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New Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore chief: 'I'd be nuts not to want this job'

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By KEVIN NEVERS

For a long time the National Park Service was in the “island management business,” maintaining and operating its landlocked properties--if landlocked they were--without much regard for the surrounding communities.

That’s the considered view of Paul Labovitz, the new superintendent of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. “We had a place with a boundary and we looked inward,” he says. “That attitude of isolationism was fairly common.”

Now, however, it’s fairly uncommon, Labovitz believes. “We finally realized that everything that happens inside our boundaries is affected by what happens outside.”

Back in the day, island-managing might have seemed like a reasonable--certainly the natural--strategy for some of NPS’ far-flung and remote wilderness properties. But it could hardly be less suited to the National Lakeshore, which isn’t anything like an island but more like a corridor between the two urban centers of Gary and Michigan City, traversing or sideswiping more than a dozen municipalities in three counties, crowded by the steel industry and a spaghetti of rail lines, and lapping up into a whole lot of regular folks’ back yards.

For that reason, “partnership” is Labovitz’s watchword. “We’re trying to engage with the people who are our neighbors, from property owners to other governmental agencies,” he says. “There’s industry here. Utilities. A host of communities. It’s a complicated landscape.”

Funnily enough, when Labovitz came to the National Lakeshore last fall, as interim superintendent--following the retirement of his predecessor, Constantine Dillon--he thought he knew all about complicated parks. “I wasn’t interested in applying for the job,” he says. “Three days later, I thought I’d be nuts not to want to. I’d been a visitor here a few times, you know, for the proverbial three hours. But the more I learned about the park, the more I was blown away.”

Labovitz previously served as superintendent of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area in Minnesota, “72 miles of the greatest river in the world in the heart of the Twin Cities” and another “complicated park.” Of its 54,000 acres, the National Park Service owns only 60.

But the National Lakeshore, Labovitz says, is a “much more complicated park, with an incredible biodiversity, nestled in the shadows of the heaviest industry in the country, next to one of the biggest cities in the country. There are 401 national parks and they’re all unique by design. They all have their own versions of complication. But the National Lakeshore is an urban park, in the heart of a place where people live.”

That cheek-by-jowl quality of the National Lakeshore does lead to “an amazing amount of confusion,” Labovitz concedes, for instance over “access to the beaches and what you can do on the beaches as a member of the public.” He points specifically to Ogden Dunes, Porter, Dune Acres, and Beverly Shores. Four “different places, four different kinds of access or lack of access. It’s really all over the map and it’s hard to communicate to visitors who want to enjoy the beach where they can go to do that.”

Better signage, especially on U.S. Highway 12, would go a long way to improving the situation, Labovitz says. “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never find it. It’s just not safe. We need some road signs and directional signs so everybody knows where they’re at.”

Issues

Labovitz’s slate at the National Lakeshore is far from blank. There is yet the residuum of a couple of issues left from the days of Dillon.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Dillon’s tenure at the National Lakeshore was not a frictionless one. Among other things, and to the dismay of many, the financial decision was made within months of Dillon’s arrival in 2008 not to hire a new farmer to replace the retired one at Chellberg Farm and to remove the animals in residence there. Then, following a gradually worsening rift between the two--chiefly over the solicitation and use of donations--NPS dissolved its long and fruitful relationship with the Friends of the Indiana Dunes.

Begin with Chellberg Farm. How likely is it that animals will make a comeback there?

Not too likely in the near term. At the moment NPS is developing a request for proposals for “someone who would protect the historic aspects of the farm and also do something with the fields that would allow the story of agriculture to be told there,” Labovitz says. “Hopefully we’ll get some good proposals. Hopefully one of those proposals will have animals in it.”

So far as Chellberg Farm goes, though, “I don’t know what is ahead,” Labovitz admits. “I am looking forward to Maple Sugar Time. There’s wonderful programming at Chellberg Farm and I can’t wait to see it firsthand. My colleagues speak very fondly of it. And I really like the folks who work here. They’re good folks and one of the reasons I applied.”

As for the Friends of the Indiana Dunes, Labovitz says that he’s talked to Friends Chair Zella Olson “and was very saddened to hear what happened,” all the more so because “we can’t have enough friends here.”

The Friends, in any case, was succeeded by the Dunes National Park Association, which as the National Lakeshore’s new official “friends association” has been doing excellent work, Labovitz notes. In the meantime, the Friends of the Indiana Dunes has concentrated its efforts on promoting and benefiting Indiana Dunes State Park.

“I met with (Dunes State Park Property Manager Brandt Baughman) last summer,” Labovitz says. “If the Friends of the Dunes is helping the state park, I think that’s a victory for the National Park Service. When any one of us succeeds, we all succeed. I hope we can attract some of them back--because you can never have enough friends in this business--but whoever they’re helping they enhance the overall quality of the Dunes.”

Looking Forward

Labovitz shares at least one basic precept with his predecessor: the National Lakeshore’s potential, nowhere near fully realized, as an “economic engine.”

“There’s a lot to do here in the park,” he says. “It’s the No. 1 destination in the State of Indiana according to some sources. It’s a great economic engine. But we don’t tend to think of it that way.”

Part of the problem--a great part of it, Labovitz thinks--is the National Lakeshore’s lack of a recognizable brand, due mostly to the puzzle-piece quality of the park. “We get 2 to 3 million people a year and half of them may not realize they’re in a national park. How do we skin that cat?”

Labovitz recalls an interview once with National Public Radio, whose reporter asked whether, as the superintendent of Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, “it was tough to manage a park without an icon like Mount Rushmore?”

“I wanted to backhand him,” Labovitz laughs. “The Mississippi River is the most iconic river in the U.S. It was so big, the guy couldn’t see it.” The Indiana Dunes may be similarly too large--too iconic--too precious--for folks to see. “It’s the seventh most biologically diverse national park. There are more orchid species in it than in the State of Hawaii. As a biologist I’m like, really?”

“In the short term,” Labovitz hopes, “the park can help local communities with economic development in ways that are compatible with park uses but add value to Duneland.” Thus he sees the possibility of businesses being established near the Dorothy Buell Memorial Visitor Center which specifically cater to tourists: canoe and kayak rentals, camping outfitters, “that sort of thing.”

“It’s entirely possible given the traffic that comes through here,” he says.

Labovitz also sees the National Lakeshore as ideally positioned to “introduce a whole collection of people to a national park who will never go to Yellowstone,” “city kids” from Gary and points west who “may see their first turtle here, their first colorful songbird.”

“I was a city kid myself,” he says. “I know what it’s like. It’s a transformational experience.”

“Part of me wishes that the Dunes Learning Center was twice as big,” Labovitz adds. “It’s completely booked. The demand is much bigger than the supply, which is a wonderful thing. It means there’s a need out there.”

Labovitz concludes with this observation: the National Lakeshore is a “major product” for all three Northwest Indiana tourism bureaus, in Porter, Lake, and LaPorte counties. “It’s a slap-your-forehead moment. There is a momentum here that’s important to keep going. People love this place.”

 

Posted 7/11/2014