It takes only a few minutes’ conversation with the retiring superintendent of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to realize that this is a man who has taken others’ play seriously. Costa Dillon speaks quietly but urgently about the treasures of the park and his efforts to keep them from being squandered. For six years it’s been his job to oversee this national park, a staggering task considering its 50,000 acres, 32 miles over 3 counties – 15 of them on the Lake Michigan Shoreline – and 300 feet into the lake.
Dillon has been responsible for management of the entire park and its 3 million yearly visitors, 200 employees, a budget of $11 million, two fire stations with 17 paid firefighters, and law enforcement including federal officers and park rangers.
“It’s like running a small town,” says Dillion.
After 35 years in park management, Dillon, 59, will retire at the end of August. “I’ll find something to do,” he says with a smile, though it’s hard to imagine his being very far from park work.
On his office walls are photographs taken at other national parks, including Yellowstone Park, where he recalls the management of a large wildfire, and Independence Hall, where he conducted tours. A banner is filled with pins from various assignments, including surveying the damage to the national park in Manhattan after 9/11.
“Every day is a challenge,” he says good-naturedly, and adds, “But every day there are things you feel good about accomplishing.
“The best is knowing that we’re preserving something for the nation. The White House, Mount Rushmore, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Everglades – all are in national parks. When you think of the images of the country, chances are they’re in one of our 401 national parks.”
Dillon came to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore from managing a basic training center at the Grand Canyon. “It was great; I never got tired of the park.”
It’s easy to see that he hasn’t tired of work at the Dunes. His big brown eyes are earnest as he explains one of the biggest threats to Indiana’s famous dunes.
“Right now we need for people not to climb up and down the dunes using what we call ‘social paths’: -- random paths people create that are not the park’s designated paths.”
He gets up and shows a map of West Beach with its spider-web pattern of paths. “Using those random paths kills the indigenous grasses like marron grass. Those roots help anchor the sand dunes, and when those roots are gone, erosion occurs, and we lose more of the dunes.”
Dillon’s own moves over 35 years and acquiring a master’s in public administration have meant promotions. After his August retirement, his next move, with his wife of 22 years, will mean teaching park management and policy at the University of New Hampshire.
“That will be a transitional time for me,” he says with a smile. ”I’ll always be doing something.”