New Bosses, In Frankfort and In Washington, D.C.
Superintendent Brown, in the words of one associate, “thrived on the tension, the give and take of the public meetings.” While he had made several missteps during the general management planning process, notably offering a compromise over the Miller Hill and Bow Lakes acquisitions before clearing such a policy with Omaha, every one involved agreed he had done a good job. Even his opponents granted that he “made an effort to be more responsive to the needs of the community.” In July 1980, Brown was rewarded with the position of Superintendent of Isle Royale National Park by the regional office. He had played an important transitional role at Sleeping Bear. “He brought us into the National Park Service,” recalled one staff member after the hardscrabble, under-funded days of the lakeshore’s beginning. In addition to good morale and a new management plan, Brown left behind one other legacy.
As visitors approaches the entrance to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore they are greeted by a sky blue and sandy brown sign accented with weathered nautical mooring posts. This design became the official signage for the lakeshore, repeated at every park attraction or facility. Superintendent Brown understood the importance of such design features in setting the right tone for visitors and he devoted considerable time to choosing the arrangement and color scheme. When the colors of the sky, water, and sand were finally chosen he insisted that they be used uniformly. So common was the use of the sandy brown paint at the lakeshore that years after the superintendent had left the paint was still known to the maintenance crew as “Brown brown.”
The new superintendent was Richard R. Peterson, a thirty-seven year old career ranger who came to the lakeshore after only a year as the Assistant Superintendent at the new Cuyahoga National Recreation Area. It would be Peterson’s responsibility to execute the plans made during the Brown years.
Richard Peterson came to Sleeping Bear when the park at last seemed to have a clear sense of its future direction. He told the Advisory Commission he was excited to be at the lakeshore at that time because the park was clearly “ready to go forward.” Land Acquisition was nearly complete and a new master plan was in place. But no sooner was that plan approved than the money needed to implement it began to dry up. In 1980 Congress had the first of what became for almost twenty years, an annual fight with the executive branch over the federal budget. For a large part of the year the lakeshore operated on the basis of a continuing resolution because Congress was unable to agree on an appropriations bill for 1981. During the Martinek and Brown years the lakeshore had enjoyed annual budget increases which allowed the park to gradually add staff and increase its programs of protection and interpretation. After 1980 the growth of the lakeshore’s budget would be much more uneven and financial austerity became a management necessity. Typical of the times was National Park Service Director William J. Whelan’s plan to raise private capital to fund long delayed improvements at Yosemite and other “crown jewel” parks.
National economic and social trends effected the lakeshore in important ways during the early 1980s. Slow growth and high inflation beset the national economy during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Arab oil embargo in 1973 and the stranglehold of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) on oil production led to a sudden and severe increase in energy costs in the United States. This combined with high federal spending levels led to a debilitating inflation problem. “The silent thief,” as inflation was known, shot up from six percent in 1976 to fourteen percent in 1979. Michigan was particularly hard hit as inflation spurred high interest rates, which made the purchase of automobiles difficult for average citizens. The high cost of gasoline led to decreases in motor tourism. Nationally, family incomes, which rose steadily through the 1960s, stagnated and declined during the 1970s. Visitation to the lakeshore declined three percent in 1979 and six percent in 1980. In that year Ronald Reagan was elected to the presidency on a platform of “getting government off the back of the American people.” He vowed to fight inflation by curbing government spending and stimulate the economy by deregulating business and cutting taxes.
The election of Ronald Reagan brought the “sagebrush rebellion” to Washington, D.C. In 1981, developers, timber companies, and ranchers who opposed federal land management restrictions were overjoyed by the appointment of James G. Watt to the post of Secretary of the Interior. Reagan eschewed the advice of conservative environmentalists who had helped him during his campaign, such as Nathaniel Reed, former Assistant Secretary for National Parks, and appointed people committed to changing policy. James Watt fit that bill. He had been the director of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, an organization dedicated to mounting court challenges to federal land management regulations. He proudly told reporters at his confirmation hearing that he found the Grand Canyon boring and had no interest in outdoor activities such as hiking or paddling. Bright, brash, and outspoken to a fault, Watt had a brief but stormy two years as Secretary of the Interior. Sleeping Bear Dunes would feel the heat from Secretary Watt’s administration in the form of budget cuts and investigations.
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