Jerry Davich: National park boss target for critics’ complaints
Jerry Davich firstname.lastname@example.org June 24, 2012 4:42PM
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Superintendent Costa Dillon in 2007. | File Photo~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 24, 2012 6:19PM
Today’s column is the first in a summertime series regarding the spacious, fragmented, and largely misunderstood Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, as well as the park’s congenial yet controversial superintendent, Costa Dillon.
Costa Dillon first contacted me last month, to point out a minor but significant clarification regarding something I wrote about the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk.
He wanted to make clear, albeit politely, that although my favorite site within Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is located in Portage, it’s actually park property, not city property. Duly noted, I replied.
But our brief exchange prompted me to meet with him for an interview, my first face-to-face chat with the congenial yet controversial Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore park superintendent who still gets mocked by his critics for a 1978 sci-fi film he created.
After brief pleasantries inside his park headquarters office, I asked him head-on about his many critics and the numerous allegations against him since he took the high-profile job almost five years ago.
Not only has Dillon somehow managed to anger the Lake County Sheriff’s Police and its helicopter patrols, he’s ruffled the feathers of officials from bordering communities.
“There is not a sandbox big enough for this guy and he won’t share his toys,” quipped one vocal critic, a town council member for an adjacent municipality. “The bottom line is he is a bully.”
“The laws have not changed, but the NPS’s desire to live in peace and harmony has,” the council member added. “His selective enforcement and twisted interpretation of his authority and rules has become intolerable. He has offended almost anyone within arm’s reach including the traditional tree-hugger benevolent groups.”
Dillon is well aware of his critics but he doesn’t take it too personally, I believe.
“Somebody’s always going to be unhappy with something I do,” he explained with a shrug. “Some things simply have to change and it’s my job to make those changes.”
I will explore these issues in more detail later, and in future columns, because there is simply not enough space to do so today.
First, with summer now officially under way, I want to share a few insights about the spacious yet extremely fragmented 15,000-acre park that offers 15 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. It’s truly a national gem in our local backyard, but one that is too often hidden from public view although, formally, it’s OUR park.
As a life-long Northwest Indiana resident who once wrote about the park as part of my reporting beat, I thought I had a handle on its sites, policies and amenities. In short, I was wrong. It’s more complex than I thought.
“The park consists of much more than (region residents) realize,” said Dillon, who arrived here after several other National Park Service stints across the country. “We’re still invisible to too many people. It’s like the blind man and the elephant.”
Some visitors think the park is only Mount Baldy or West Beach or Bailly Homestead. Instead, the park is located amid three counties, eight townships, and 14 cities or towns, consisting of one-third of Indiana’s shoreline of Lake Michigan.
“As a national park, and contrary to the (Indiana) state park, we’re hard to understand,” he said while rolling out a large map. “The park goes from 3 miles of the Illinois border to 3 miles of the Michigan border.”
“It’s 32 miles across in multiple, disconnected pieces,” he said, noting for instance the separated Pinhook Bog, Heron Rookery and Lake View sites.
He happily offered a trivia question: Of the Pacific coast, the Atlantic coast, and the Great Lakes coast, which state has more of its coast within a national park? That’s right, Indiana and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, despite all the steel mills, factories and industrial sites.
Still, the park has had to deal with a 3 percent budget cut this fiscal year, resulting in a roughly $9 million annual budget. There is no entrance fee for the park, but only an “amenity fee” at two sites — West Beach and Dunewood Campground.
Because of this shortfall, Dillon cited fewer personnel on hand than in years past — from 175 permanent employees 10 years ago to only 75 today.
“You just can’t do with 75 what you could with 125,” he noted. “That’s simple math.”
Between 85 to 90 percent of that shrinking budget goes toward paying employees, which prompted a surprising question to make his point.
“How many restrooms do you think there are in the park that our staff has to clean every day?” he asked.
Uh, 25? 30?
“No, 96,” he replied flatly.
Essentially, Dillon blames such misnomers, misinformation, and miscommunication for many of the conflicts he has to deal with. For instance, while reporting for this column I heard complaints from the Lake County Sheriff’s Police and its helicopter pilots.
“The National Lakeshore has a history of not playing well with other law enforcement,” one pilot told me. “A park ranger told the Federal Aviation Administration that we are intrusive and that we upset the lifeguards and swimmers when we fly by at a low level.”
Dillon disagreed, saying, “The National Park Service has no authority over the airspace above the park. Therefore, the NPS has no authority with regards to where the Lake County Sheriff or anyone else flies over the park.”
Dillon suggested I connect the police pilots with the park’s chief ranger, Mike Bremer.
“I am sure Mike would be happy to discuss working cooperatively for law enforcement and emergency services since we do not have a helicopter of our own,” Dillon said.
I did this, but it turns out Bremer was the ranger who complained about the air patrols, according to police. Miscommunication again, Dillon noted.
“By and large, we get along great with those cities and towns,” Dillon said. “But I get frustrated when people have unrealistic expectations of what we can or cannot do. I don’t make personal decisions. I am just following the laws and policies of the park.”
Some of the park rules in question have been on the books for many years, but they were not fully enforced until Dillon got in charge, I learned.
“Most of the negative things I hear are just plain rumors and everything we do goes through public comment first,” Dillon said.
For example, such a public comment meeting takes place this Thursday regarding the Porter Beach and Wabash Avenue site. The open house is from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center, 1215 N. Indiana 49 in Porter.
Public input is sought regarding an environmental assessment and traffic improvement plan for visitor-use upgrades at that busy site.
“My biggest worry is that (National Park Service) has already decided what they will do, and this is just a cover to gain public approval … from the locals,” one Porter resident said.
“We are very concerned with the NPS encroaching on our town and changing the character of Porter,” another resident said.
Dillon, who lives in Valparaiso, said such reactions are typical, if not unrealistic.
“We’re not trying to cause problems for anyone,” he insisted.
In defense of critics’ complaints, Dillon pointed out a lengthy list of park upgrades since he took over, including opening of the aforementioned Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk, construction of the Porter Brickyard Trail, the Mount Baldy restoration project, and the “Park Prescription” program, the first of its kind in the NPS, where physicians write actual doctor’s orders to patients to visit the park to improve their health.
Plus, he noted, “I’m about the most accessible public official in this region. I answer every email, every call, every letter, and I have open forums, too.”
Part of the miscommunication problem, he noted, is because the park is still evolving, which includes needed changes between public and private properties and amenities.
“We’re very sensitive to the local residents’ concerns, but there is a greater good here,” he said. “People from across the country will be able to visit this park in perpetuity because these decisions.”
Before leaving his office, I couldn’t resist asking if he plans on staying at the park, considering his rocky reputation with critics and that he’s never stayed at any other park for this long.
Although his daughter is still in high school and he doesn’t plan on leaving, he replied with a laugh, “Oh, you never know.”