US Rep: Budget cuts undermine Dunes land purchases

Federal budget cuts are undermining the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore's decades-long efforts to acquire private land within the park's boundaries, U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky said.

Visclosky, D-Ind., told The Times of Munster (http://bit.ly/oq2Xhb ) that cuts to two federal funds — the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the National Park Service Land Acquisition account — threaten additional purchases within the lakeshore's footprint.

"These cuts highlight the urgent need for the (lakeshore) to maximize the resources it currently has to acquire the most valuable land left in the footprint," he said.

The northwestern Indiana national park was created by Congress in 1966, but it still contains about 100 parcels totaling more than 800 acres that are in private hands.

The park is missing out on the chance to purchase plots of land as they come on the market because of the lack of funds — and this is an issue for many national parks, said Lynn McClure, Midwest regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association.

"This is an example of what is happening all over the country, the lost opportunities," she said, adding that funding to purchase land has been cut dramatically by Congress.

McClure said a visible sign of those lost opportunities are the construction workers building a new house just off of Indiana 49 in a wooded lot within the park.

The Times said that development is the first that officials for the national lakeshore and the town of Porter can recall on an undeveloped parcel of land within the lakeshore.

Lakeshore Superintendent Costa Dillon said the National Park Service has no problem with private landowners developing or using land they own within the boundary of the lakeshore.

But the development of parcels within the park's jurisdiction does raise concerns, he said.

As long as private land remains, it prevents the use of the area for park purposes such as trails, picnic areas, parking lots, Dillon said.

"It also makes managing such things as wetlands and wildlife more complex when there is private land interspersed in scattered lots within public land," he said.

Dillon said the property owners who sold the plot to the new owners never approached the National Park Service about selling the land. He said they aren't required to as the national lakeshore does not have first right of refusal when property within its boundaries goes up for sale.

But even if they did, Dillon said there were no funds to make the purchase.

Dillon estimated it would take between $3 million and $4 million to finish purchasing property within the park. "We aren't able to finish the park if we don't acquire the property. We can't develop trails, we can't manage wildlife," Dillon said.

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Information from: The Times, http://www.thetimesonline.com