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Explore America’s Newest ‘Indiana Dunes National Park’ on the Shore of Lake Michigan

America’s National Parks System includes more than 400 parks, monuments, conservation areas and historic sites

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America’s National Parks System includes more than 400 parks, monuments, conservation areas and historic sites. VOA

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore attracts more than 3.6 million visitors every year, but that number is expected to grow because the 6,000-hectare site on the shore of Lake Michigan is now Indiana Dunes National Park — the country’s newest.

America’s National Parks System includes more than 400 parks, monuments, conservation areas and historic sites. The federal agency — established in 1916 — is constantly changing. The 26 parks it originally managed have been removed from its list of properties. Some, like Michigan’s Mackinac Island Park, were transferred to state holdings, and others, including South Carolina’s Castle Pinckney Monument, were found to be too expensive to maintain.

Although President Donald Trump drastically reduced the size of one park — Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument — four parks have been created since he’s been in office. The Dunes became the 61st national park in February.

Among the first to visit after its designation changed were Bill and Betty Smith from Connecticut, who have visited the 60 other national parks.

“What I want to see are predominantly the sand dunes. I think that’s probably the standout feature of this new national park,” Bill Smith said, adding, “I want to see some of the trail systems. I just want to get a sense of the place.”

Over a century in the making

The newest national park may be the one that took the longest to get that designation, said park superintendent Paul Labovitz. “The name change here was 103 years in the making. The Indiana Sand Dunes National Park was proposed in 1916 by the first director of the national parks, Stephen Mather.”

But World War I and the need for steel mills on the lakefront to feed the war effort sidelined plans for the park. Later efforts to get the national park designation were squashed by industrialization of the neighboring Port of Indiana, the largest commercial port on Lake Michigan.

Still, nature and the dunes found a way to thrive.

In 2017 and 2018, Indiana lawmakers again presented the park legislation to Congress, but no action was taken.

Lorelei Weimer, the park’s executive director of tourism, said it took the historic government shutdown of 2019 to bring about the change. Due to the rushed nature of a several-hundred-page appropriations bill to fund the budget and reopen the government, an Indiana congressman was able to slip the park measure into the new legislation.

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Lake Michigan as seen from the sand dunes of Indiana Dunes State Park in September 2016. Wikimedia

“The fact that he was able to get it into the budget bill was a huge win for us,” Weimer said. “None of us knew that was going to happen. That was one of the biggest pleasant surprises that we’ve had.”

The designation doesn’t come with any regulatory or funding changes, but it does give the Dunes a status similar to the other big national parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite.

Dunes, wetlands, forest, prairie

Indiana Dunes National Park has a varied landscape — most prominently, the massive sand dunes that can tower 58 meters above the beach, and migrate more than a meter a year.

The park has a 26-kilometer-long shoreline along a lake that can produce waves eight meters high. Fourteen trail systems covering 80 kilometers wind through the park through its different habitats and cultural history.

Labovitz said the park is also known as one of the most ecologically diverse places in North America, with more species of plants than the state of Hawaii.

“There are upwards of 1,500 different species of plants found here. The numbers are impressive, but the kinds of plants are even more interesting. The Dunes is a place where the Artic meets the Temperate Forest, where the Eastern Deciduous Forest meets the prairie. So, all of the plants that are common or that grow in those places are found here.”

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Among the first to visit after its designation changed were Bill and Betty Smith from Connecticut, who have visited the 60 other national parks. Wikimedia

Because the Dunes are on a major migratory path, they are also home to more than 300 species of birds, including waterbirds such as loons and herons, birds of prey such as hawks and bald eagles, and a wide variety of songbirds.

That attracts visitors from every U.S. state and approximately 50 countries across the world every year.

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“We have so many international visitors that we have 12 different little mini guides that we have translated into different languages,” Weimer said. “That just gives you a good idea that this is not just a local attraction. It’s an international attraction.”

It’s also a uniquely American attraction, according to Bill Smith.

“There’s always something special about a national park. It’s beautiful, it’s unique. They’re precious in terms of natural resources, the natural beauty, the wildlife. And so, it’s just a part of exploring this great country.” (VOA)

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Strict Conservation Laws Result in Eviction of Hundreds of Indigenous Karen People in Thailand

After the military government took charge in 2014, it vowed to "take back the forest" and increase forest cover to about 40 percent of the total surface area from about a third.

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A view of the Salween River is seen from a small Thai-Karen village on the Thai side of the river, Nov. 17, 2014. VOA

Hundreds of indigenous Karen people in Thailand face evictions from a national park that authorities wish to turn into a World Heritage Site, joining millions in a similarly precarious situation as authorities worldwide push tough .

The Kaeng Krachan is Thailand’s biggest national park, sprawled over more than 2,900 square kilometers (1,120 square miles) on the border with neighboring Myanmar.

Renowned for its diverse wildlife, it is also home to about 30 communities of ethnic Karen people, who have traditionally lived and farmed there — and is on a tentative list of world heritage sites.

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Last year the country’s top court ruled that about 400 who had been evicted in 2011 had no legal right over the land. Pixabay

The United Nations’ cultural agency (UNESCO) had referred the submission back to the Thai government in 2016, asking it to address “rights and livelihood concerns” of the Karen communities, and get their support for the nomination.

The Thai government plans to respond later this year, according to campaigners.

“The communities have not been consulted or reassured on their access to the forest,” said Kittisak Rattanakrajangsri of advocacy group Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact.

“The communities are not opposed to the heritage status,” he told Reuters. “They are just asking that they not be evicted, and that their land rights are secure — because if the park gets heritage status without that, there will be a great many more evictions.”

A spokesman for the forest department did not respond to requests for comment.

A spokesman for the U.N. human rights office (OHCHR) in Bangkok said they had recently facilitated a meeting between a rights organization working with the Karen, and Thai officials.

Worldwide, more than 250,000 people were evicted from protected areas in 15 countries from 1990 to 2014, according to Washington D.C.-based advocacy group Rights and Resources Initiative.

In India, more than 1.9 million indigenous families face evictions after their forest rights claims were rejected.

‘No legal rights’

Since Kaeng Krachan was declared a national park in 1981, hundreds of Karen — a hill tribe people thought to number about 1 million in Thailand — have been evicted, according to activists.

Last year the country’s top court ruled that about 400 who had been evicted in 2011 had no legal right over the land.

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In India, more than 1.9 million indigenous families face evictions after their forest rights claims were rejected. Pixabay

“The security of indigenous people in Thailand is so tenuous because they have no legal rights, and no recognition of their dependence on forests,” said Worawuth Tamee, an indigenous rights lawyer.

“The laws have made them encroachers,” he said.

A 2010 Cabinet resolution had called for recognizing the Karen people’s way of life and their right to earn a livelihood the traditional way. But this has not been implemented, said
Tamee.

After the military government took charge in 2014, it vowed to “take back the forest” and increase forest cover to about 40 percent of the total surface area from about a third.

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This has resulted in hundreds of reclamations from farmers and forest dwellers, according to research organization Mekong Region Land Governance.

“It is the biggest challenge facing indigenous people,” said Tamee. “Parks are not just for the enjoyment of city people and tourists. They are also the home of poor, indigenous people who have nowhere else to go.” (VOA)