Managing More With Less: Lakeshore Operations, 1979-1983
With the adoption of a new General Management Plan, ten years of on-site management experience under their belts, and the amendment of the lakeshore’s organic act, the National Park Service had for the first time a clear-cut sense of its mission at Sleeping Bear. Ironically, this clearer sense of mission came at the same time the entire agency was suffering from frustration over budget reductions. During the early 1980s federal-spending priorities changed. The administration of President Ronald Reagan annually proposed budget reductions for the National Park Service and other domestic programs while building the strength of the defense establishment. Reagan’s priorities were at odds with the largely Democratic Congress, which led to annual disputes over budgetary priorities. Programs such as the Youth Conservation Corps, which had undertaken much valuable site development and restoration work at Sleeping Bear, were discontinued. Land acquisition funds were so reduced as to call into question the lakeshore’s ability to even pay for properties under condemnation. The prospect of collecting entrance fees at Sleeping Bear was considered for the first time. Between the President’s attempt to shrink the size of the federal government in the early 1980s and the burden of heavy budget deficits in the late 1980s the entire decade was one of belt-tightening and manpower shortages.
Sleeping Bear Dunes’ development was circumscribed by these national trends. Despite a clear-cut need for the improvement of visitor facilities at the Platte River Campground and the Stocking Scenic Drive, little more than planning took place to improve either site. The slow pace of development frustrated even a fiscal conservative such as Congressman Guy Vander Jagt. “Each year seems to bring postponements of urgently needed public accommodations,” he complained in 1979. Such a complaint loudly voiced and charges that toilet facilities at the lakeshore violated federal health standards shook loose a small increase in funding. New construction activity, however, remained largely stalled. The maintenance division devoted a considerable amount of its time to clearing properties acquired through land acquisition. The park remained headquartered in the old bank building in Frankfurt, far from the actual dunes. The principal visitor contact point remained the refurbished house overlooking Glen Lake. The park’s collections and equipment remained scattered throughout the lakeshore in a variety of abandoned buildings.
The opportunity to acquire much-needed storage and maintenance space presented itself in 1980, when the United States Air Force announced its intention to close its Empire base. Since the days of Superintendent Martinek the National Park Service had wished to use the hilltop reservation south of Empire, Michigan. But the lakeshore’s claim on the Air Force base was by no means uncontested. The village of Empire wanted the lion’s share of the eighty-seven acre base returned to the local tax rolls to make up for revenues lost by the establishment of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. A more serious challenge came from within the U.S. Department of the Interior. The Bureau of Indian Affairs put in a claim for the surplus federal property in the name of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa-Chippewa. The Ottawa-Chippewa wanted the base as a site for a tribal college and a light manufacturing plant. After a year of study, however, the Indians withdrew their request due to the high cost of converting the base to their proposed use. Secreatary of the Interior Watt briefly put another obstacle in the way when he threatened to sell the base to the highest bidder, but this scheme fell away before Congressional crticism. It was not until 1983 that the General Service Administration got around to making the transfer official. The lakeshore received the bulk of the base with a small portion reserved for the Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration to maintain data collection stations.
While the Ottawa and Chippewa peoples did not acquire the Empire Air Force Base site, their visibility within the lakeshore grew during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In May 1979 the United States District Court ruled that the Ottawa and Chippewa had retained their aboriginal right to fish in the waters of Lake Michigan. The decision disrupted the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ delicate balancing of the needs of the commercial fishing industry and the powerful sport-fishing lobby. In the wake of the federal court ruling a third force was introduced into the equation: Indian fishermen who rejected state regulation over their fishing activities. Chippewa fishermen from Sault Ste. Marie and Bay Mills in the Upper Peninsula began to commercially fish in the waters of Grand Traverse Bay. As the Indians whitefish catches increased so to did the level of verbal abuse and physical harassment directed against them by sport fishermen. By August 1979 the Bureau of Indian Affairs approached the Superintendent of Sleeping Bear for sites from which Indian fishermen could launch boats on Platte and Good Harbor bays. The lakeshore cooperated by making access points available, but the park service would allow no formal commercial operations on its beaches. Nonetheless, local fishermen were “disgusted” by the lakeshore’s cooperation with the Indian gill-netters. By October Chippewa fishermen were operating within the lakeshore at the mouth of Otter Creek. On one occasion forty sport fishermen organized a “beach party” at the end of the Esch Road, blocking the Indian’s access to Platte Bay. The presence of a dozen law enforcement officers and the Indian’s willingness to avoid confrontation and shift their activities to Good Harbor Bay defused the potential for conflict. The crisis atmosphere over fishing in the Sleeping Bear gradually dissipated in the early 1980s as broad protocol was negotiated between the Department of Natural Resources and the Ottawa-Chippewa to regulate commercial and sport fishing.
By that time the National Park Service had its own conflict with sports fishermen. The problem began when the National Park Service issued a series of draft regulations on hunting and fishing within the parks. The new guidelines would have ended trapping with the lakeshore, an activity engaged in between ten and fifteen hunters annually. More explosive was the proposed ban on the use of minnows and spawn as bait. The regulations would have ended smelt dipping within the lakeshore and severely restrict steelhead fishing on the Crystal and Platte rivers. Michigan fishermen, outraged by federal support of Indian fishing were not about to let their rights be further restricted. More than 2,000 complaints flooded into Washington, D.C. The Sleeping Bear Advisory Commission formally protested the new regulations. Not counting on the volume of complaints alone to force a policy retreat, one of the advisory commission members buttonholed Secretary of the Interior James Watt at a fund raising dinner. “This is not right,” Watt was quoted to have said, “Sleeping Bear should not be included in this.” In the end it was determined that since Sleeping Bear’s organic act specifically stated that fishing was to be conducted “in accordance with the laws of the State of Michigan and the United States applicable thereto,” the lakeshore could be exempted from the national guidelines as it had an existing legal framework. The ban on trapping, which the federal courts had rather ruled was an activity distinct from hunting, was banned at Sleeping Bear after 1982.
The lakeshore won much needed good-will with the sport fishing community in 1979 when it assumed responsibility for dredging the mouth of the Platte River. Dredging had begun on the Platte in 1968, in the wake of a storm, which drowned seven Platte Bay fishermen. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources started the dredging to provide a way for boats to exit or enter the Platte River, saving sportsmen the long and potentially dangerous open water passage around Point Betsie. Michigan officials saw the operation as a temporary, stopgap measure until a harbor of refuge could be built at the river mouth. After environmentalists blocked the Platte River harbor plan the DNR found themselves with an expensive on-going responsibility to keep the river mouth open during fishing season. “Coho fever” began to abate in the late 1970s and the state authorities announced in 1978 that they would not dredge the Platte the following year. The river mouth, of course, was within the lakeshore so park officials made no plan to continue so invasive a procedure as dredging. However, as the fall of 1979 approached the lakeshore found itself the object of escalating public pressure to keep the Platte open for sport fishermen. Superintendent Brown lacked the funding to pay for the operation alone so he persuaded the Department of Natural Resources to share the cost of the effort. With extreme reluctance the state agreed to help with the dredging for one more season. “After this year,” a DNR official said of the lakeshore, “it’s their baby.” 
The National Park Service wanted no part of an open-ended battle against the natural action of wind, waves, and sand. But as the summer of 1980 approached the pressure to dredge again began to mount. The community of Honor, Michigan, was planning for its fourteenth annual National Coho Salmon Festival. “There was a feeling,” remarked lakeshore facility manager Merline Schlange, “that this dredging operation is absolutely necessary for the economic health of the community and the safety of the fishermen.” The park budget, however, simply could not afford to contract for a dragline. Left up to its own devices the lakeshore would have had to choose between dredging the Platte or keeping South Manitou Island open to visitors. At the last minute the Washington, D.C. office scraped up $6,000. It was not enough to fully fund the project. Sleeping Bear was told find a way to get the job done anyway. The superintendent elected to dredge only during peak use periods, such as weekends. There was danger in this half-hearted commitment. The power of the sand flow in the Platte was such that without dredging the river’s mouth would be impassable for boats within a matter of days. Park dredging gave the appearance of navigational maintenance, without the full safety benefit of a genuine commitment. By the second week of September tens of thousands of salmon were swarming at the mouth of the river; swarms of anglers responded to the news. On September 18th between twenty and thirty boats were angling for salmon in Platte Bay when a sudden shift in the wind and weather turned Platte Bay into surging sea of white-capped swells. The boats made a dash for the mouth of the river. Chaos ensued when the first boats ran aground on the sandbar. The park service’s dragline was not in operation, since Thursday was not considered a peak period. Boaters were forced to jump into the surf to pull their craft into the safety of the river. In the crashing waves boats banged into one another and fishermen were swept off their feet. The timely arrival of a Coast Guard Boston Whaler saved five of the fishermen, the others got a cold dunking and a bone chilling scare. All talk of letting nature take its course or of saving money ended that day. To Benzie County officials it was an eerily familiar repeat of the deadly 1967 storm and the local tourist economy could afford no further reprise.
Within three days of the near disaster at the Platte, Sam Eberly, Chairman of the Benzie County Board of Commissioners and a member of the lakeshore advisory commission, had a meeting with Midwest Region Director James Dunning. Congressman Vander Jagt lobbied the Washington, D.C. office. Less than a week after the storm the lakeshore was awarded a special reallocation of funds to continue the dredging until the end of the salmon run. Since that time, in spite of occasional special studies, the National Park Service has made a commitment to maintain an unsightly dragline operation. Although it is a clear interference with a natural process, the dragline is a concession to sport fishermen and a small price to pay for having avoided the construction of a major marina at the Platte.