There's no such thing as a free lunch, at least not at the Indiana Dunes National Park, not anymore.
Visitors soon will be expected to pay if they plan to picnic at the 15,000-acre National Park, sun on one of its Lake Michigan beaches or hike its more than 50 miles of trails.
After becoming a National Park in 2019, the Indiana Dunes have seen a surge in visitors and are now looking to impose entrance fees of $15 daily per person or $25 per family.
The funds raised will be used on maintenance, visitor services and improvements. The National Park Service, for instance, would like to restore the historic Bailly Cemetery and replace the boardwalk and trail surface on the Little Calumet River Trail. It still needs funds to replace many of the old Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore signs with new National Park ones at the sprawling park's more than two dozen sites in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties.
But critics have raised concerns about whether the new fees, including $45 for an annual membership that would be sold at visitors centers and later local businesses, would reduce accessibility to the national park, especially among low-income people and locals. Many residents in Gary's Miller neighborhood, for instance, hike along Paul H. Douglas Trail through Miller Woods as though it's a neighborhood park, even though it's part of the larger national park.
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"We pay taxes to the federal government for things like the National Park Service. So this is an additional tax burden for local poor and working-class people who — heaven forbid — want to recreate in nature in their own communities," Miller activist and educator Samuel Love said. "And it's opening the door for further privatization of public lands and further commodification of nature."
He fears new entrance fees, such as of $25 for a seven-day vehicle pass, could serve to gentrify the park and keep away lower-income residents who live nearby. Love also fears it would be detrimental to volunteering at the park, such as with the regular beach cleanups that take place.
"If I go out to volunteer with a private organization like NWIPA to clear logjams from the river am I now expected to pay for this 'privilege?' If I'm doing a youth poetry or photography workshop at the Douglas Center and I have to drive because of bad weather or because I have bulky materials, I'm expected to pay now?" he said. "If I'm on a long hike and I dare sit for five minutes on a publicly-owned bench will I have a park ranger demanding to see my pass? We already pay taxes for these things."
Visitors have previously paid $6 per vehicle during the summer months to visit West Beach, one of the most popular national park beaches with the most available parking. The Indiana Dunes State Park charges $7 for Indiana residents and $12 for out-of-staters, which will not change.
Though people were able to visit national park beaches for free, the Indiana Dunes State Park was still often Indiana's most visited park, with 1.3 million visitors a year.
The new $15 daily pass will make the Indiana Dunes National Park the most expensive park to enter in the state of Indiana, though an annual pass will cost $5 less than the $50 annual Indiana State Parks pass. At $9, the Falls of the Ohio State Park Interpretative Center just outside Louisville is currently the most expensive park in Indiana to visit with a daily pass.
"We do not know if the new fee will impact attendance," Indiana Dunes Tourism Executive Director Lorelei Weimer said.
Indiana Dunes Tourism, Porter County's tourism agency, plans to work to raise public awareness about the new entrance fees.
"Indiana Dunes Tourism markets the Indiana Dunes and will be creating messaging to explain the new fee structure at the national park, as well as the existing fee structure of the state park," she said. "Indiana Dunes Tourism recognizes the importance of maintaining quality attractions for residents and visitors in Porter County and Northwest Indiana. Currently, the Indiana Dunes National Park does not have the financial resources to maintain its valuable asset properly. The new entry fees will help with the overall maintenance of the park and supplement operations and fund improvements, which will enhance the overall experience for the users of the park."
Other National Parks in the Midwest — Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio and Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota — are free to enter. The Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis costs $3 a day and the Isle Royal National Park in Michigan costs $7 for entry.
LaPorte resident Jonathan W. Thomas expressed concerns that visiting the Indiana Dunes National Park would become too costly for some locals and that it would be confusing for many, since it's spread out and not one large park that people enter or exit like Yellowstone.
"I'm furious. The park should be free for all, or at least residents of the area. It's one thing if the whole thing is gated off, but there's so many parking areas, and trails, that relying on the honor system to do this is going to turn everyone who happens on a trail into a 'fare dodger,'" he said. "Enforcement will be a nightmare. What happens if you didn't know and can't pay? In the summer, we usually go to the beach every week down at the park. It will make the park less accessible. Sure, I can afford the yearly fee, but many others probably can't. Fifteen dollars per person is extortionate. Not to mention how confusing this will be for visitors who don't know the difference between the State Park and the National Park."
Thomas also quested the need for an entrance fee for the public to access the beaches, sand dunes, forests, prairies, bogs, moraines, historical sites and other places in the Indiana Dunes National Park.
"The National Lakeshore got along fine for its entire existence without entry fees, suddenly it's a National Park and needs the money?" he said.
Supervisory Park Ranger Bruce Rowe said the money would go to deferred maintenance projects.
"This ranges from expanding our custodial, maintenance and resource protection activities major projects like a new water line to the Kemil Beach restroom facility, stabilization of the historic Bailly Homestead, and the replacement of the boardwalk at Tolleston Dune Trail," he said.
Entrance fees, for instance, would extend the water main to the Kemil Beach restroom, rehab the West Beach bathhouse and contact station, build an indigenous cultural trail and shelter at the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center in Chesterton, and upgrade fire and security alarms across the park.
The National Park Service also would like to repair the boardwalks and grade the parking lot at the Heron Rookery, replace the fence and pave the Porter Beach south parking lot, replace the flooring in the Paul H. Douglas Visitors Center in Miller and replace the decking on the Little Calumet River Trail Bridge. Other projects include constructing a new trail on the east end, paving walkways at the West Beach picnic area, rehabilitating the Mount Baldy Restroom, replacing the fence at the Douglas Center and installing solar lights at Lakeview Beach, the Porter Beach north parking lot and Glenwood Dunes.
At least 55% of the fees will go to maintenance at the park. Most of the revenue generated will stay local and be funneled back into the Indiana Dunes, Rowe said.
"This will be a major boost to the park's budget. If a park brings in more than $750,000 then 80% of it remains in the park and the other 20% goes to the central office for use at smaller parks with little or no fee income," he said. "If a park brings in less than $750,000 then all of the fee revenue remains in that park. Based on our number of visitors, we expect that we will bring in more than $750,000."
Jessica Renslow, a Gary community activist who organized Miller's ecotourism festival and helped bring a wheelchair-accessible kayak launch to Miller Lagoon, said fee revenue should be used to boost accessibility, especially since it could price some people out.
"It could impact patrons who can’t afford it, which could include people on disability," she said. "If they have to charge a fee, the new fees should be used to implement universally designed amenities and to hire employees of all abilities."
Rowe said the fee of $25 per family compared to small national parks, national lakeshores like Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan and national seashores like Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
"Larger national parks charge $30 or $35," he said.
Daily passes to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado cost $25, Acadia National Park in Maine $30 and Yosemite National Park in California $35. The Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, the most popular National Park east of the Mississippi River, is free.
People can save money by buying an annual pass and will still have opportunities to visit the Indiana Dunes National Park for free, Rowe said.
"The fee structure does encourage locals who visit more than two times a year to purchase an annual pass for $45," he said. "We are concerned about accessibility for lower-income residents. Entrance into our Paul H. Douglas Center and the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center will remain free and there are five national fee-free days to the national parks. In addition, the superintendent has the authority to designate a limited number of days as fee-free for Indiana Dunes National Park. We are also working with partners to explore other methods to provide access to people of all income levels."
People can visit National Parks for free on Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 17, the first day of National Park Week on April 16, the anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act on Aug. 4 and National Public Lands Day on Sept. 24.
Love said the entrance fees would be difficult to enforce given the sprawling layout of the park, the lack of gates or booths at many sites and locals' familiarity with the land.
"The day this takes effect (or thereabouts) I plan to enter the park, on foot by way of one of the many informal social trails throughout our duneland, freely enjoying my freedoms in this beautiful land and leaving no trace of my presence behind," he said.