Herb and Charlotte Read have spent a lifetime involved in conservation of the Indiana dunes. As a young boy, Herb took walks with his family in the singing sands, identifying prickly pear cactus, hairy puccoon, and pitcher plant. He fell in love with the dunes, and so when he met and fell in love with Charlotte, they eventually made the dunes their home. Together they raised their five children in a house just a stone’s throw from the entrance to the Indiana Dunes State Park and they lived until old age in another home located in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the park they helped to fight to establish along with Dorothy Buell and members of Save the Dunes. They fought the construction of a nuclear power plant in the dunes, one that was so time consuming and intense that Herb even lost his job as an architect for a Chicago firm. They opposed industry in the dunes, and pollution, and development because this was their beloved dunes, their home, and it needed a protector. Now in their mid-80s they still attend civic meetings and voice their opinions and save their dunes. “People ask me all the time, aren’t the dunes already saved? No, they’re not,” says Charlotte.
The shores of Lake Michigan are a place unlike any other in the world. Deposits of glacial till left thousands of years ago resulted in a biodiversity studied by ecologists and admired by tourists. We are privileged to live in an area so rich with diverse nature. So why then is this landscape at risk? Why is it no safer now than it was 50, even 100 years ago? Because of its link to international waterways, its resources, and its popularity, our dunes still face challenges today, some new, and some old.
The Indiana dunes are generally protected by both the Indiana Dunes State Park and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Legislation for designation of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore passed in 1966 and due to bureaucracy; establishment was not effective until 1972. The Indiana Dunes State Park legislation was passed in 1923 and was opened in 1926. There are 2,182 acres in the Indiana Dunes State Park today and nearly 13,000 acres in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshores (some estimates say 15,000 but that tally includes the state park property).
Brandt Baughman, manager of the Indiana Dunes State Park, says that throughout these many acres, one menace threatens the wildlife from dune to forest, from bog to oak savanna—invasive species. “Invasive species are our primary concern. We typically have a crew of two people that are dedicated solely to resource management at the State Park and their time is spent on invasive species control. We focus garlic mustard, Japanese barberry, bush honeysuckle, Canada thistle, burning bush, Lombardy poplar, and phragmites which are ubiquitous on the roadsides and difficult to control. One of the emerging concerns is with lyme grass, an invasive beach grass that we are starting to see and it is particularly aggressive. The removal is based on species and the time of the year. Some we rely on hand pulling, others we simply spray, and others we hand wick and apply herbicide to each individual plant,” says Baughman.
What is the threat with unassuming plants, some of which can be quite pretty? Baughman explains, “With aggressive species, they can be either native or exotic. Exotic invasives, since they aren’t native to this area, tend to come in and take over. It will ultimately become a monoculture and you lose your biodiversity which is what is so unique about this area, the ecological biodiversity. We will also do control of aggressive native species such as the sassafras. The key is early detection and rapid response. So if you’re out hiking on a trail and see invasive species, please let a park ranger know. Don’t assume we know about it because we might not know it’s there.” The Indiana Dunes State Park as well as the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore also conduct prescribed burns, not to eradicate invasive species, but to encourage many dormant seeds, saplings, and plants to oxygenate and grow through extinguished debris. They conduct these burns in the spring with expert staff and fire personnel who replicate a historically natural process.
Cathy Martin, parks program coordinator for the Save the Dunes Conservation Fund, confirms that their focus is on eradicating invasive species as well as protecting biodiversity. Martin says, “Invasive species are a major threat to the dunes especially to the parks. The National Park is one of the top five most bio diverse in the country and invasive species threaten that biodiversity—the rare wildlife and plant life, and the fragmentation of the parks contributes to that. Roads, neighborhoods, and industry break up the parks, which contributes to the spread of the species. It’s just part of the park, part of the character, but it brings a whole level of challenges that other parks don’t have to deal with.”
Martin says that with 15,000 acres of dunes in Northwest Indiana, the challenge of invasive species eradication comes down to money. “All parks across the country have faced huge budget cuts which lead to reduction in the number of rangers, a reduction in wildlife monitoring, reduced maintenance capacity, and weakened resource management. These cutbacks threaten the health of our national park and without adequate funding and staff resources, the parks are more vulnerable to invasive species, less resilient to the impact of climate, and suffer habitat degradation from decreased restoration efforts,” she says. Martin encourages people who are interested in helping to fight this issue to go to their website, savedunes.org. “There is a section called Take Action with a link to support a proposed budget for the next fiscal year to fund the national parks in conjunction with the centennial initiative. In addition, there are volunteer and educational opportunities. The national park really loves volunteers on work days, helping with stewardship efforts. We also organize hikes to get people to realize the resource they have in their backyard. It’s so amazing to take a few steps out and be in a national park. That can motivate people to take action,” she says.
Kameron Jordon with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Water Resources Division says that invasive species are also a challenge to the dunes in Michigan, but other threats have been sufficiently minimized. “We have similar challenges as Indiana, but we have a lot more shoreline than Indiana. We have dunes on Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, and Lake Superior so we have a lot more dune challenges because we have a lot more dunes. Invasive species that can out compete the native species are a challenge here as well, but industrial pollution is not that big of a deal. We have some sand mining but these areas are pretty isolated and defined and historical. One of the things we keep a close eye on is general development in the dunes, and not all sand dunes in Michigan are protected. We have a law that we administer in my office which protect the most sensitive dunes,” Jordan says.
Approximately 74,000 acres were designated as Critical Dune Areas (CDAs) in 1989 and are protected by this law called the Sand Dunes Protection and Management, of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act (NREPA).The critical dune areas represent the tallest and most spectacular dunes along Lake Michigan's shoreline in the lower and upper peninsulas, and the shores of Lake Superior. “The purpose of the statute is to balance for present and future generations the benefits of protecting, preserving, restoring, and enhancing the diversity, quality, functions, and values of the state’s critical dunes with the benefits of economic development and multiple human uses of the critical dunes, and the benefits of public access to and enjoyment of the critical dunes,” states the Department of Environmental Quality website.
Brad Wurfel, director of communications for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality says that other threats to the dunes include rising and falling lake levels. “We just bottomed out on our 30 year low on the lake. They’ve been going down for 15 years and that will have an impact on coastal wetlands,” he says. “We do have good laws to protect the dunes but the dunes are always eyed for development and we always get a big fight every time someone wants to build in the dunes,” says Wurfel.
For the Reads, staying vigilant to prevent pollution, land encroachment, and development from destroying their beloved dunes is a way to ensure the region’s beauty can still be enjoyed by their many grandchildren, and for generations to come. Among the organizations they suggest to those who want to get involved, Herb and Charlotte cite Save the Dunes, the National Parks Conservation Association, and the Isaak Walton League.