CHESTERTON — The 15,000-acre Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore that runs for 15 miles along Lake Michigan on Friday was re-designated by President Donald Trump as America's 61st national park — and the first national park in Indiana.
House Joint Resolution 31, which provides $1.4 billion for Mexican border fencing demanded by Trump, also includes a provision long sought by Region leaders to recognize the national lakeshore as a national park.
"I am heartened that because of the support of our U.S. senators, the entire Indiana congressional delegation, and numerous Northwest Indiana organizations, we have successfully titled the first national park in our state," said U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Gary, who led the Indiana Dunes National Park effort.
"This action provides our shoreline with the recognition it deserves, and I hope further builds momentum to improve open and public access to all of our Region's environmental wonders."
The change is not expected to affect funding or operations at the national lakeshore, and the neighboring Indiana Dunes State Park will remain a separate park run by the state of Indiana.
But the change could have a major impact because of the strength of the national parks brand.
"Congratulations to us," South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority President and CEO Speros Batistatos said.
"It seems like a relatively small change, but a lot of punch is packed into the word park. People know what a national park is and what experiences to expect at a national park. They have finally aligned our magnificent lakefront to the name it deserves. More people will come visit the dunes, because to the traveling public a national park is more desirable than a national monument or a national heritage site.
"We'll get more recognition of our spectacular assets, because they changed a word. It's a word that has a lot of power."
The Indiana Dunes is already Indiana's top tourist attraction with 3.6 million visitors in 2018, Indiana Dunes Tourism Promotions Director Dustin Ritchea said. Combine attendance at the state and national parks, and Indiana Dunes is expected to be the equivalent of the seventh most visited national park in the country after Yellowstone.
"It flip-flops with Brown County as No. 1 in the state," Ritchea said. "Now it will be in a very elite group nationally."
Indiana Dunes Tourism recently put out a series of Dunes 101 videos on YouTube and is now looking at ramping up international marketing to Germany and Japan. It also plans to market to pet owners, since the Indiana Dunes is pet-friendly, and to Chicagoans by letting them know they can take bikes on the South Shore Line to Indiana Dunes National Park.
"It's an outdoor adventure just 45 minutes southeast of Chicago," Ritchea said. "It's no longer a bucket trip destination. Now it's a repeat destination."
U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Elkhart, said she is "thrilled" the Hoosier state now has a national park and that it is the Indiana Dunes.
"The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore has long been a treasured place for Hoosiers to relax, explore, and enjoy all that nature has to offer, as well as a strong driver of our local economy," Walorski said.
"The Indiana Dunes National Park will draw even more visitors from across the country, strengthening Indiana's economy and boosting the outdoor recreation industry that is so vital to our region."
U.S. Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., credited Visclosky's "tireless advocacy" for making the change from a national lakeshore to a national park possible.
"I commend Rep. Visclosky for his perseverance on this important Hoosier priority," Young said. "This designation certifies what we Hoosiers have known all along — Indiana Dunes is not just a state treasure, but a national treasure as well."
"I look forward to visiting Indiana's first national park very soon."
The legislation signed by Trump also renames the 1.6-mile Miller Woods trail in the new national park as the Paul H. Douglas Trail, in honor of the Illinois U.S. senator who helped establish the national lakeshore in 1966.
The change to a national park is not expected to result in any immediate programming or facilities changes at the former national lakeshore — other than a lot of new signs.
The National Park Service will continue operating the park. Indiana Dunes National Park also will remain separate from Indiana Dunes State Park, which still is state-owned and under the auspices of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
Tourism officials expect the national park designation will help draw even more visitors to Northwest Indiana to see the park's woodlands, prairies, savannas, bogs, wetlands and, of course, the sand dunes, which reach heights up to 192 feet.
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"The Indiana Dunes National Park is Indiana's first national park, and will be a significant boon to Indiana's economic development, specifically tourism, which already pumps $476 million into our economy annually," said Lorelei Weimer, executive director of Indiana Dunes Tourism.
"From a marketing perspective, the national park status will put our destination into an elite group of 61 national parks and will significantly increase our already successful marketing initiatives for our region."
National parks have a strong reputation after more than a century of advertising and acclaim, such as in Ken Burns's "National Parks: America's Best Idea" documentary on PBS. Some people make it a bucket list item to visit all the national parks, and many Midwesterners could decide to visit or vacation at the Indiana Dunes because it's the closest national park to them, Batistatos said.
"These are some of the most spectacular natural attractions, and states like Utah promote their national parks in ads and billboards," Batistatos said.
"It's truly a brand that's deeply ingrained in the traveling public. And we have a magnificent attraction with incredible environmental and ecological diversity. In the mind of the American traveler, the national park designation has a cache, an appeal."
More national, global marketing in store
The Friends of the Indiana Dunes plan to meet to discuss next steps, and Batistatos said there would be opportunities for marketing partnerships, such as with the Indiana Department of Tourism, on advertising Indiana's first national park.
LaPorte County Convention & Visitors Bureau Executive Director Jack Arnett said the Northern Indiana Tourism Development Commission likely would play it up as much as possible.
"I'm on the board and am sure this will be a big part of the messaging," he said.
"It's likely to get a big marketing push on the Indiana Toll Road. This is long overdue for our area and will give us more tools to market the Region. This will help put heads in beds."
Hotels, restaurants, casinos and other businesses across Northwest Indiana are likely to benefit from an increase in visits.
"We were caught by surprise, to be honest, but this is going to be huge for the whole Region, the whole northern part of the state," Arnett said.
"This is a regional event that will benefit the whole northern corridor and give a lot more bite to our park. The Dunes are at the same level as other parks with this designation, but this takes the marketing to another level."
The first director of the National Park Service, Stephen Mather, recommended in 1916 that the Dunes become a national park due to its unique biological diversity and geological features.
That initial effort stalled due to World War I. Local conservation work then led to establishing the Indiana Dunes State Park in 1925, and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in 1966.
In 2017, Visclosky won unanimous approval from the U.S. House to re-designate the national lakeshore as a national park.
That effort, however, faltered last year in the Senate after the Trump administration announced it opposed the change because it wanted to reserve the term "national park" for units that contain a variety of resources and encompass large land or water areas.
But the Region's congressman would not give up. Visclosky said last month when the new Congress began that he would seek any opportunity to advance his national park proposal.
He succeeded by getting it inserted in "must pass" spending legislation that Trump had to sign, or risk a second partial shutdown of the federal government.
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb celebrated the national park designation, 103 years in the making, on Twitter: "Indiana is now home to a new National Park! Congratulations to @IndianaDunesNPS on becoming our country’s 61st National Park. It’s great to see this beautiful part of our state recognized."
National Park Service staff plan to celebrate the name change soon.
"103 years in the making, what a terrific tribute to the neighbors, partners, visitors and National PARK staff," Park Superintendent Paul Labovitz said. "We are so appreciative to the entire Indiana delegation for their recognition and support of this national treasure."
Take a look at the top 11 national parks
Take a look at the top 11 national parks
The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore has been redesignated as America's 61st National Park. It's the 7th most popular park in the nation when Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Indiana Dunes State Park are combined. See how many visitors the top 11 national parks received, including Indiana Dunes.