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Line In The Sand

After a century of abuse, the Indiana Dunes finally earned National Park status this past winter. Is the Dunes’ promotion a one-time victory for conservation in Indiana, or the start of a new era of environmental activism in the state?

One evening in 1949, Dorothy Buell and her husband were on their way to dinner in Gary when she saw a poster in a hotel lobby announcing a meeting of the Indiana Dunes Preservation Council. She decided to attend. It was a choice, made in an instant, that would change Indiana’s history and one day lead to permanent protection of the state’s most endangered natural wonder.

Buell, an English teacher from Ogden Dunes, left the meeting that night inspired. Development and industrialization, she learned, were already destroying her beloved dunes. Soon, there wouldn’t be much of them left. Having discovered the fight that would define the rest of her life, she founded the Save the Dunes Council, a grassroots organization made up only of women at the time. Buell and other activists launched a national petition drive to support creation of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, gaining 500,000 signatures.

Unfortunately for the budding environmentalists, they faced opposition from Indiana’s top political and business leaders. For thousands of years, sand dunes, formed by waves and wind coming off Lake Michigan, towered all along the southern shoreline. By the middle of the 20th century, many of those had been destroyed to make way for smokestacks. Development of the lakeshore, which would lead to further destruction of the dunes, had become a priority for Indiana’s legislature. The congressional delegation was united behind an effort to establish a new industrial area called the Port of Indiana. Buell and her team gained little traction for conservation among political leaders from their home state, but they did find an ally in Illinois Senator Paul Douglas, who agreed to lead the campaign to save the dunes. In 1966, both sides claimed victory. Congress passed compromise legislation that created the Port of Indiana and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

In the spirit of Dorothy Buell, Hoosier conservationists strived for the next five decades to convince the federal government to take the next logical step and make the Indiana Dunes a national park. That effort finally succeeded in February, when President Donald Trump signed a spending bill that promoted the dunes to the group that includes Yosemite and Yellowstone. Although the distinction doesn’t come with much federal money or additional protection, it’s a clear win for those who fought so long to secure it.

What’s less clear is what Indiana Dunes National Park means for the future of conservation here. The newly designated park wraps around a power plant and an enormous steel mill in Burns Harbor. Natural areas from the White River to Yellowwood State Forest remain threatened by logging and pollution. Is the long-sought-after national-park designation an isolated victory, or do state environmentalists finally have momentum after decades of desecration?

Sadly, the state park’s creation didn’t come in time to save what once was Indiana’s largest dune … A natural treasure built over millennia was lost in a few years to profit and convenience.

A mile off Route 12, along a trail that cuts through the Porter County woodlands, the persistent buzz of highway traffic disappears. Only the skittering of gray squirrels in the brush and the honking of Canada geese overhead break the solitude. Around a bend in the trail, the steep slope of a pale white dune rises above the trees. Sand shifts beneath every step upward, but the reward for reaching the crest is immediate. Lake Michigan’s royal-blue water laps against an empty beach. A lone gull glides above the waves.

“The dunes are a remarkable glimpse at what Indiana looked like 10,000 years ago,” says John Ketzenberger, director of government relations at the Nature Conservancy in Indiana. “We think of Northwest Indiana as a hub of industry. But Northwestern Indiana is as biodiverse as any place in the state.”

Although it remains relatively unknown, the Indiana Dunes played a role in the birthplace of ecology. In 1899, University of Chicago botanist Henry Cowles published landmark research on how the dunes’ weather-driven, rapidly changing environment affected a wide variety of plants and animals. Cowles’s work caught the attention of environmental leaders such as Stephen Mather, the National Park Service’s first director, who in 1916 pushed for the creation of a Sand Dunes National Park. The United States’ entry into World War I halted that drive, but in 1925, with the support of Cowles and others, Indiana Dunes State Park was established.

Sadly, the state park’s creation didn’t come in time to save what once was Indiana’s largest dune. The 200-foot-tall Hoosier Slide was hauled away by the boxcar load to the Ball Brothers’ canning-jar factory in Muncie and the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company’s operations in Kokomo. A natural treasure built over millennia was lost in a few years to profit and convenience.

That pattern of critical gains and heart-rending losses repeated over the next 50 years. In the early 1950s, Buell and her partners in the Save the Dunes Council purchased the Cowles Tamarack Bog, a wetland so unique that scientists visited from around the world to study its biodiversity. But after nearby dunes were removed in the 1960s, invasive plants began to take over the bog and push out native species.

Today, the state Department of Natural Resources estimates that 85 percent of the wetlands that existed in Indiana 200 years ago have been lost. Most were drained for farming. Indiana ranks ninth in the nation for the amount of electricity produced from coal-fired plants and has more coal ash ponds, which can leak toxins into the water table, than any other state. In 2018, U.S. News & World Report ranked Indiana 46th in the nation for the health of its natural environment, based on data related to drinking-water quality, urban air quality, and the release of industrial toxins.

“But surveys show that 80 percent of Hoosiers say that nature is important to them. We try to remind our political leaders of that at every opportunity.”
John Ketzenberger, Nature Conservancy in Indiana

“The general feeling is that we’re not a state that makes conservation a high priority,” Ketzenberger says. “But surveys show that 80 percent of Hoosiers say that nature is important to them. We try to remind our political leaders of that at every opportunity.”

The environmental movement in Indiana has gained some momentum in recent years with the launch of the Indiana Conservation Alliance, an umbrella organization designed to coordinate state environmental groups’ efforts. Ketzenberger expects the cooperation to focus on what has sometimes been a scattered message. “We’re going to make a business case, a wellness case, and a natural beauty case for conservation,” he says.

That optimism is tempered, however, by long-standing reality. Just as most of Indiana’s political and business leaders favored economic development above environmental protection during the dunes struggle in the 1950s and ’60s, today’s state representatives and executives rarely side with conservationists.
Even land set aside for conservation is not truly off-limits for commercial use. In 2017, the state authorized the sale of timber rights on nearly 300 acres of the backcountry in Yellowwood State Forest. In response, the Indiana Forest Alliance rallied more than 200 citizens at a protest in the forest, and about the same number of scientists signed a letter recommending that Governor Eric Holcomb halt logging in the backcountry. “Save Yellowwood” yard signs became fixtures for months in front of thousands of homes throughout the state, and more than 5,000 people contacted Holcomb’s office asking him to block the timber sale. A poll of Indiana citizens during that period, commissioned by the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, found that 70 percent of respondents said governments needed to do more to address environmental issues, and a majority said protecting the environment should be a priority even if it means slower economic growth. Despite the public outcry, though, Holcomb refused to intervene. Loggers cut down more than 1,700 trees in the Yellowwood backcountry.

It wasn’t by accident that much of Indianapolis was built with its back to the river. Who wanted to see and smell what the current brought from upstream?

Perhaps such losses make the occasional victories even more significant. One of those wins is playing out now in what was long one of Indiana’s most polluted waterways. From the days of the first settlers in Central Indiana, the White River was used as a dumping ground. Human sewage, animal waste, industrial chemicals, and almost anything else that was no longer needed or too dangerous to keep was discharged into the river’s murky brown water.

It wasn’t by accident that much of Indianapolis was built with its back to the river. Who wanted to see and smell what the current brought from upstream? That is changing, however. The first section of a 28-mile tunnel designed to divert millions of gallons of raw sewage from the river came online in 2017, the result of an agreement more than a decade earlier involving the U.S. Department of Justice, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

The prospect of a cleaner river prompted the city of Indianapolis and Hamilton County Tourism Inc. in 2018 to commission a plan to redevelop 58 miles of waterway, including new parks, trails, and even a floating stage. “The White River is Central Indiana’s next frontier,” the plan’s vision statement declares.
The waterway’s ongoing transformation is a glimpse of what’s possible in reversing years of abuse and neglect of Indiana’s environment. What’s so often missing is the leadership needed to save what remains.

To find a political leader from Indiana who fully appreciated the importance of conservation requires a trip back to 1889 and the presidency of Benjamin Harrison. As a U.S. senator, Harrison won approval of legislation that limited development in Yellowstone National Park. He also proposed preserving land on the Colorado River that eventually became a part of Grand Canyon National Park. While in the White House, Harrison championed legislation that allowed for creation of forest preserves, and he used his new authority to save more than 13 million acres of undeveloped nature, including Pikes Peak in Colorado. Harrison, the only president from Indiana, also established Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant (now Kings Canyon) as national parks during his one term as commander in chief.

“The public interest and support are there. But we need a commitment in both executive leadership and in investments by the state.”
Tim Maloney, Hoosier Environmental Council
Yet in modern times, few leaders from Indiana have established a strong environmental record. Tim Maloney, senior policy director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, notes that former Governor Mitch Daniels helped the state make important strides with the creation of the Bicentennial Nature Trust and the Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area near Linton. And Republican Senator Todd Young and Democratic Representative Pete Visclosky worked to ensure that the provision establishing Indiana Dunes National Park remained in the spending bill. But there haven’t been enough consistent, influential voices for the environment among Indiana’s state and federal leaders.

“We are overdue for another conservation leader in elected office in Indiana,” Maloney says. “The public interest and support are there. But we need a commitment in both executive leadership and in investments by the state.”

In Indiana’s Statehouse, conservation-minded lawmakers often struggle to be heard. State Senator John Ruckelshaus, an Indianapolis Republican, introduced legislation in January that would have established a state commission charged with creating a plan to manage state forests for the next century. Representative Matt Pierce, a Bloomington Democrat, introduced a similar proposal in the House. Both bills failed to advance. In March, Representative Carey Hamilton, an Indianapolis Democrat, proposed a no-cut policy along backcountry trails in state forests. The Indiana House rejected that idea as well.

Hamilton, first elected in 2016, is perhaps the local lawmaker best prepared to lead on environmental issues. A former executive director of the Indiana Recycling Coalition and a former manager with the state Department of Environmental Management, she worked on a variety of environmental issues professionally for more than 20 years before taking public office. But she faces a high hurdle in advancing any environmental legislation: She’s a Democrat in a Statehouse that is firmly controlled by Republicans.

Ketzenberger cites U.S. Senator Mike Braun, a Republican elected last November, as a potential ally with more clout. “We’re hopeful he will be,” he says. “He has large forest holdings that he manages well, and he hired former Jasper Mayor Terry Seitz as his state outreach director.” During his time as mayor, Seitz led the push to convert the failed Jasper Country Club into The Parklands, a 75-acre nature park that now includes ponds, wetlands, and miles of walking trails. The outreach director has Braun’s ear, and conservationists consider him friendly to their cause.

For now, environmentalists will have to wait and see which—if any—of these politicians emerge as committed advocates for the few remaining natural areas here. The Indiana Dunes may finally be a National Park, but sand is slipping through the hourglass for much of the rest of the state.

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