Amid a rare black oak savanna, ponds and lupine, dignitaries unfurled a brown and white sign designating this ecological wonder to posterity.
It read simply: “Indiana Dunes National Park.”
A contingent of Boy Scouts, environmentalists and politicians mingled Tuesday morning at Miller Woods in Gary, the western-most segment of the new national park where more than a century ago, Chicago botanist Henry Cowles marveled at its ridges and swales.
“America just got better,” said Gov. Eric Holcomb, whose brief remarks were slowed by the roar of a Norfolk & Southern freight train, one of three that rumbled through in the 35-minute ceremony, reminding the audience they were in an urban park.
Holcomb heralded the park, calling it the most visited tourism site in Indiana. Last year, officials said it drew 1.7 million people. It hugs about 15 miles of the Lake Michigan shore and spans three counties, Lake, Porter and LaPorte.
“With designation No. 61, it will have even more visitors,” Holcomb said of the park’s status as the nation’s 61st national park, approved by Congress as part of an omnibus appropriations bill signed by President Donald Trump in February.
U.S. Rep. Peter J. Visclosky, D-Gary, who led the charge for the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to gain national park status, spoke of the roadblocks and the victories over the past two decades.
The bill passed the House, but failed in the Senate in 2017. Visclosky credited bipartisan efforts from Republican senators Todd Young, Mike Braun and former Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly for pushing it across the finish line.
“You do need both sides of the aisle,” said Visclosky. Tracing the park’s journey, Visclosky said it began as a national lakeshore in 1966 with 8,300 acres.
He paid homage to staunch Dunes advocate Charlotte Read, who died May 2. Her husband, Herb Read, looked on as Visclosky spoke.
After the ceremony, Visclosky said national park backers “found a way,” to move the bill forward in Congress after acting National Park Service Director P. Daniel Smith testified last summer against the name change on behalf of the Trump Administration.
“What you don’t see is the behind-the-scenes cooperation,” Visclosky said.
As for the detractors who say the Indiana Dunes is not in the same league as Yosemite and the Everglades, Visclosky said its location near a large urban population and its ecological biodiversity make it a rare gem to be preserved.
In 1916, Stephan Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, proposed national park status for the Indiana Dunes. The movement was stalled with the U.S. entry into World War 1. Preservationists, like Charlotte Read, kept the fight up.
“We’re here to celebrate the history of land 103 years in the making,” said Indiana National Dunes Park Superintendent Paul Labovitz.