Recently, an environmental law professor by the name of John Copeland Nagle released an editorial on the potential Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore name change, sharing that the upgrade to a National Park would be a “horrible thing” and “would jeopardize over a century’s worth of effort to ensure that ‘national park’ refers to a place that is incredibly special.” Frankly, we disagree. We feel quite strongly that the Indiana dunes have earned this designation and this region is a shining example of something incredibly special. In response to Nagle’s editorial, our friend and colleague, Patty Wisniewski, has written the following, which we are delighted to share with you today.

Why the Indiana Dunes should be named a National Park

John Copeland Nagle’s editorial against the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore becoming a National Park sorely minimizes the ecological and historical significance of the Indiana Dunes. A National Park, by definition, is an area of special scenic, historical, or scientific importance set aside and maintained by a national government and—in the United States—by an act of Congress. To not know the ecology or history of the Indiana Dunes is to not know its significance to our area, our country, and the world.

A little over a century ago, Stephen Mather—the first National Park Service director—first proposed the Indiana Dunes area as a national park. Mather recognized the significance of the Indiana Dunes and the need for a national park within proximity to a large metropolitan area like Chicago. His proposal also aimed to safeguard the Indiana Dunes’ spectacular landscape of dunes, woodlands, wetlands and unsurpassed biological diversity. No other place in North America maintains a large variety of ecosystems concentrated within 15,000 acres as our Indiana Dunes.

The Indiana Dunes is one of America’s most studied landscapes and is considered to be the birthplace of ecological science. The dunes intersect two of North Americas Biomes: the Prairie/Grasslands and the Eastern Deciduous Forest. Ten different ecosystems, from prairie to swamp to marsh to forest to dune, cross boundaries here—bringing plants from the North, South, East and West. This means an arctic bearberry can be found growing next to prickly-pear cactus!

Nearly as many native plant species (1,135) exist in our relatively small conservation area as in all of Great Britain. (The National Park Service ranks Indiana Dunes 7th for its unusual plant variety.) Furthermore, several ecosystems within the Indiana Dunes are so incredibly rare that they exist practically nowhere else on the planet, giving the Indiana Dunes globally significant natural resources. They include the Dune and Swale topography and the Black Oak Savannah. Toping all of that, its location at the base of Lake Michigan helps it to attract over 350 different species of birds.

At the time of Mather’s proposal, word of the dunes ecological significance had spread among American scientists, bird watchers, outdoor enthusiast and across the globe.  Mather’s hearings for the proposal turned out national figures in favor of conserving the landscape. Proponents included famed architect Jens Jensen; America’s Honorary Poet Laureate Carl Sandburg; and the head of Sears, Roebuck and Company Julius Rosenwald.

Jens Jensen said of the dunes: “Of all the national parks and monuments donated by Congress to the American people, there is none more valuable and none more useful to the people of the Middle West than the dune country of northern Indiana. […] It is the only landscape of its kind within reach of the millions that need its softening influence for the restoration of their souls and the balance of their minds.”

World wars, economic collapse, and demand for personal vehicles placed the proposal on the back burner. The location of the Indiana Dunes landscape became the driver for steel production—steel used for tanks, planes and automobiles. We gave part of our landscape for the good of the country.

Although the national park never materialized as proposed in 1916, its proposal sparked a movement: one that spanned several decades and cultivated environmental policies with worldwide impact. In fact, the clash over the Indiana Dunes inspired the National Park Service to create its first park in an urban setting (the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore); gave rise to Earth’s first environmental act (the National Environmental Policy Act), now used in over 100 countries; and fostered the largest and oldest citizens’ environmental organization dedicated to the protection of the Great Lakes: the Lake Michigan Federation, now known as the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Our Indiana Dunes is a special place. For all the reasons above, and so many more, we believe that the Indiana Dunes on Lake Michigan’s southern shore has earned the right to become our nation’s 60th National Park.  It meets every criteria of the definition of a national park in incredibly special ways that no other national park can.

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