Lelia “Lee” Botts

Leilia “Lee” Botts
Leilia “Lee” Botts

Jon L. Hendricks/The Times Miller

Quick Facts
Environmental activist and educator in the American Midwest
Place of Birth:
Date of Birth:
February 25, 1928
Date of Death:
October 5, 2019

“Lady of the Lake”

Visionary Lee Botts grew up in the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma, destined to be a chief defender of clean water and inspiring environmentalist. After moving to Chicago in 1949, she marveled at the region’s freshwater resources and the Indiana Dunes quickly became a favorite family haunt. She joined efforts to save the unprotected dunes in 1959, seeing creation of a park in 1966 and launching her lifelong career into environmental policy and education. 

Quotes by her:

“We’ve got to learn to live with the lake; it’s too big for us to control.”

Quotes about her:

“She became a writer, a grass-roots organizer, an educator, and a municipal and federal government official whose work would touch practically every drop of water and every mile of shoreline in the Great Lakes basin while educating tens of thousands of people in its ecology.”


A grandchild of homesteaders, Leila “Lee” Carman was born February 25, 1928 and grew up in Oklahoma and Kansas during the Great Depression. She loved to explore around her grandparents’ wheat farm, where the freedom to wander would make her aware of relationships to the land. She would later say, “I was a child of the Dust Bowl.” The 1930s brought severe drought and dust storms to the region due to unsustainable farming methods. This man-made environmental disaster was a very formative experience for her. The New York Times relays an early story from her childhood:

One morning her grandfather lifted her onto his saddle and rode out with her to a pasture to inspect a row of drought-resistant trees that he had planted to halt erosion. They found that the trees, together forming what was called a shelterbelt, were, supported by a federal New Deal soil conservation program, growing just fine.

The lesson stayed with her, she later said, arousing in her a passion to help protect the earth and kindling a seven-decade career in environmentalism — in her case far removed from that parched Oklahoma soil.

Lee attended North High School in Wichita, Kansas. A yearbook photograph from 1944 shows her ironing; oblivious to her potential, its caption reads: “Be careful there Lelia Carman, or you will burn that blouse!” Lee continued her education and attended Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College, today’s Oklahoma State University. Not uncommon for Oklahoma women at the time, Lee was the first woman in her extended family to attend college. According to her son Paul, “It was her mother’s insistence that she go.”

She was active in numerous honorary fraternities and assistant editor of the daily campus paper. While at college, Lee met Lambert “Bud” Botts. The couple married in Chicago on September 17, 1949. That same year, they moved to Hyde Park, where Bud would attend the nearby University of Chicago for graduate studies. Lee completed her studies by mail and received an English degree.

Lee often reflected on her first reaction to Lake Michigan: “I couldn’t get over the marvel of a lake that wasn’t made by the Army Corps of Engineers.” Her daughter Beth later clarified, “Because that’s the only way you got a lake in Oklahoma.” In April of 1954, Lee gave birth to their first child, Karl. In February of 1956, she gave birth to their daughter, Beth. In the late 1950s, Lee began writing a “garden” column for the Hyde Park Herald that represented early urban conservation.

In 1959, Lee joined Dorothy Buell's Save the Dunes Council, a citizen group determined to preserve the Indiana sand dunes for a national park. The area had already become a favorite haunt for her family. Her daughter Beth maintains that through Save the Dunes, Lee learned how to be an environmental activist. Beth spoke of her mother: “She saw the dunes, and the grasses, and the woods, rising up next to this amazing blue water and she never got over that.” She joined the group’s Board of Directors and managed “public relations.” Lee gave birth to their son, Paul, in 1962. A few years later in 1965, Lee had their fourth and final child, Alan.

In 1966, Save the Dunes’ efforts were rewarded with the authorization of an Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. That same year, Lee became an editor for the Hyde Park Herald, serving into 1969. Bruce Sagan, owner of the newspaper since 1953, reflected on Lee’s work: “her objective journalism was a crucial component of the civic discussion during that complex history.”

Lee knew the power of citizen action; she decided to leave her work in the newspaper and take a position with the Open Lands Project in Chicago, a local group known as a leader in urban conservation. She was hired in 1969 to develop a general environmental education program that would focus on Lake Michigan-specific environmental issues. On April 22, 1970, thousands of activists in Chicago joined cities across the world to demand a healthy, sustainable environment in celebration of the first Earth Day. In her new role with Open Lands, Lee helped organize a teach-in event and spoke at a local college to highlight the pivotal day in environmentalism.

By the early 1970s, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore had acquired land for the park, and the development of West Beach for visitor use was in the news. Despite the wins in land protection, Lee feared that the pollution affecting the lake’s water quality would endanger recreation. In May of 1970, the Chicago Tribune captured Lee’s concern:

‘All this is very good, even wonderful,’ comments Mrs. Lee Botts, official spokesman for the Dunes council pessimistically, ‘but what if lake pollution, which surveys show to be growing steadily worse, becomes so bad that they’ll have to close West Beach just about the time when they expect to formally open it? We’ve got to lick pollution right away.’

The next year, the National Park Service revealed controversial development plans for the West Beach property that included a marina, sports fields, parking garages, and swimming pools — a move that blindsided conservationists. The Chicago Tribune reported Lee’s reaction to the Park Service’s early West Beach development plans:

When I saw the proposal for swimming pools I was so baffled I thought the park service had come under the influence of the University of Chicago professor who said it would be cheaper to build swimming pools for everyone than to stop pollution. I have never encountered anyone who went to the lakeshore because they wanted to swim in a swimming pool.

Save the Dunes was set on changing the plans. “They protested to the newspapers, to their congressional supporters, and to the Secretary of the Interior… A planning advisory group incorporating local and regional planning agencies as well as area citizens’ groups was created; and a new, more acceptable General Management Plan for park development eventually emerged.” “Park service attitudes have subsequently changed. Local public hearings on General Management Plans are now required throughout the National Park system…”

Around 1970, the negative effects of thermal pollution on ecosystems were becoming more understood. In March of that year, Lee criticized the lack of communication concerning new nuclear power plants and the public:

In spite of the serious dispute about the consequences, only the public so far as questioned whether the lake can survive its function as a cooling pond when it is already dying of its burden of municipal sewage, agricultural fertilizers and industrial wastes…

Each nuclear power plant has been authorized in a separate decision, without relation to other power plants in terms of environmental effects.

On May 2, 1970, as president of the Open Lands Project, Lee criticized state agencies for “prematurely” issuing construction permits for a nuclear power plant just north of Chicago in Zion, Illinois. A four-state water quality conference concerning Lake Michigan was to be held in Zion on May 7th, and Lee knew the effects of thermal pollution were not considered when the permit was issued. She would speak in Michigan the following year: “We’re not against nuclear power, we need electricity. But electricity doesn’t have to be produced at the expense of the environment.”

At the water quality conference on May 7th, 1970, Lee clarified the role of the Open Lands Project. She said the group would provide organizations from surrounding states with reviews of new research relating to the lake. “We are not political,” she said. “We will also serve as liaison with government agencies on the local, state, and federal level.” She also announced plans for a newsletter so that pertinent information could reach a larger audience.

Also at the conference, the Federal Water Quality Administration (FWQA) announced their thermal pollution policy that forbade dumping heated water into the lake. The policy blindsided industry officials and environmentalists alike; Lee said at the time, “I hope it’s true… It may be one of those things that is too strict to be enforced.”

In June of 1970, Lee participated in a Save the Dunes event at Marquette Park where over 150 people came to hike and learn about the Dunes. Charlotte Read spoke on problems that endanger the dunes, such as sand mining. Lee focused on thermal pollution. Sylvia Troy addressed the Council’s newest threat, the Northern Indiana Public Service Company’s (NIPSCO) proposed coal-burning power plant in Michigan City, Indiana. Lee knew the effectiveness of citizen action, and she realized the need for an organization that focused on protecting Lake Michigan.

In September of 1970 she founded the Lake Michigan Federation, the first citizen-run organization for the protection of a Great Lake. The group's motto was “Citizen Action to Save a Great Lake.” The group originally operated out of Open Lands, but became an independent organization in the fall of 1971. Lee served as the group's executive director from 1971-1975. The Federation led advocacy for the first binational Great Lakes Waters Quality Agreement, successfully lobbied for congressional passage of the landmark 1972 Clean Water Act, and pressured states to enforce provisions to decrease pollution into Lake Michigan. The Federation also played a key role in persuading Congress to ban PCBs through the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act.

Explaining the name, Lee stated:

It is called a Federation because it is not designed to act on behalf of its members, but to provide information needed by its members to decide when and where to take action of their own. 

…So the basic structure of the Federation provides for membership to organizations and individuals who can look to the Federation as their clearinghouse for information about Lake Michigan.

Although the group would touch on local issues, Lee knew that focusing on larger issues would have the most positive impacts; “We remain convinced that we will achieve more for the lake in the long run by dealing with broad policy issues which these local situations reflect.”

In 1971, the Lake Michigan Federation campaigned for more stringent standards for industrial plants, power plants, and municipalities that discharged wastes into the lake. The Times in Munster quoted Lee: 

We think we have barely started…

We think we are justified in asking for special conditions to preserve Lake Michigan.

Lee provided the spark that got Lake Michigan and surrounding states at the international table involving Great Lakes policy decisions. In August of 1971 during the Conference of Great Lakes Governors and Canadian Premiers, Botts questioned why the state of Illinois and Lake Michigan were not involved in the international deliberations, as Lake Michigan’s waters were directly tied to the other four Great Lakes. The next day the Governor of Wisconsin introduced a resolution that was unanimously adopted by the eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces, declaring: “The water quality objectives set out in the international agreement between the two federal governments apply to Lake Michigan…”

While much of the conservation world was focused on pollution, the Lake Michigan Federation was additionally cognizant of human-induced coastal erosion issues happening on Lake Michigan shores. High lake levels caused exacerbated erosion in areas where human-made structures interrupted the natural shore. By the end of August 1971, Lee and the Lake Michigan Federation publicly expressed that the Army Corps of Engineers and the State of Indiana should be held responsible for restoring the lake’s eroded shoreline and preventing further damage. They highlighted the accelerated destruction of the shoreline by Army Corps-permitted projects like Bethlehem Steel's lakefill near today’s Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk and the breakwall structures near Mt. Baldy in Michigan City. Lee contended that the permits were issued under the condition the environment would be protected, and that now the Army Corps and the state were trying to convince the public that the beaches would return when abnormally high lake levels dropped. A Chicago Tribune article highlights Lee’s view: 

In response to the idea that the flooded beaches were simply under unusually high lake levels, Lee responded ‘They won’t. They are washed away. They are not under the high water. They are gone.’

Lee noted that erosion worsened with the erection of jetties, which simply moved erosion further down the shoreline and magnified the problem. “In 1971… the corps agreed to dump dredged sand but put it in the wrong place to preserve the beaches,” Lee said. In fall of 1973, the Army Corps awarded a $2.5 million contract to place boulders along about 2.5 miles of shoreline. Anticipating an increase in erosion and the subsequent private property damage, exposed septic tanks and expensive road repairs; the Superintendent of the national lakeshore had to make a difficult choice. Superintendent Whitehouse told the press: “If there was another way to solve this problem, I’d say ‘fine.’ But I don’t see any other solution right now”.

The limestone boulder revetments act as a barrier to protect remaining coastal dunes from the lake’s erosional wave-action. Lee expressed her concern that one project would lead to another. “She sees the revetments as ‘one more man-made structure altering the natural character of the shoreline,” wrote The Indianapolis Star. Speaking on coastal erosion a few years later, Lee said, “We’ve got to learn to live with the lake; it’s too big for us to control.” Lake levels follow a cyclic pattern; recent high water periods have resulted in additional boulder revetments to Indiana’s lakeshore. 

In 1971, a national conservation on the use of phosphates accelerated when its dangerous caustic and destructive ecological properties were discussed at the congressional level. Under Lee’s leadership, the Federation seized the opportunity and successfully persuaded Mayor Richard J. Daley to make Chicago the first Great Lakes city to ban phosphates in detergents. In 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency’s May report featured Lee on the cover and included the story entitled: The Incomparable Lee Botts. The article praised her for her many years of work to preserve, guard, improve, and protect Lake Michigan and its surrounding area. The ban went into effect on June 30th, 1972. In Green Bay, Wisconsin that July, locals reported foul smelling and tasting water in the lake. A fertilizer-induced algae bloom was to blame, which elevated conservationists’ growing fears that Lake Michigan could become a “dead lake,” like Lake Eerie. Lee used the moment to highlight Lake Michigan’s water quality issues: “We’re very alarmed. I hope it will convince anyone who isn’t already convinced that we haven’t been making false alarms. The lake is in serious danger.”

Lee’s hunch that the FWQA’s ban on thermal pollution from May of 1970 would be too strict to be enforced proved true. In November of 1972, the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it would not enforce its previously stated thermal pollution standards. “This is a capitulation to the utility lobby,” Lee said. Out of the four states that border Lake Michigan, only Indiana chose to independently adopt the thermal pollution standards, an agreement that necessitated NIPSCO to incorporate cooling of their discharge waters at their Michigan City power plant.

Still, with only Indiana complying, Lake Michigan was threatened with thermal pollution at the majority of its shores. Lee saw the morality of Lake Michigan and urgency to protect it:

The historical trend is for ever more pollution of Lake Michigan and basing decisions on stopping pollution on the cost rather than the possible benefits…

To call this trend ‘normal’ is to say that murder is normal, and to do it in the name of planning makes it premeditated murder.

Thermal pollution is now regulated by the Clean Water Act by section 316(a); however, the law allows permitting authorities to evaluate whether a variance should be granted on a case-by-case basis.

In February of 1974 when President Nixon nearly halved the EPA’s budget for bringing Lake Michigan’s sewage treatment plants to Clean Water Act standards, Lee said “Lack of sewage treatment will still damage the lake directly… Citizen pressure is still the way to save Lake Michigan, and the place to bring pressure is Congress.” Later that year, Congress responded to the public’s outcry and passed the Impoundment Control Act, which made it clear a president could not refuse to spend appropriated funds.

In September of 1974, the Federal Energy Administration (FEA) held a hearing in Chicago concerning a President Nixon-initiated energy project that would rely heavily on upping coal production and building nuclear plants. The hearing was one of ten that took place across the U.S. on “Project Independence,” Nixon’s bold plan for the nation to become energy independent by 1980. The project materialized in response to the 1973 oil crisis, and was now being continued by President Ford. Lee felt the project was unachievable, came at too high an environmental cost, and was one of the few environmentalists invited to testify at the hearing. A few weeks before the hearing, Lee was quoted in a Chicago Tribune article; “Project Independence is a fraudulent effort to convince the American people of the necessity to exploit our natural resources in the name of energy.”

Around this same time, Lee sat on an advisory board for the Ford Foundation’s Energy Policy Project, and consulted with the Nuclear Regulatory Commision on the proposal to build nuclear energy centers around the country. In June of 1975, her efforts for pursuing smart energy were rewarded when she was appointed to the Consumer Affairs-Special Impact Advisory Committee to the FEA.

The same article that noted this achievement also cited her opposition to NIPSCO's proposed “Bailly I” nuclear power plant near Cowles Bog. Lee knew the plant would adversely affect the Indiana Dunes, and was vocal in her opposition to it. NIPSCO announced its plans in 1970, and construction began before being halted by litigation. In 1977 at West Beach’s dedication, Lee was in attendance, proudly wearing a lapel pin that expressed her opposition to Bailly I. Court battles continued for over 10 years before the company announced the project’s abandonment in 1981 after spending $191 million.

Lee and Lambert divorced in 1975. That November, Lee criticized the EPA for failing to protect the lake and those who depend on it.  A national discussion on banning polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) by passing a toxic substance control law was underway, and Lee said she was dismayed that the EPA had failed to enact regulations on the chemicals. A few days later she wrote to the Chicago Tribune, “The American public has not turned away from its concern for protecting the environment and is demanding that we protect the environment while providing jobs.” Lee said that the government should invest its research and development money in environmentally safe energy sources such as solar energy, rather than in environmentally destructive sources such as coal or nuclear energy. Lee’s wealth of ideas did not go unnoticed.

Around the start of 1976, Lee was hired by the EPA and joined the staff of their Region 5 office in Chicago. Lee worked for the young agency for two years as deputy director for public and intergovernmental affairs. She focused her efforts on trying to convince EPA officials in Washington D.C. that PCBs were a risk to residents and wildlife of the Great Lakes. A magazine published by the office later that year described her in a headline as “Lady of the Lake.” By the end of 1977, the EPA banned PCB discharges into rivers and lakes; two years later they banned the use and production of the chemical entirely.

Phosphate pollution continued to be an issue for Lake Michigan. On October 1, 1977, Michigan joined Indiana; New York; Minnesota; Akron, Ohio and Chicago in banning laundry detergent that contained phosphates. At the same time, senators and representatives from Great Lakes states were pressing for federal legislation. Phosphates cause accelerated aging, or eutrophication of a lake. Although Lee viewed a ban of phosphate detergents in the Great Lakes basin as “the single biggest step we can take immediately,” it never materialized. Despite this, each state in the country voluntarily banned phosphates in detergents by 1994.

In February of 1978, Lee addressed recently proposed budget cuts for the EPA for 1979-1980 while alluding to a general unrecognition of the Great Lakes’ worth from the nation’s capital: 

The fact that cuts of this extent had been considered reflects the lack of appreciation in Washington for the Great Lakes as a resource. There are a lot of people in Washington who think the Great Lakes are little puddles. They have no sense of the lakes’ importance as one-fifth of the world’s fresh water.

The squeaky wheel got the grease; later that month, President Carter appointed Lee as the chairman of the Great Lakes Basin Commision— a collection of international water quality and water use planning agencies that work to solve Great Lakes issues. Lee promised to change the Commission’s “do-nothing” image while also beginning to tackle air pollution. Following the release of a 1978 study on Great Lakes pollution sources, Lee said, “Until now, we’ve been concentrating on what comes out of pipes… It’s clear we must pay more attention to air than we realized.” A couple years later she celebrated the increased understanding of environmentalism that she witnessed over the last decade:

… the most important thing is that environmental protection is now part of the system. We know a lot more about how things work, but we’re not as far as we need to be. 

In 1970, we didn’t have any idea that a lot of the pollution going into the Great Lakes was falling from the air. We thought it was all coming from the ends or pipes, or running off the land. Now we know a good portion comes from the air.

In May of 1980, while still serving as chairman of the Great Lakes Commission, Lee reflected on her work and on the paradigm shift in environmentalism:

The most important thing I do is get agreement from 8 states and 12 federal agencies on what has to be done for the Great Lakes… Everyone now agrees that the environment must be protected. The argument now is how we do it. Ten years ago, it was whether it had to be done. That’s an incredible difference, and it happened in a pretty short time… One of the most important things happening now is the recognition of the link between good economics and good environmental protection… That is becoming clearer and clearer.

On September 30, 1978, President Reagan terminated the Great Lakes Basin Commission. Lee moved to Evanston, Illinois, where she held a research faculty position at Northwestern University from 1981 to 1985. In October of 1981, the Botts’ leaseback home in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore burned down in Beverly Shores from arson. Her daughter Beth would later write:

The house was nothing, but the surrounding woods, full of shelf lichens, grapevines for Tarzan swings, trillium, cardinal flower, sassafras, marsh marigolds, a big old willow for a treehouse, had been the playground of my younger brothers’ childhoods.

The Botts’ home was one of five that burned at the time, including two other environmentalists’. Additionally, conservationist Sylvia Troy’s home burned down from arson in Beverly Shores seven years earlier. After the 1981 event, the Indianapolis News wrote of Beverly Shores’ “Fire Chief Stanley”: 

‘We’ve discounted the theory about the anti-environmentalist connection,’ said the burly veteran of 20 years on the Beverly Shores department.

Stanley, who open describes his attitude as ‘anti-park,” actually has an interesting counter theory for those who say the fires are a campaign of terror against person opposing lakeside development.

‘With Reagan cutting back on park and environmental money, what better way for the environmentalists to gain sympathy than to have this kind of tragedy perpetrated against them.’ 

Regardless of the intent of the house fires, suffice to say tensions were high among conservationists and anti-park sentiment. Lee highlighted land use issues in a Times article from Munster:

All over the country there are tremendous conflicts over use of shoreline. More and more people want to live on shores, more and more people want to go to shores and more and more industries want to locate on shores.

Lee wrote a piece for The Indiana Dunes Story; How Nature and People Made a Park, a collection of short essays by regional conservationists and scientists published in 1984. Lee wrote of the region’s fragility:

The use and lose dilemma is worse for the Indiana Dunes because it is a small park accessible to many people and because so many of its valuable natural areas are especially vulnerable. Mount Baldy cannot survive too many climbers, Pinhook Bog too many hikers, nor the heron rookery too many visitors during the nesting season.

In 1985, Lee joined the senior staff of Mayor Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African-American mayor. Under Mayor Washington, Lee served as director and organized the city’s first-ever Department of the Environment. That October, with Mayor Washington’s endorsement and support, Lee became the first environmentalist to run for the board of the Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago (now the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, MWRD;) she lost by just 2%. Although Lee was unsuccessful with the MWRD, her environmentalist platform helped pave the way for later successful environmentalist tickets like Cam Davis and Debra Shore.

In 1988, Lee and a Canadian Great Lakes advocate Bruce Krushelnicki authored a resource entitled, The Great Lakes: An Environmental Atlas and Resource Book. Their intent for the book was to provide an ecosystem approach to the understanding of the Great Lakes Basin. That same year, Lee retired to the Dunes and entered an agreement with the National Lakeshore to live in another leaseback home near the western edge of today’s West Beach. “The Dunes was the place she connected to nature, to kids; the future, the life of the world.” A 1994 Chicago Tribune article that highlighted environmental activists of Northwest Indiana wrote that Lee was a warm, lowkey activist who was often referred to as “Mother Botts.” The article also quoted a Chicago alderman, who said; “she knows how to make the government work. Lee brings people together.” She used this skill to accomplish what she would consider her proudest achievement. 

Lee decided to work on getting an environmental education center in the National Lakeshore that would focus on educating youth by other young people. She saw the center as being a way to move environmental values out into the world, an extension of the teaching and mentoring she had been doing her whole life. The Great Lakes Basin Commission quoted Lee, “I worked from inside government and outside government… I learned there are a lot of different ways to make things happen.”

Through Lee’s vision and coordination, the Indiana Dunes Environmental Learning Center was established at the site of the historic Goodfellow Youth Camp. They opened their doors to students for the first time in 1998. Lee saw the organization through its infancy by initially chairing its board of directors. She believed that introducing kids to the dunes, one classroom at a time, was the best way to ensure their protection. Lee said, “more and more kids can learn to love the dunes, and as they do, others will follow.” Today, known as the Dunes Learning Center, it operates as a private, non-for-profit partner of Indiana Dunes National Park and offers year-round environmental education programs to thousands of students annually. Today, plans and funding to begin the restoration of historic elements of the Goodfellow Youth Camp on the Dunes Learning Center’s campus have been secured.

In 2000, Lee started the Northwest Indiana Quality of Life Council; a mix of environmentalists, industry, government, and others who come together to discuss environmental problems to solve them cooperatively. That March, Lee was quoted, “People need to know about where they live and care about it.” That August, The Times in Munster, IN wrote of the major economic benefits that Dunes tourism brings to the region. Lee said:

Ecotourism was happening here 100 years ago. It just came under a different name.

People have been pumping money into the Northwest Indiana community for quite some time. That’s why all the industries, businesses, tourists and even a national park found its way here - because of the dunes and the lake. It’s not a secret any longer.

In 2002, the 1400-member national Clean Water Network named Lee Botts as one of the 30 people who had made the most difference in pioneering the federal 1972 Clean Water Act. In 2005, the Botts’ leaseback agreement ended with the National Lakeshore. Lee gave a bittersweet goodbye to the land she and her family had grown connected to over the last 17 years. The house was removed, and the land was rewilded. Beth Botts wrote that year: 

We knew our patch intimately: how the marsh’s water level was connected to that of the lake, so that in some years it was dry down to the bottom, only to rebound lushly as soon as the lake level rose; how you could mark the turn of the year by the sound of the spring peepers emerging to sing there; how busy muskrats built mounds beside the path, damselflies darted, blue and green herons hunted; how hawks and falcons lazily rode on the columns of warm air rising from the dunes, waiting for prey among the birds that migrate north along the lake.

…Now, her house and those of my brother and their neighbors are torn down, the debris carted away, the sand and sand cherries taking back what long ago was theirs. The woodchucks that harried my mother’s vegetable garden can relax. The irritating interlude of a century or so during which humans thought they owned the place is over. It's their dune again.

…My mother, 77, has moved on, planted another garden, found another window through which she can watch a peaceful pond with herons and snapping turtles and water lilies. She says she feels fortunate and privileged to have enjoyed the beach house as long as she did.

Lee recognized the incredible environmental changes that were happening in the region, and pushed for ways to document the work and spread the word. In 2010 she started the Northwest Indiana Restoration Monitoring Inventory, an organization that continues to track successful and ongoing restoration projects in the region.

To reach an even wider audience, Lee felt that a documentary should be made to showcase the region’s restoration work. This was an idea she had brought up with her children at the dinner table for decades. When she couldn’t find someone to do it; in 2010 at age 85, she paired with director and producer Pat Wisniewsky and decided to write and executive produce the film herself. She wrote the script, conducted many of the interviews, led fundraising efforts, and traveled to promote the film even after being unable to drive her own car. On Earth Day in 2016, Shifting Sands premiered and Lee introduced the film at a number of viewings. According to the Northwest Indiana Times; in hindsight, Lee’s children believe the film project helped extend their mother’s life. A student textbook and educator’s guide of activities were developed in coordination with the film; limited copies are available at the National Park’s Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education.

Lee Botts died on October 5, 2019 at age 91, just months after Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was renamed Indiana Dunes National Park. Michael Bryson of Roosevelt University wrote after her passing: 

A person who did any one of the above accomplishments would rightly be lauded for the impact of their work on behalf of people and the environment. The fact that Lee Botts did all this and more — through her own will, dedication, and fierce advocacy as well as her ability to connect and collaborate with others — is nothing short of astounding.

For the Love Of Water’s founder and president, Jim Olson, said of Lee:

When you met and worked with Lee, she became your mentor whether you knew it at the time or not. You knew she was a leader, one who led and worked passionately for the integrity of the Great Lakes, but also as a champion of the integrity of the process and the persons involved, whom she challenged to do the right thing. She was always prepared, saw the next strategical moves, and was fiercely articulate when she spoke or wrote. Her legacy includes much of the policy and values that protect the Great Lakes today.

Environmental attorney and Great Lakes advocate Bill Davis said: 

Lee had a very narrow definition of what was impossible, and from a political point of view, that is an extremely important and powerful concept. There was very, very little that Lee truly thought could not be done. I remember during the ’80s when the Great Lakes movement was discussing what our position should be on discharge of persistent toxins; it was Lee’s influence directly and through those she had mentored that led us to the position of zero discharge. I believe that would have been unthinkable without Lee.

Howard Learner, director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago said, “Lee made clear that we can almost never be effective enough or strong enough when it comes to protecting the Great Lakes… [she] set the bar high, which is where it should be.”

The content for this article was written by Joseph Gruzalski, a researcher with Indiana Dunes National Park. Funds were made possible by a National Park Foundation grant. 

Indiana Dunes National Park

Last updated: December 29, 2022