not only preserve the unique ecological area but would also increase tourism beyond the nearly 2 million people that visited the area in 2016, in turn creating great economic opportunities for the state.

Indiana Dunes would be the 61st national park and just the 12th located east of the Mississippi River. Annual park attendance would currently rank 15th among national parks with 1,698,223 annual visitors. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, ranked No. 1, saw 11,312,786 visitors in 2016.

In terms of size, Indiana Dunes is quite small. Its 15,347 acres would rank 57th out of 61. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Persevere in Alaska features 8,323,146 acres.

While there is no scheduled date for a Senate vote, time is of the essence for the preservation of the Indiana Dunes.

On April 3, 2018, U.S. Steel agreed to pay a $900,000 fine as a result of a toxic chromium still in Lake Michigan last year. Of the estimated 346 pounds of chromium poured into the lake, 298 pounds was hexavalent chromium, made infamous by the movie Erin Brockovich. With the establishment of the Indiana Dunes as a national park, this majestic stretch of shoreline could be further protected and enjoyed by thousands more from around the country.