Chesterton Tribune

Dillon's No. 1 goal: To see Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore survive

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By KEVIN NEVERS

What is Superintendent Constantine Dillon’s vision for Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore 20 years into the future?

In a word, its sheer survival.

As Dillon told an audience of around 25 on Thursday night at the Dorothy Buell Memorial Visitor Center, in the latest in a series of Q/A sessions, the “greatest threat to the park is invasive species and the loss of biodiversity.”

That threat comes, however, from a number of directions, Dillon said: not only from invasives but from the combined sewer overflows which, more or less regularly, dump raw sewage into the Little Calumet River and Lake Michigan; from continual encroachments on the park’s 120 miles of boundary, by folks who build fences or install swing sets, knowingly or unknowingly on National Lakeshore property; from the jeopardy into which visitors place the dunes by hiking them or picnicking on them, destroying the marram grass which stabilizes the dunes; and by the obstruction of natural sand transport, which has reduced the beach at Mt. Baldy to a shade of what it once was.

“That’s the primary concern to me,” Dillon said: “Will the integrity of the ecology of the park be here in the future?”

In a session which lasted longer than 90 minutes, Dillon addressed a wide range of questions about the National Lakeshore, took a few complaints, and did--when the issue was raised, as it was a few times--rehearse once again the history of the cessation of operations this season at Chellberg Farm.

Parking? A Lodge?

Why, an audience member wanted to know, is “there no place to park” at the National Lakeshore and why no lodge?

Dillon responded by noting first that parking becomes an issue typically only on busy summer weekends, “when the joke is we become the National Parking Service, we spend so much time dealing with parking issues.” But figure only 12 such weekends a season, 24 days a year. The rest of the time visitors usually find parking facilities sufficient.

Even so, Dillon said, “there’s not much land in the park suitable for parking.”

Some national parks charge an entrance fee, the proceeds from which could be used to establish a shuttle service. But that’s not an option at the National Lakeshore, Dillon said, because there simply is no place to put a gate. Yet visitors to the other national parks with shuttle services tend anyway to eschew that service when they possibly can, preferring to park as close as they can to the beach, since it’s such a hassle to find room on the shuttles for their coolers, umbrellas, and other paraphernalia.

A lodge, on the other hand, would be a concession, which would have to be not only “necessary” to the park but “appropriate,” Dillon said. Whenever possible, the National Park Service (NPS) wants visitors to get their services outside national parks. In the case of Duneland, there are three separate municipalities adjacent to the National Lakeshore with “plenty of hotels,” and using park land where there is private land available for hotel development would be “inappropriate.”

Dillon said one other thing. “In the National Park Service superintendents are often rewarded for building things. I’ve spent most of my career trying not to build things. This park is too fragile to allow much development.”

Economic Driver

On the subject of development, Dillon did say that, for him, it’s a little “mysterious” how little the business community in Duneland uses the National Park as “an economic driver.”

“There’s not much economic connection with the park,” he said. “There are twice as many visitors every year to the National Lakeshore as there are to the Everglades but there aren’t many tourism dollars going to Chesterton, Porter, Gary. We want people to get their services outside the park. If people are making money from the park, they’re less likely to kill the golden egg. And that’s okay. Everyone forms emotional attachments in their own way.”

Sand Transport

The session actually opened with a question about beach erosion. What is the status of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative?

Dillon said that he was disappointed in an early draft of the plan, as it contained a lot about wetlands and rocky shorelines but very little about a problem which--he admitted--is not widespread: the obstruction of natural sand transport on the southern shore of Lake Michigan by such “groins” as the Michigan City breakwater, the Bailly Generating Station, and the former Bethlehem Steel Corporation facility in Burns Harbor. Sand which a century ago was moving generally east to west and replenishing the beaches is now caught by those groins.

The real problem, Dillon explained, is that to this point no genuine permanent solution exists, only temporary ones like sand replenishment where there is no sand and dredging where there’s too much of it. “But temporary solutions aren’t long-term solutions to permanent problems because you have to do it forever,” he said.

Enforcement

A Beverly Shores resident wanted to know what the NPS can do about enforcement in the National Lakeshore, when it comes to things like fireworks, and whether the National Lakeshore can use the fines paid by violators to--for instance--fund the return of animals to Chellberg Farm.

The answer to the second question is no, Dillon said. All fines collected go straight to the federal treasury, which uses the proceeds to fund a program for battered women and children “That’s where federal fine money goes. There’s no incentive to write tickets.”

Enforcement in any case is a problematic issue, Dillon remarked, given the fact that he has a total of only six rangers, down from 22 in the past, and at any given time only two of those six are actually on duty.

There is a 24-hour dispatch center at the National Lakeshore--which, Dillon said, actually serves every national park in the Great Lakes--which he encouraged people to call to report crimes: at (800) PARK TIP. Even so, while rangers are on call in the middle of the night, they are not actively on duty. Officers from the Tri-Town municipal police departments do, though, have authority to respond to calls in the National Lakeshore involving violations of state law.

To the resident’s suggestion that signs be erected listing park violations and possible fines, Dillon said that signs have a variable efficacy, that NPS couldn’t possibly list all rules on a sign, but that it has hired a consultant who is currently developing a signage plan for the National Lakeshore. Of course, he added, it will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to implement the study, when it’s completed.

Wetlands, Mosquitos, Litter

Four comments from the floor: (1) The “slime” in the Beverly Shores wetlands is not attractive and neither are the trees falling into the wetlands. (2) Mosquitos from the wetlands are a problem. (3) The parking lot at West Beach is strewn with litter, and undercover staff should be assigned to ticket litterers in the act. (4) A handicapped ramp near one of the World’s Fair houses in Beverly Shores needs to be unburied from the sand.

Re: wetlands. “I know it doesn’t look good but it’s natural,” Dillon said. “Sometimes beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Dead trees provide a lot of habitat for birds and other wildlife.”

Re: mosquitos: “A healthy marsh is not a major mosquito breeding ground,” Dillon said. “Most mosquitos are from backyards, from uncleaned gutters, tires, coffee cans.” He added that so long as mosquitos are only a nuisance, visitors must put up with the nuisance. When they become a health risk, then NPS works with the local county health department. In any case, spraying for mosquitos kills every insect and butterfly, not just the mosquitos.

Re: litter. No argument from Dillon on the state of the West Beach parking lot. It can be bad. “We will clean it up,” he said. “But it’s not necessarily something we can get to as soon as you see it. But we will get to it.” NPS cannot, however, justify the tasking of rangers to combat litterers. “Most of the time they’re handling emergencies. There’s no time to write litters tickets. We just have too few people.”

Re: the handicapped ramp. Dillon said that he would look into the issue.

Donations

Dillon also fielded two questions about donations: (1) Why are there no donation boxes at the National Lakeshore? (2) Why are the Friends of the Dunes no longer permitted to take donations at the Chellberg Farm parking lot during events?

NPS is allowed to install donations boxes--called “mute” boxes--which must state the uses to which the donations will be put. But donation boxes become “vandalism targets” and it’s difficult to design a crime-proof box.

But “it’s against the law to solicit donations in a national park,” Dillon said. “It’s against the law. We cannot charge admission to Chellberg Farm.”

“Is that a new law?”

“No,” Dillon said.

“So we’ve been breaking the law for all those years?”

“Yes,” Dillon said. “We can have mute donation boxes. But you can’t ask for or solicit donations.”

That’s a matter of interpretation.

“A mute donation box is permitted,” Dillon repeated. “A solicitation of donations is not.”

Outreach and Visitor Center

Whatever happened to the Singing Sands, one woman wanted to know.

It’s still published but now accessible on line, Dillon said. Visit www.nps.gov/indu Or, he added, you can tweet him at http://twitter.com/indianadunesnl

Why are there no permanent displays from the National Lakeshore at the Dorothy Buell Memorial Visitor Center?

Because, Dillon said, the Visitor Center is not federal property and federal funds cannot be expended to place exhibits in it. NPS leases space in the Visitor Center from the Porter County Convention, Recreation, and Visitor Commission, so any exhibits must be portable and temporary.

Chellberg Farm

There were questions about Chellberg Farm, and Dillon repeated his position. This year the Interpretive Division informed him that its staff could no longer care properly for the animals, in the absence of a farmer. “It was their decision,” he said. “They just didn’t have the ability to care for the animals. Admittedly, I wish they had told me a lot sooner. I also wish they had said last fall they couldn’t put crops in this season. I’m not opposed to animals but we have a lot of other things to do: litter, parking, beach safety.”

Dillon, noting that two visitors drowned last year during the summer swim season and a third after the season, added that a more pressing “issue for us was the loss of life last summer.” So NPS made it “a priority this year to ramp up funding on beach safety.”

After the meeting Dillon and Deputy Superintendent Gary Traynham told the Chesterton Tribune that those funds were expended on a “multi-pronged approach to beach safety,” including the assignment of staff to walk the beaches, particularly on days when rip currents are forecast, informing visitors of the potential dangers presented by swimming in Lake Michigan and the erection of additional signage warning visitors of those dangers.

NPS is referring visitors, moreover, to weather.com for real-time rip-current advisories, as issued by the National Weather Service.

NPS also has “brought in an intern, a graduate student at the Columbia University Public School of Safety, to assess the quantity and quality of safety information available in the National Lakeshore and to make recommendations.”

In addition, NPS has gotten a lot more aggressive in enforcing personal watercraft violations in National Lakeshore waters, has issued a number of citations, and is currently repairing a patrol boat as part of that enforcement initiative.

Tonight

At 6:30 p.m. today Dillon will hold another Q/A session at the National Lakeshore’s Dunewood Campground Amphitheater at 1 Golfwood Road in Beverly Shores.

 

 

Posted 8/7/2009