A Northwest Indiana Life in the Spotlight: Nicole Barker

nicole-barkerThe sand dunes surrounding Lake Michigan are a natural wonder, providing a tourist draw in Northwest Indiana.

But all of that tourism takes a toll on the dunes, causing erosion and disturbing the local ecology. Enter Nicole Barker, executive director of Save the Dunes, a not-for-profit looking into solutions that allow nature and tourists to coexist.

"The mission of Save the Dunes is to preserve, protect and restore the Indiana dunes and all natural resources in Northwest Indiana's Lake Michigan watershed for an enhanced quality of life," Barker said. "We accomplish this by protecting the Indiana dune ecosystem from the negative impacts of human land use and behavior, protecting the watersheds that flow to the dunes and Lake Michigan, educating the public and environmental concerns affecting the dunes and reducing the pollution of the dunes by holding government agencies, businesses and residents accountable."

As Executive Director, Barker heads the 13-member Board of Directors and six-person staff. Day-to-day duties include researching dunes-related projects, dealing with various logistical challenges and soliciting donors and grantors.

"Nonprofits are a lot of work," Barker said, "but very worthwhile work."

Barker has been leading Save the Dunes for just over three years after spending a decade-plus as a program director for the City of Chicago Department of Environment. When her husband – a La Porte native – wanted to return to his roots, Barker gladly moved with him to Northwest Indiana and accepted the position with Save the Dunes.

"As a child, my grandmother had a house in Porter Beach," Barker said. "So I was already in love with the dunes – and him – so I said yes and took this job."

In three-plus years at the helm, Barker has learned there isn't a lot of downtime at Save the Dunes. But she sees that as a positive part about the job.

"My favorite thing about working at Save the Dunes is the fact that there is never a boring day in the dunes," Barker said. "Due to the complexities of our landscape and the tensions that arise between land uses, there is always something to learn, explore or mull over. I love it and want the best things for the region and its residents."

When Barker does take time off, she enjoys reading exercising and playing with her dog, Kota. She's a fan of the region's local eateries and superb craft breweries, and when the polar vortex sets in she can be found watching Downton Abbey or the Walking Dead.

The hustle and bustle of everyday life can get to anyone, but Barker's ready with a remedy, encouraging the residents of Northwest Indiana to slow down and enjoy the dunes, one of the state's – and nation's – greatest natural wonders.

"I encourage everyone in the region to make sure they've been to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Indiana Dunes State Park," Barker said. "The ecology of the parks is globally significant, and it's right here in our backyard. Get outside, take a hike, hit the beach – enjoy nature and keep moving to improve your health."