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Interconnectedness at the Indiana Dunes

Jackie Mirandola Mullen | Monday, March 22, 2010

As April warmly approaches, I am winding up my year-long senior thesis project on the preservation of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Now that I’m nearing completion, I realize that most of what I’ve learned is 

in the value of complicating my outlook on the world, of forcing myself to see things as more than just black or white, positive or negative. When we stop looking for a bad guy and realize that “bad guys” exist in all of us, the real lesson becomes interconnectivity and even attacking the bad guy within.

As a history major, most of my research has been archival. About once a month, I drive to Gary, Ind., to peruse the Calumet Regional Archives, the best archive around of recent dunes history and steel in northwest Indiana.

Oh, the faces I get. I wish I could share them in this medium, but alas you will have to imagine them yourself.

“Gary? Got your bullet-proof windows ready?”

“Try not to breathe the air.”

“You couldn’t think of a better place to study environmental history?”

Well the truth is, yes, I can think of many places much more picturesque than Gary (although I appreciate the concern if you are one of the worried friends quoted above). But in ignoring the industry, pollution and poverty that proliferate in Gary, we miss the full narrative not just of preservation movements, but of our society as a fully interconnected body.

Preserved land in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore covers 20 miles of shoreline from Gary (home to what was once U.S. Steel’s largest integrated steel plant worldwide) to Michigan City, Ind. (home to the smokestacks of the Michigan City Generating Station). Congress officially preserved this unlikely candidate for a National Lakeshore in 1966, during the simultaneous construction of a public port, two steel mills and a coal-generated power plant within the Lakeshore’s outer boundaries.

The case of the dunes appears at first glance as no escape from industry. The National Park Service official map for Indiana Dunes has organic greens, browns and tans that connote parkland, while dull grays (bereft of labels) signify industry. This color choice attempts to convince the visitor that the dunes are the serene retreat from mankind after which National Park Service patrons pine, yet no visitor could drive to the dunes from any direction without passing evidence of man-made power and filth.

And yet, the value of the dunes remains inside of this difficult attempt to mask the sullied as pristine. While hiking through most sections of the park, the marsh or dunes feel expansive and pure, as if they could continue for miles. When the mills are out of sight, the pristine nature in some form exists — the dunes are the seventh-most bio-diverse park in the National Park system, even in the Rustbelt of America (or “Cancer Alley,” I once heard the area from Chicago to South Bend called).

Treating the industry as evil and the park as good, however, misses the mark of a broader understanding of the connectedness of American structures. Most visitors to the National Lakeshore come either from Chicago or northwest Indiana — the two places requiring power that made building the steel mills and generating plants necessary in the first place. Our daily lives and the city of Chicago’s buildings themselves would be radically different without the industry in northwest Indiana.

Additionally, the “evil industry” helped advocates of the dunes establish the patchwork collection of natural lands in northwest Indiana as a National Lakeshore. The “bad guy” of the steel mills proved villainous enough for Congress to okay a Lakeshore out of sympathy for the residents who would have to live adjacent to this industry in the future.

Even the mobile sign of industry in the park, the railroad, also acts as a way to bring visitors to the dunes on the South Shore rail line. Nearby pollution-hazard Chicago also makes the population big enough for the annual visitation of the park to rival that of Yellowstone. The lines between the evil of filth, industry and civilization — of which Gary and Michigan City so profanely remind us — blur with the good of preservation, nature and untaintedness that the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore symbolize.

Good and evil only exists in stories — and even then, it can be problematic (cue Darth Vader music). The Rustbelt of America in which we live might disgust us with its industrial grime, but it also has provided a catalyst for the establishment of some of the most unique lands in our nation. Exploring the connected nature of good and evil can help us work within structures; we can see the world in shifting hues of green and brown instead of characterizing all in the unforgiving decisiveness of black and white.


Jackie Mirandola Mullen is a senior history and German major. You can contact her at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.