Stakeholder Collaboration along the Lake Michigan Water Trail: Interview with Dan Plath


More often than not, the most success and well-loved river trails come are efforts that stem from a diverse and well engaged stakeholder group. River users and lovers of all sorts – everything from recreationalists and business owners, to farmers, ranchers, city leaders and families – come together to cultivate and promote stewardship along their local river or stream. This process of stakeholder engagement can be daunting and often times quite the challenge for those involved. However, working collaboratively and effectively with these groups of individuals leads to tremendous success and growth for river trails across the country.

In the northwest corner of Indiana, a large group of stakeholders have worked tirelessly over the last several years to bring premier river trails to their local communities. Utilizing the diverse stakeholders and the different opportunities and insights they bring, the Northwest Indiana Paddling Association, along with their partners have been tremendously successful in developing a number of river trails for residents and tourists alike to enjoy. We were recently lucky to have an opportunity to speak with Dan Plath of the Northwest Indiana Paddling Association.

Dan, thanks for taking the time to talk with us and thank you for your involvement in promoting and increasing recreation in Indiana with the Northwest Indiana Paddling Association (NWIPA). I wonder how your background influenced your career choice – did you spend a lot of time outside as a kid?

I grew up paddling recreationally and racing on the Indiana United States Canoe Association circuit. I saw first-hand what the impact of people has been on our waterways. I made up my mind back then that I wanted more than just a career in the environmental field, I wanted a life in it. I went on to study environmental science and ecology over the next decade and a half. I got really involved in the environmental community of Northwest Indiana right after graduate school. I found that there was a large vacuum that was ripe to be filled in NW Indiana around paddling, education, and stewardship of our waterways. With my wife and three small kids, on weekends we typically are canoeing or kayaking as part of a Northwest Indiana Paddling Association organized event or are on our own paddling. We also love to explore nature hiking some at different natural areas like the Indiana Dunes.

What a great way to grow up and to help connect your kids to the great outdoors as well! I can see how that would shape your interest in conservation. What exactly do you do for NWIPA?

Currently, I’m the President and co-founder of the Northwest Indiana Paddling Association (NWIPA). We are a volunteer run organization of approximately 600 paddlers devoted to making Northwest Indiana a premier paddling destination through paddling, education, and river stewardship.  In 2011, we helped spearhead an effort as part of the larger Lake Michigan Water Trail Association to have the NPS designate a 75 mile portion of the Lake Michigan Water Trail a National Recreation Trail. This designated portion runs from the far north side of Chicago, along Indiana’s 46 miles of coastline, to nearby New Buffalo Michigan. It was a huge undertaking to not only help create public support for the trail, but also work with the various public access site owners to help create amenities for the water trail such as signage, maps, overnight camping, kayak lockers, and increase the number of put-ins. We have also been very involved in getting ADA paddling access sites developed which help disabled paddlers wishing to get on the water. Currently, we are working on a number of other water trails, including designating the Kanakee River Water Trail as a National Water Trail as well as working with Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois, to develop a continuous 1600 mile loop water trail around all of Lake Michigan.

As a fellow Midwesterner, I know there are a lot of great recreation opportunities along Lake Michigan. What types of recreation activities are popular along the Lake Michigan Water Trail including the tributaries that flow into Lake Michigan?


Along the Lake Michigan Water Trail, some of the more popular recreational activities are canoeing and kayaking. Canoeing and recreational kayaking mostly takes place on Lake Michigan’s tributary rivers while Lake Michigan is most popular with sea kayakers. Stand-up Paddle Boarding is getting really popular on the lake as well. Also, a lot of people don’t realize it, but the southern tip of Lake Michigan is a very popular surfing destination. We also see a lot of kite boarding, sailing, sail boarding, power boating, and recreational sport fishing mostly for perch, trout, and salmon.

Recreation is a great way to build support for increased stewardship of our rivers and lakes. How do you work with your community and its elected leaders to engage them in recreation and conservation initiatives?  

Recreation is really our main tool that we use to get things done. We have a fleet of a dozen kayaks and a half dozen canoes that we used all of the time for getting our elected officials, agency, and other partners on the water to experience it for themselves. Once people experience paddling themselves and see what it is that we are trying to accomplish, it usually does not take too much convincing to move forward. We organize about a dozen large paddling events per year for our members and the public. We also partner with hundreds of other organizations and elected officials to help promote our work. NW Indiana is a pretty close knit place, so we a lot of interaction with these folks who often become members of our organization. By getting people out experience the recreational jewels that are in their back yards, we have helped create an army of people that care about our waterways and are doing something to improve them.

Collaboration is the key to success in large stakeholder initiatives. What aspects of collaboration have helped NWIPA further your goals along the water trails you are working on?

As I mentioned earlier we are going for National Water Trail designation for the entire Kankakee River. We have been doing extensive outreach for several months now trying to get letters of support from a large group of stakeholders. We have about 65 support letters to date from some important and very diverse stakeholders. The key to being successful is to put yourself in their shoes. What is about what you are proposing that would appeal to them? Why should they care? Is there something that they might deem would be a threat? You need to be very strategic in your thinking. We are engaging with groups that might have historically opposed such of a project. Rather than shy away from them, these are the first people that we engaged and won over. It has taken years of confidence building steps to get to this point and our organizations have gained a lot of mutual respect for each other.

Additionally, on the Lake Michigan Water Trail, collaboration with three other states has been a real learning experience. It doesn’t move as fast as we are able to do things locally in Northwest Indiana, however, beyond our borders of Indiana, good things are getting done such as mapping and the creation of public access sites, camping, ADA access, and things like this. Working together with one unified we are collectively able to move big ideas forward towards actual large scale projects.

What are some of the key driver that makes the collaboration a success? Is there a specific project that you feel highlights the collaborative nature of the task force as a successful model for furthering conservation and recreation goals?

A lot of it boils down to your approach and overall values. Trust and the ability to see things through the lens of others. Then there is patience. Something that I learned from my place of work is the motto, one must be “humble and hungry”. Egos have the potential of getting in the way of progress. Being humble in your attitude, but ready to seize the opportunity when it presents itself is important. I think those are all key attributes. Many of our biggest and most game changing projects have taken many years of cultivation to get it to the point where you can even attempt it.

The Kankakee River National Water Trail is a good example. The Kankakee River National Water Trail literally is something that has been 20 years in the making. It has taken years of small confidence building steps, collaboration, and continuous outreach to get to this point. I think at the end of the day, we will have a model project that others may look to on how to pull off a successful project in the face of a history and headwinds that could easily have sunk the project.  We have helped bring together a very diverse set of stakeholders, including a strong backing by the Farm Bureau and the Kankakee River Basin Commission that will help us insure the success of this project. We are hoping that we have helped lay out the groundwork for a larger conversation for land conservation in the Kankakee. Like the East Branch of the Little Calumet River, use the water trail necklace analogy for a framework for further conservation efforts.

With the 600-plus number of stakeholders participating in the Northwest Indiana Paddling Association, there must have been some disagreement amongst the group. Have there been challenges that the Task Force has had to overcome and help resolve in order to help achieve some of these successes?

Within our organization, there actually has been little to no disagreement among membership remarkably. I think we do a decent job with communication with our membership and they see that big things are getting accomplished. We are very welcoming to those who want to get involved. We try to build consensus as much as we can amongst the organization, but also have done a good job of making swift decisions when some opportunities have arisen. There is a lot more that plan to do and most people are happy just to see progress being made. Among our all-volunteer board, we are all good friends and there is a lot of respect between everyone. We seem to be able to find most often that everyone is on the same page.


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