State of the Beach/State Reports/IN/Beach Ecology

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Indiana Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access65
Water Quality74
Beach Erosion5-
Erosion Response-4
Beach Fill5-
Shoreline Structures3 3
Beach Ecology2-
Surfing Areas25
Coastal Development{{{19}}}{{{20}}}
Sea Level Rise{{{21}}}{{{22}}}


To the casual observer, beaches may simply appear as barren stretches of sand - beautiful, but largely devoid of life or ecological processes. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Sandy beaches not only provide habitat for numerous species of plants and animals, they also serve as breeding grounds for many species that are not residential to the beach. Additionally, beaches function as areas of high primary production. Seaweeds and other kinds of algae flourish in shallow, coastal waters, and beaches serve as repositories for these important inputs to the food chain. In this way, beaches support a rich web of life including worms, bivalves, and crustaceans. This community of species attracts predators such as seabirds, which depend on sandy beaches for their foraging activities. In short, sandy beaches are diverse and productive systems that serve as a critical link between marine and terrestrial environments.

Erosion of the beach, whether it is “natural” erosion or erosion exacerbated by interruptions to historical sand supply, can negatively impact beach ecology by removing habitat. Other threats to ecological systems at the beach include beach grooming and other beach maintenance activities. Even our attempts at beach restoration may disrupt the ecological health of the beach. Imported sand may smother natural habitat. The grain size and color of imported sand may influence the reproductive habits of species that utilize sandy beaches for these functions.

In the interest of promoting better monitoring of sandy beach systems, the Surfrider Foundation would like to see the implementation of a standardized methodology for assessing ecological health. We believe that in combination, the identified metrics such as those described below can function to provide a revealing picture of the status of beach systems. We believe that a standardized and systematic procedure for assessing ecological health is essential to meeting the goals of ecosystem-based management. And, we believe that the adoption of such a procedure will function to better inform decision makers, and help bridge the gap that continues to exist between science and policy. The Surfrider Foundation proposes that four different metrics be used to complete ecological health assessments of sandy beaches. These metrics include

  1. quality of habitat,
  2. status of ‘indicator’ species,
  3. maintenance of species richness, and
  4. management practices.

It is envisioned that beach systems would receive a grade (i.e., A through F), which describes the beach’s performance against each of these metrics. In instances where information is unavailable, beaches would be assigned an incomplete for that metric. Based on the beach’s overall performance against the four metrics, an “ecological health” score would be identified.


The Department of Commerce, Justice and State Appropriations Act of 2002 directed the Secretary of Commerce to establish a Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program (CELCP) “for the purpose of protecting important coastal and estuarine areas that have significant conservation, recreation, ecological, historical or aesthetic values, or that are threatened by conversion from their natural or recreational state to other uses.” CELCP gives priority to lands that can be effectively managed and protected and that have significant ecological value. Each coastal state that submits grant applications under CELCP must develop an OCRM-approved CELCP Plan. An assessment of priority land conservation needs and clear guidance for nominating and selecting land conservation projects within the state must be included in each CELCP Plan.

Indiana's Lake Michigan Coastal Program (LMCP) has initiated development of Indiana’s CELCP Plan. The first phase of the process employed the technical expertise of Indiana University and the Indiana Biodiversity Initiative (IBI), a diverse group of natural resource and conservation biology managers and researchers. IBI’s goal is to develop a common framework for conservation land-use planning in Indiana. The initiative began with: (1) plant species and community information from the Indiana Heritage Database; (2) a map of Indiana’s general land cover; (3) the National Wetlands Inventory of Indiana’s wetlands; and (4) a map of areas protected for conservation. IBI used the maps and spatial optimizing software to identify areas with the highest concentration of desirable characteristics, such as numbers of rare species, availability of high-quality habitats, or large blocks of more common habitats.

The second phase combined areas of high plant conservation potential with a map of existing conservation areas as a starting point for identifying lands that offer the best protection for animals. The initiative selected six to nine “umbrella species” for each region and modeled their habitat needs. The animal modeling program gave preference to protected areas and plant conservation areas in order to minimize the extent of land involved and to cluster habitat blocks.

Indiana’s CELCP Plan development process also established a Public Technical Workgroup consisting of representatives from universities; local, regional, state and federal government agencies; local landholding trusts and nonprofits; and other interested parties. LMCP formally presented the IBI and an overview of the CELCP process to the workgroup at its first session. Workgroup members suggested additional data to supplement IBI’s existing information. For example, members recommended adding stream, multi-use trail, and power line corridors to show connections among otherwise fragmented habitat. Members of the workgroup also contributed information about additional managed areas and areas of ecological importance for inclusion in the database.

The IBI’s final product for any given natural region is a map identifying square kilometer blocks that best meet the plant and animal conservation criteria. The initiative provides users with the final map as well as a wide range of auxiliary maps, color orthophotos, and appropriate U.S. Geological Survey 1:100,000 maps. A “conservation features” layer allows users to click on map cells and learn which animal species select the cell, how much area is available in habitat types within the cell, and how many plants or high-quality plant communities have been identified in the cell.

Collaboration with the IBI has been a major asset to LMCP in its efforts to develop Indiana’s CELCP Plan. LMCP and its partners made significant progress on the plan during the review period. To complete development of Indiana’s CELCP Plan, LMCP and its partners will: (1) incorporate additional data layers into priority areas; (2) finalize the planning map; (3) develop a CELCP project nomination process; and (4) present the CELCP Plan for public review and comment. LMCP will then submit the plan to OCRM for review and approval.

Coastal Areas of Significance

Some coastal areas are particularly significant or have special conditions that warrant increased attention. These areas are distinguished by either their unique coastal-related qualities or the intense competition for the use of their resources. The LMCP allows the designation of coastal areas of significance as either Areas of Particular Concern or Areas for Preservation and Restoration.


History of Indiana Dunes from Encyclopedia of Chicago

The Indiana Dunes are among the most significant landscapes in America. A remnant of their former glory, they survive as a jigsaw-shaped landscape of beaches, dunes, and wetlands largely preserved within the 2,182-acre Indiana Dunes State Park and the 15,139-acre Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. What we now refer to as “the Indiana Dunes” were at one time part of an unbroken panorama of beach, dune, and wetland rimming the southern shores of Lake Michigan. Hunting, trapping, and logging depleted the Dunes of fur-bearers in the 1820s and of virgin oak and pine during the 1830s and '40s. The urban and industrial expansion of Chicago following the Civil War established the checkered pattern of factories abutting pristine natural settings that characterizes the Indiana Dunes today.

The Indiana Dunes are known as the “birthplace of ecology” in America because in 1899 University of Chicago botanist Henry C. Cowles published his classic paper on plant succession on the basis of field studies here. Many of Cowles's students and colleagues, such as Victor Shelford, Warder Clyde Allee, and Paul Sears, also did original research in the dunes, and became leaders of the new science of ecology.

For over a century “the dunes” have provided outdoor recreational opportunities for the Chicago metropolitan region, and inspiration to Chicago-area poets, literary naturalists, artists, landscape architects, and even playwrights, among them Carl Sandburg, Edwin Way Teale, Donald Culross Peattie, Frank Dudley, Jens Jensen, and Thomas Wood Stevens (whose 1917 dunes pageant played to an audience of 25,000).

The protracted battle to preserve the Indiana Dunes pitted several generations of socially conscious citizen environmentalists, with roots in Chicago and Gary settlement houses, against a powerful coalition of economic and political interests intent on industrializing the remaining Indiana shoreline. Chicago reformers associated with the settlement house movement initiated early attempts at Dunes preservation, culminating in the establishment of the Indiana Dunes State Park in 1923. In late 1966, Congress authorized establishment of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, one of the nation's first urban parks, after a protracted lobbying campaign pitting industrial giants against a coalition of conservation groups led by the Save the Dunes Council. Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois challenged Indiana's congressional representatives by supporting the park. Although compromised by Bethlehem Steel Corporation's preemptive leveling of centrally located high dunes, the establishment of the park represented a symbolic victory for Midwestern progressivism and the ideal of social democracy. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, industrial pollution and urban sprawl continued to threaten the Indiana Dunes.

More information on Indiana Dunes ecology here and here.

Other Coastal Ecosystems

The Indiana DNR Lake Michigan Coastal Program (LMCP) has a poster, Ecosystems of the Indiana Coastal Region. The poster illustrates the various types of ecosystems in the Lake Michigan area, including prairie, forest, marsh, bog/fen, savanna, swamp, dune/swale, river and dunes. Each ecosystem has its own illustration, along with remarkable plants in the area. The poster is available at Indiana Dunes State Park nature center, the LMCP Dunes Annex Office at Indiana Dunes State Park, the DNR Michigan City office, and the DNR Customer Service Center in Indianapolis.

NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) conducts high-quality research and provides scientific leadership on important issues in both Great Lakes and marine coastal environments leading to new knowledge, tools, approaches, awareness, and service. GLERL is a multi-disciplinary environmental research laboratory that provides a solid scientific understanding, as well as the leadership necessary for the wise use and management of Great Lakes and coastal marine environments.

The Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping Project (GLEAM) evaluates multiple stressors affecting the Great Lakes ecosystem. GLEAM merges spatial data layers representing all major categories of stressors to the Great Lakes, ranging from climate change and land-based pollution to invasive species, into a single map of cumulative stress. The synthesis of this information into a single map enhances our ability to manage and restore the Great Lakes ecosystem. The final map can be used to assess stressor impacts at locations with significant human benefits and to evaluate conservation and restoration opportunities.

NOAA's Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps provide a concise summary of coastal resources that are at risk if an oil spill occurs nearby. Examples of at-risk resources include biological resources (such as birds and shellfish beds), sensitive shorelines (such as marshes and tidal flats), and human-use resources (such as public beaches and parks).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coastal Services Center, in partnership with NatureServe and others are developing the Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard (CMECS), a standard ecological classification system that is universally applicable for coastal and marine systems and complementary to existing wetland and upland systems.

Contact Info

Mike Molnar
Program Manager
Lake Michigan Coastal Program
Indiana Department of Natural Resources

Sergio Mendoza
Natural Resources Planner
Lake Michigan Coastal Program
Indiana Department of Natural Resources

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore - 219-926-7561 then press 6 - Wildlife & Plants

State of the Beach Report: Indiana
Indiana Home Beach Description Beach Access Water Quality Beach Erosion Erosion Response Beach Fill Shoreline Structures Beach Ecology Surfing Areas Website
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