Planning a Wilderness
Like the controversy over the Platte River harbor the issue of wilderness designation at Sleeping Bear Dunes was another case of the National Park Service lagging behind the public’s environmental consciousness. The wilderness designation process at the lakeshore presents a history similar to that which took place at scores of other park service units during the early 1970s, with the agency taking a timid approach to designating lands as “wilderness” and the public forcing the park service to greatly expand its initial proposals to nearly double the protected acreage. The wilderness designation process also became another line of battle in the struggle between the National Park Service and a core of local stakeholders. Having failed to stop the creation of the lakeshore, opposition groups looked to wilderness restrictions as a way to control the pace of change brought by the new lakeshore.
In 1964, after a generation of agitation by a progressive coalition of conservationists, Congress passed the Wilderness Act. This act created a means to designate and protect from intrusion large tracts of roadless land. It specifically ordered the Secretary of the Interior, within ten years of the act, to review every roadless area in the National Park System of at least 5,000 acres in size for possible inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System. Public Law 91-479, which created the lakeshore park, specifically set a four-year deadline for the Secretary to evaluate the Sleeping Bear area for eligible wilderness areas. Undertaking that review was one of the first and most important planning initiatives of the new lakeshore park.
The wilderness review took place within the context of a preliminary effort to revise the lakeshore’s master plan. In 1968, when passage of a bill authorizing a Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was still very much in doubt, the National Park Service prepared a master plan for the proposed project. The goal of the plan was to “preserve this portion of Lake Michigan shoreline for the inspiration, education, recreational use and enjoyment of the public, while at the same time stabilizing private development within the area.” The plan was a throwback to the “can-do” Kennedy-era with large campgrounds and a wide variety of recreational developments to facilitate: “touring or driving for pleasure, bicycling, hiking, riding, nature walks, dunemobile riding, canoeing, and snowmobiling.” Environmentalists in favor of the proposed lakeshore were very concerned that the “heavy use” called for in the plan would threaten “fragile land like sand dunes.” “Well, let’s be still about it,” counseled Genevieve Gillette, “and see how we come out.” Heedless of such concerns park planners went on and designed beach facilities at Good Harbor Bay and Glen Haven that would have included bathhouses, locker rooms, and food concessions. There was no mention of wilderness areas within the lakeshore, save perhaps for the plan to encourage “primitive camping” on North Manitou Island. But even in the case of that island the plan was heavy handed with the provision to improve the island’s landing strip to accommodate small commercial aircraft. “Many points noted in the plan are still valid,” Superintendent Martinek noted in 1976, “but experience and events have changed some of the original thinking.” More than anything else the wilderness review revealed the shortcomings of the master plan.
Superintendent Martinek began the wilderness review in 1972. Initially he was dubious of the process. Like most National Park Service staff, Martinek’s understanding of wilderness was shaped by his years of working in the vast open spaces of the mountain west. “As we see it we have no area that will qualify as wilderness,” he confided to the Northeast Regional Office. “Both the islands and the mainland have been extensively logged by man." Also discouraging to the Sleeping Bear staff were the wilderness planning guidelines prepared by Assistant Secretary of the Interior Nathaniel Reed. He warned the park service not to create wilderness areas “at the expense of losing the essential management prerogatives that are necessary to fulfill the purposes for which the areas were originally intended.” This caused a bit of a dilemma for the lakeshore, for although it had originally been envisioned as a recreational park, the final bill that passed Congress placed a greater emphasis on preservation of the Sleeping Bear Dunes area. Wilderness designation was a clear-cut way to try to prevent large areas of the lakeshore from being changed by recreational use. The risk that park planners feared, however, was that if too large a portion of the park was managed as an undeveloped wilderness then the thousands of peak-season visitors to the lakeshore would all be funneled into the few remaining non-wilderness areas, creating congestion and a heavy impact on a small area. In the end the lakeshore staff, with help from the Denver Service Center, sorted out the proper way to define wilderness and how to envision a low-impact park. The lakeshore’s wilderness study team identified six areas, North and South Manitou Islands, the Platte River area, the Otter Creek area, the Sleeping Bear Plateau, and the Pyramid Point—Good Harbor Bay area, as all having a high potential of being wilderness units.
The potential wilderness areas totaled more than 35,000 acres, better than half of the lakeshore. Within the agency it was debated that this might be too much wilderness for such a high-traffic area. When the preliminary recommendations were made the proposal was pared down to three areas, North and South Manitou Island and Otter Creek, a total of 26,060 acres. As mandated under the Wilderness Act a public hearing was held to solicit a public response to the preliminary recommendation. The hearing was held on July 12, 1974 at the Beulah Veterans of Foreign Wars hall. John C. Preston, a veteran National Park Service manager, served as the hearing officer. Better than 200 people attended the hearing and, not unexpectedly, the overwhelming majority was in favor of including a much larger proportion of the lakeshore in the wilderness proposal. What was surprising at the hearing, however, was the way in which the antagonists in the long fight over the creation of the lakeshore found themselves in reversed roles. The Citizens Council, which had for nearly a decade argued that no federal protections were needed in the Sleeping Bear area, put forth a plan for all six of the potential wilderness areas to be recommended to Congress for designation. On the other hand E. Genevieve Gillette, the emterius President of the Michigan Parks Association and the tireless crusader for federal protection of the dunes since 1961, opposed the inclusion of the Platte River area as wilderness. Instead she favored a nature center at the mouth of the river and the use of the area for environmental education. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, also consistent supporters of National Park Service management of the Sleeping Bear, opposed the wilderness plan. Instead they supported designating only South Manitou Island as wilderness. Among other things, they were concerned that wilderness status would prevent the artificial maintenance of the deer herd on North Manitou Island. These old-line conservationists were, however, out of step with the majority of individuals and organizations responding to the wilderness proposal. Out of 479 total responses 419 called for more, not less wilderness protection.
In spite of the overwhelming response at the public hearing the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Advisory Commission voted to recommend only three areas for wilderness designation: the Manitou islands and the Otter Creek area. Particularly incensed by this rejection of the popular will was Mrs. Peter Williams of Traverse City, the only woman on the commission. She strongly favored all six potential wilderness areas be designated. Williams took the fight to the Michigan Natural Resources Commission, which was scheduled to hold a public meeting in August 1974 adjacent to the lakeshore at the Sugar Loaf Resort. The meeting was a chance for environmentalists, led by the Sierra Club, to lambast the Department of Natural Resources recommendation that only South Manitou Island be designated a wilderness. “Frankly we were dumfounded that DNR would recommend less wilderness than the National Park Service,” complained the Sierra Club’s spokesperson. Expressing the fervor for wilderness that was typical at the meeting was an Ann Arbor man who predicted that “those areas designated wilderness now may well be the only such shorelines in Michigan open to the public by the year 2000.”
Behind the boom for a largely wilderness park was a conscious desire on the part of Leelanau County residents to constrain the development of a lakeshore recreation area. The Leelanau Enterprise-Tribune encouraged support for a broader wilderness designation by reminding its readers “the main idea behind additional wilderness area [sic] is to preserve some of the most lovely and fragile areas of the Lakeshore against recreational use and use by campers.” Mrs. Williams blatantly based her support for more wilderness on the grounds of preventing a “huge mass of visitors” from ruining the area. What was not appreciated by these pragmatic supporters of wilderness was that in order for some of the mainland wilderness areas, such as the Pyramid Point-Good Harbor unit, to be designated wilderness the National Park Service’s condemnation authority would have to be extended to purchase the non-federal lands within the units. Only with a solid block of federal land ownership would it be possible to close private access two-tracks and make the area truly roadless. With this proviso the National Park Service recommended to Congress that six wilderness units, totaling 35,060 acres be designated at Sleeping Bear. The process ended more in a whimper than a clear-cut result because at the time the National Park Service did not yet own most of the land in question and neither the executive nor the legislative branch was disposed to move quickly on the recommendation. Nonetheless, the most important and far-reaching management decision that would ever be made at Sleeping Bear had taken place.
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