Interpreting and Managing the Lakeshore
The man who was given the task of preparing the Frederickson collection for public display was Charles R. Parkinson. The New Jersey native was a mid-career park naturalist who in June of 1972 began from scratch the lakeshore’s interpretation program. Parkinson had a Master’s degree in Geology, which proved useful in interpreting the park’s complex glacial history. More important, Parkinson was a resourceful and independent worker. After joining the park in May 1972 he immediately set to work readying the Glen Haven station as an interim visitors center. Pretty much on their own he and Paul “Pete” LaValley, the lakeshore’s first seasonal maintenance staff, swept out the decades of bird dung and broken glass to make the building useful. Then they improvised a small set of exhibits, utilizing a small part of the Frederickson collection. So crude was the contact station that when it first opened it even lacked toilet facilities. For two seasons the Glen Haven visitor’s center was manned by the first of the lakeshore’s seasonal interpreters, Joseph Jackson, a retired public relations man from Empire, Michigan.
During that first off-season Parkinson began the lakeshore’s environmental education programs with local schools. Yet hostility toward the lakeshore still ran high among the teachers, who felt that the park service threatened the overall quality of their schools by compromising the area tax base. It took years of frustrating work to build a network of teachers who would be involved with the park on a continuing basis. He also expanded the historical program by initiating a series of oral history interviews with individuals knowledgeable of the local history and began a collection of historical photographs of the park area.
The quality of the interpretation program picked up considerably in 1973 when Parkinson was able to open a new visitor’s center in a two-story house overlooking Glen Lake. The house had been acquired as part of the lands program and with minor alterations it was made into a very serviceable visitor center. Parkinson and Martinek purchased a stock of defective hollow-core doors and used them as highly effective exhibit panels. The first floor exhibits presented visitors with a view of the kind of park the lakeshore was planned to be as well as with an introduction to the area’s glacial history. The second floor was devoted to the Frederickson collection and included the best of the ship name boards and a stunning Fresnel lighthouse lens. Visitation at the new center more than doubled what the interim Glen Haven facility had been able to handle. One of the nicest features of the new center was that it was surrounded by lakeshore land, which allowed Parkinson to make use of a closed road to lay out a one-mile nature trail. During the winter the trail was converted into a popular cross-country ski trail. This made the visitor center a busy location not only during the summer months but also during any weekend during ski season.
The location of the park’s interim headquarters in Frankfort, well south of the lakeshore, was a source of frustration to all of the early employees. While Martinek, of necessity, made his home in Frankfort, he advocated the settlement of the other full-time park staff closer to the resource. There was, nonetheless, a lot of time wasted by the staff “dead-heading” from Frankfort to the more remote Leelanau portions of the park. Dean Einwalter, the first park ranger, particularly felt the logistical problems and isolation. Settled in a rental house near the Glen Haven Coast Guard station, Einwalter and his family were viewed by many locals as unwanted outsiders. His two daughters bore the brunt of hostility at the Glen Arbor school while he had the unenviable task of trying to head-off conflicts between lakefront property owners and visitors asserting the right to stroll on “public” beaches. As more and more properties were purchased Einwalter had to develop a regular inspection patrol to protect against vandalism and unlawful entry. While Einwalter functioned for a time as a Ranger Division of one, he also served as the first maintenance supervisor. Sometimes trying to do too much too fast came at a high cost. With the help of seasonal staff Einwalter took on the task of personally reinstalling over 400 broken window panes at the Coast Guard station. The job was completed, but not before Einwalter had to be hospitalized for inhaling toxic fumes from the torch he used to strip paint from the old windows.
The anger of many local residents toward park personnel blighted the early years of the lakeshore. Petty harassment in the form of graffiti or intemperate letters was frequent. “The animosity was fierce,” recalled Toni Perfect of Leelanau County, “People were just terrified.” For some, acceptance of the lakeshore developed quickly after they understood they would not be overwhelmed by thousands of tourists. Others stoked the fires of resentment for years. Raymond Kimpel, the lakeshore’s first Chief Ranger, witnessed an extreme example of this bitterness. He and another park employee stopped to admire a tree on the property of an elderly resident. The man rushed to his garage, took out a chainsaw and cut down the tree. Fortunately, most local people adopted the attitude of a Glen Arbor store owner, “You can’t carry bitterness and rancor forever. It’s here [the lakeshore], so the best thing to do is build upon it and not make it an albatross upon our necks.”
One of the nagging problems facing Superintendent Martinek and his staff was the lack of development funds for historic preservation, transportation, interpretation, and resource protection. In 1972 some $242,000 of planning and development money earmarked for Sleeping Bear was lost through across-the-board budget cuts. Martinek’s solution was “bootstrapping,” a determination to go forward regardless of the lack of staff or budget. The renovation of the Coast Guard station was a case in point. Martinek had no maintenance staff to order to clean out the buildings or clear away some small cedar trees and brush that had grown up between the structures. Instead Martinek grabbed a chainsaw and with the volunteered help of a land acquisition officer he cut down the brush himself. He kept up pressure on the agency to properly fund the lakeshore, but the scores of new parks in the region made each request a hard fight. In 1972, Martinek asked the regional office for a full-time maintenance man, only to be greeted with the question: “What do you need a maintenance man for?” The superintendent, who knew how to make a point emphatically, shot back: “What the hell—what do you need a maintenance man for?” At first the park suffered from a lack of equipment. The lakeshore office had a single typewriter mounted on a borrowed typing stand. When the Frankfort Chamber-of-Commerce needed their typing stand back, the lakeshore had no where to put their only piece of office equipment. For more than a year the park staff had to use their personal vehicles for much of the lakeshore business. Tired of the lack of cooperation he received from the General Services Administration Motor Pool, Martinek set up his own motor pool. He combed the inventories of federal surplus centers in southern Michigan and Ohio. Army surplus jeeps became a temporary means of transportation. Martinek regularly led Parkinson and Einwalter on foraging expeditions to the surplus warehouses and returning with trailers filled with desks, office equipment, shovels, and tents—“anything you could possibly need in setting-up a park”—pulled by a surplus jeep or truck. So successful was Martinek at building his park with surplus equipment that superintendents at Apostle Islands and Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway sought his advice on how to fill their needs.
Day-to-day operations in the early days of the lakeshore were dominated by the delicate job of managing a transition from private to public ownership. All structures which were purchased through land acquisition had to be boarded up. A small number were converted to temporary staff housing, while most were sold to the highest bidder for removal or salvage. Access roads to such properties as well as many of the “two-track” roads improvised over the years by hunters or fisherman had to be closed off to regulate access to park holdings. Off-road vehicles, especially dirt-bikes and snowmobiles, were particularly hard to stop. In December 1974, Superintendent Martinek, citing the Congressional mandate to “preserve” the area, banned snowmobiles from the lakeshore completely. Signage was the best way to warn users of the restriction as well as to deter visitors from camping on private land or driving up to private residences. Some local residents were quite prickly about tourists who strayed on to private land. One fellow planted his own sign at the head of his drive: “Caution! This farm does not belong to the Federal Gov’t yet, it is privately owned. Anyone caught trespassin’ will be shot! Try me & see.”
One example of the lakeshore trying to do too much too soon was the establishment of a branch of the International Youth Hostel at Sleeping Bear in 1974. Superintendent Martinek issued a special use permit to the American Youth Hostel in November of 1973 for their use of an almost new six unit motel near Glen Lake. The relationship, however, got off to a rocky start. Both the Grand Rapids and Detroit chapters alternated between trying to “take charge” of the facility and ignoring it. Further problems were encountered do to the unsatisfactory management of the hostel’s initial managers or “house parents.” Card carrying members of the International Youth Hostel were denied access to the facility in favor of friends of the local managers. Nor was the hostel well received in Leelanau County. Martinek received numerous complaints that the American Youth Hostel was being favored with use of an excellent facility over other groups, more locally based involved with promoting outdoor recreation. Over time, through the involvement of the National Hostel Director, the Sleeping Bear Hostel was placed on a solid footing. Nonetheless, it continued to be a source of problems to the lakeshore management. The hostel was surrounded by large tracks of private land. The Sleeping Bear hostel was popular with cross-country skiers who regularly ignored posted warnings and skied on to private holdings. Pierce Stocking became particularly angry at the way his lands were seemingly being used as a public recreation area at the very time the government was fighting him in court over the true value of his holdings. The fact was the lakeshore had too small a staff and too small of a land base to accommodate the hostel in the mid-1970s. In 1976, the permit of the American Youth Hostel expired and was not renewed.
The first resource management crisis for the lakeshore was the status of the gull colony on South Manitou Island. The nesting grounds of the herring and ring-billed gulls had been noted in the original Great Lakes Shoreline Survey as one of the reasons for including South Manitou Island in the lakeshore proposal. The colony was believed to have been created in the 1920s with its population swelling in the early 1960s. By the time the lakeshore was created gull populations throughout the Great Lakes region were in decline. Nonetheless, the initial Sleeping Bear Dunes master plan called for the Sea Gull Point area of the island to be a “public use and development area,” which alarmed knowledgeable people that the nesting area might be over-run by tourists. Closer inspection of the problem revealed there was a particularly high mortality rate among juvenile gulls. Initially this was blamed on the presence of motorized vehicles in the area of the nesting grounds. An inspection of the area by the Regional Biologist Max Holden led to an end of the use of cannon nets to capture gull chicks for banding, and a less intrusive approach even by scientists. After acquiring the property at Sea Gull Point in the summer of 1973, the lakeshore commissioned a multi-year study of the nesting grounds. The study, conducted by Professor William E. Southern of Northern Illinois University, did lead to plans to provide more isolation from visitors for the colony. The study also indicated that a large part of the colony’s decline was from natural predator action. Nocturnal raids by the island’s foxes devastated the gull chick population. The study indicated the complexity managing the isolated islands and that management decisions needed to be based on broad based scientific knowledge.
While natural forces were at work on the Gull colony, there was no doubt, however, that human action was at the heart of the major resource management crisis on North Manitou Island. The Angell Foundation had managed the island as a fishing and hunting preserve for years. As many as 1,500 deer browsed on the island. The only way the 15,000 acre island could support such a heavy population was through the maintenance of feed lots. The foundation’s gamekeepers spent over $20,000 annually to bring in eighty tons of deer feed. The result was a phenomenal hunting ground with as many as 500 deer harvested each fall. Trouble arose in 1979 when the Angell Foundation accepted a down-payment from the park service for the island and suspended all management activities. The National Park Service was under the impression that the foundation had gradually reduced the deer herd through increased hunting and reduced feeding. That was a course of action agreed to by the foundation managers but whereas the park service thought there were only a hundred or so deer on the island there may have been ten times that number. Between 1978 and 1984, when the island’s purchase hung in limbo, the deer herd was left to fend for itself. The result was a severe reduction in all understory plant life as the starving animals desperately searched for any source of nutrition. Each year hundreds perished from starvation. “There were dead deer everywhere,” commented a 1978 visitor to the island. Critics complained that the National Park Service would have been more humane and less wasteful if they had allowed a special hunt to reduce the herd. But the agency had been down that road at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in 1977. The attempt to organize a special hunt in the former Beaver Basin game preserve had led to lawsuits, confrontations with local hunters, a legacy of bitterness with the community, and a raft of bad publicity. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore printed permits for a special hunt on the island in 1980 but at the last minute the foundation refused permission. After that the lakeshore had to content itself with monitoring the situation. A National Park Service contract with the University of Michigan studied the herd between 1980 and 1983, but there was no intervention. The pathetic details of their report which included finding dead deer in abandoned cottages, where in their last extremities they sought refuge from the winter, and starving deer foraging on piles of dead alewives, were not broadly publicized. Doing nothing on North Manitou became the policy because technically the agency did yet own the island and the plight of the animals was less visible than at Pictured Rocks because the island was all but closed to human intrusion. The result, however, was the same in each instance for the deer—starvation.
What the park service called “letting nature take its course,” critics sneered was a policy of doing nothing. A prominent example of this dynamic in action was seen between 1972 and 1974, when abnormally high water levels in the Great Lakes caused an alarming amount of shoreline erosion. Warm winters and strong storms combined with the high water to threaten the Sleeping Bear shore by reducing the ice barriers that naturally fortified the base of the dunes. By 1973 the level of Lake Michigan was on an average five feet higher than in 1964. One particularly strong winter storm drove a family from their Sleeping Bear Point home when the waves surged over one hundred feet of beach and washed around the house. “We used to like to lie here at night and listen to the lake pounding on the beach,” one Empire resident remarked, “but when there’s no beach , it’s a horse of a different color.” All along the shore of the park property owners scrambled to devise means to hold back the water. One desperate homeowner in Arcadia, Michigan (outside the lakeshore) dumped several junk cars over the face of the dune to buffer the waves. Superintendent Martinek made clear that such actions would not be tolerated within the park. “We feel that the highs and lows in the Great Lakes water levels are natural and are part of what originally formed the dune country,” he advised land owners. The lakeshore allowed people to take limited protective action. Temporary wooden breakwaters, known as groins, were allowed. The lakeshore itself repaired groins built by the Coast Guard to protect the severely threatened lighthouse on South Manitou Island. By the late 1970s the high water levels had begun to abate and calls for breakwaters and house relocations within the lakeshore receded as well.
The two most important and persistent resource management question to bedevil the lakeshore in its early years were the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ plan to modify the mouth of the Platte River and the attempt to determine which lakeshore lands should be managed as wilderness.