Indiana Dunes, which comprises 15,000 acres in northern Indiana along the southern shore of Lake Michigan, was recently named a national park. Here’s how that happened.


Benjamin Harrison’s presidency is sometimes dismissed as a failure. Even his preservation of millions of acres of land and forests is often overlooked and a surprise to conservation experts.

Harrison, the only president to come from Indiana, served from 1889 to 1893.

One visit to America’s first national park, Yellowstone, established in 1872, can intensify one’s love of nature and conservancy. That’s what hooked Harrison, who visited three times.

President Benjamin Harrison holds his daughter Elizabeth on the porch at the Upper Geyser basin at Yellowstone Park in June 1900, just 10 months before his death. Harrison visited Yellowstone three times during his lifetime. (Photo: Photo provided by the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site)

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“Harrison does not seem to get the recognition he deserves as a champion of conservation, overshadowed in that role by the efforts of another Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt,” noted Ray E. Boomhower, author of “Mr. President: A Life of Benjamin Harrison.”

Harrison created three national parks in 1890: Sequoia, Yosemite and General Grant, which was incorporated in 1940 into King’s Canyon National Park. According to the National Park Service, Sequoia National Park was the first national park formed to protect a living organism: the giant sequoia trees. 

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According to the fall 1985 issue of Great Plains Quarterly, Harrison’s transmission to Congress in January 1890 “recommended that steps be taken to prevent the rapid destruction of our great forest areas and the loss of our water supplies.” It would take more than a year for that recommendation to come to fruition.

One of the most important pieces of legislation during Harrison’s presidency was the Forest Reserve Act of 1891, which Harrison signed into law after nearly two decades of debate about public land policy and concerns about excessive logging. The act would protect wooded areas as “forest reserves.”

Harrison used the law 17 times to set aside nearly 22 million acres for forests in New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, California, Colorado and the territories of Alaska and Arizona, including the Yellowstone Park Timberland Reserve as a protective buffer around the national park of the same name. 

The bill also led to the creation of what is now Shoshone National Forest, part of the Tetons Reserve and the White River National Forest in Colorado, which includes the ski resorts of Aspen and Vail.

Harrison battled his own party to turn the Grand Canyon into a national park. They could not conceive of such a place not having a purpose, like ranching or mining. Harrison himself never visited the Grand Canyon, but it certainly didn’t stop him from trying to preserve it for future generations

In the end, he had to settle for creating the Grand Canyon Forest Reserve in 1893. The Grand Canyon wouldn’t become a national park until President Woodrow Wilson in 1919. 

Harrison also admitted North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington and Montana into statehood — all with some pretty spectacular natural wonders that would eventually be home to national parks.

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Teddy Roosevelt gets most of the credit for being the “conservation president,” and rightly so. Roosevelt’s legacy is 230 million acres of public land set aside for forests and parks. But Harrison deserves credit for planting the seeds of conservation in the United States.

One wonders what Harrison would think about why it took until 2019 for his home state to have its own national park: Indiana Dunes. 

Follow IndyStar Visuals Manager and RetroIndy writer Dawn Mitchell on Twitter: @dawn_mitchell61.


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