PORTAGE — A leader in the effort to create a Calumet National Heritage Area told board members of the Northwestern Indiana Planning Commission on Thursday that 2016 could be a big year for the effort.
Mark Bouman, Chicago region program director for The Field Museum, said the Calumet Heritage Partnership is continuing work on a feasibility study for a heritage area, which must be designated by the U.S. Congress.
The area would be anchored by the Pullman National Monument on the west and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore on the east. The National Park Service is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year; the national lakeshore is celebrating its 50th; and the state of Indiana is celebrating its bicentennial, Bouman noted.
"These are all occasions to try to get the feasibility study done," he said.
Thursday's presentation was just a day before another anniversary — the Pullman National Monument's first. President Barack Obama visited the Pullman neighborhood on Feb. 19, 2015, to sign the declaration creating the monument.
"With the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, there's now an opportunity to think of them together as a unit," Bouman said.
The two National Park Service sites exemplify the breadth of natural, industrial, social and ethnic character contained within the area along Lake Michigan defined by the Grand and Little Calumet rivers, heritage area supporters say.
The oil refinery, steel mills and accompanying industries prompted efforts to save the area's natural habitats, which formed an ecological meeting place of diverse plant and animal life. Industry also attracted working families of diverse ethnic heritage.
The area presents "a juxtaposition of people, industry and environment that you see coming together here like nowhere else in the country," Bouman said.
There are 49 national heritage areas nation-wide, Bouman said. The first, designated in 1984, was the Illinois & Michigan Canal.
He said the Calumet Heritage Partnership will solicit public comment on the heritage area project in May. To gain approval, it's necessary to justify the heritage area's designation and demonstrate its sustainability "in a way that's coherent and strategic."
National heritage areas are not controlled by the National Park Service, but generally have its support. The service defines them as "places where natural, cultural and historic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape."
As "lived-in landscapes," administrators of the areas "collaborate with communities to determine how to make heritage relevant to local interests and needs."
"It is a way to think about the landscape in general, as a unit," Bouman said.
NIRPC Executive Director Ty Warner called The Field Museum "a great partner for Northwest Indiana."
"We're very excited," he said of the heritage area project. "We're glad to be a part of it."