The Art of the Possible: Managing in an Era of Austerity
For lakeshore managers it was the high cost of rehabilitating and maintaining old buildings that made the issue of historic preservation so intimidating. Had park budgets been growing at anything near the pace of park responsibilities Sleeping Bear may have responded more decisively to its emerging historic districts. Instead, between 1980 and 1995 Sleeping Bear Dunes was stymied in the doldrums of flat, if not declining budgets. Nationally the park service was in crisis during these years. Soaring federal budget deficits depressed the growth of the National Park Service's budget at the very time environmental and historic preservation regulations were expanding its mandate and raising its costs. In 1986, Congress passed the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act that instituted across-the-board federal budget cuts. During its first year of operation, Gramm-Rudman-Hollings reduced the entire National Park Service budget by 4.32%. The national director called on all superintendents to "do more with less."
The 1990s brought scant fiscal relief to the lakeshore. Between 1983 and 1993 visitor use of the national park system increased by fifty percent. Federal government shutdowns in 1990 and 1995 were testimony to the partisan contentiousness of the overall budgetary process. The park service budget would have been a problem under the best of circumstances. Stewart Udall's goal of doubling of the national park system during the 1960s, which set off a spurt of expansion that continued well into the 1970s, created a large number of parks like Sleeping Bear Dunes which were all maturing at the same time. That maturation process required ever escalating budgets throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Of course, what happened is that few of these parks met their initial development schedules and a tremendous backlog of projects accumulated throughout the system. Crowded older parks competed with the under-funded new units for insufficient resources. The policies of George B. Hartzog, Jr., one of the most successful of the National Park Service Directors, contributed to the funding crisis. Hartzog believed in the benefit of spreading national park units around the country, in the same way that the military placed bases and defense contracts strategically in key congressional districts around the country, to build a national constituency for the agency within the Congress. By the time Hartzog retired the park service managed an area in every state but Delaware and there was a National Historic Landmark in every congressional district. This was savvy bureaucratic empire-building during the 1960s but it led inevitably to a lessening of standards as to what constituted a national park unit and set the stage for the emergence of "pork parks" during the 1980s. Just as the Department of Defense found itself with redundant bases it could not close or weapon systems it did not need, the National Park Service found its funding crisis exasperated in the 1980s by congressionally initiated new park projects. Through new park units such as Steamtown, U.S.A., the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor, and in Michigan, the Keweenaw National Historical Park the National Park Service found itself thrust into the role of helping aging rust-belt communities adjust to deindustrialization through heritage tourism. Yet while Congress's desire to vote money for new parks increased it became less interested in supporting the units that had been created earlier. In 1993, the National Parks and Conservation Association issued a report aptly titled, "National Parks in Crisis." The report's conclusion was that due to years of chronic budgetary austerity "our national parks are in a race against time for survival."
Since personnel costs are the largest element in most park budgets, cuts to the number of seasonal staff was an inevitable management response to austerity. Yet, seasonal staff were the dedicated, under-paid backbone of the lakeshore. During the short summer season more than fifty backcountry rangers, interpreters, and maintenance staff were brought into the lakeshore on a temporary basis. Reducing their numbers meant shortening visitor center hours, canceling some interpretation programs, and reducing ranger patrols, all of which came at the expense of visitor education and safety. The use of several hundred volunteers donating thousands of hours of service as campground hosts and as tour guides helped to partially make up the shortfall. Some summers virtually all interpretive programs had to be cancelled. Hurt in ways that would be difficult to quantify were resource management programs such as air and water quality monitoring that had to be cutback as well as efforts to control exotic plants such as baby's breath.
No area of park operations was hurt more by the budget crunches of the 1980s and 1990s than was maintenance. Retirees might volunteer to work at the Glen Haven maritime museum but only a dedicated few will volunteer to pickup garbage or clean toilets at D.H. Day campground. Yet such mundane tasks were vital responsibilities at Sleeping Bear. To meet such day-to-day needs long-term maintenance was sacrificed to the great cost of the lakeshore overall. Trail crews were nowhere near as active as they needed to be on the lakeshore's fifty-five-mile network of trails, and in many years no trail maintenance was funded at all. Lack of trail maintenance encouraged people to leave designated hiking corridors and strike out on their own, with the result that fragile dune plant communities would be degraded. A vital area such as maintenance was so vulnerable to fiscal cuts because the annual maintenance fund was never adequate to the park's needs. Sleeping Bear annually assembled a list of its under-funded maintenance priorities and then competed with all other national park units for access to the national maintenance budget.
Maintenance shortfalls exacerbated the lakeshore's historic resource management program. If a historic house, as one wag put it, is a hole in the ground where a property-owner throws his money, Sleeping Bear had more than a hundred such holes for its maintenance budget. Even high profile buildings such as the Glen Haven cannery had to wait more than two years for painting and roof replacement because of national competition for maintenance funds. Farmhouses and barns within Port Oneida deteriorated more each year. By 1990 the Gordon Basch home, once one of the finest in the district had its roof collapse and its walls buckle. Most of the buildings endured better than the Basch home, yet Ranger William Herd had to admit, "With limited funds and so much to do…all we're doing is putting plywood on the doors and windows and patches on the roofs." Public appeals to stabilize historic old homes on South Manitou Island were brushed aside by Superintendent Ivan Miller's pragmatic observation, "You have to draw the line somewhere…some buildings are just not going to be salvageable." In 1994, Miller estimated that the lakeshore had fallen behind by $500,000 in its maintenance budget. That shortfall was obvious to anyone who observed the large inventory of old buildings.
Credibility built up through quality interpretation programs was lost when the public witnessed the backlog of buildings suffering from decay. If the old farm buildings had simply been torn down and the area returned to nature, people would have understood. But to keep the old buildings up because they were "historic" and then not maintain them was sure to frustrate old farm families who prided themselves on the care of their homesteads. "To see the shape of the place would have killed Mom and Dad," complained a great granddaughter of a Port Oneida pioneer. "Everything was always kept up so nicely." Another women lamented, after a visit to her lost farm, "What a shame that the original old homestead was not allowed to die in dignity." Enraged she concluded a letter-to-the-editor of a local paper with a curse. "I, Jo-An put a 3,000-year CURSE OF PESTILENCE on the "ERICKSON ACRES" affecting only the un-loyal towards our beloved land onto those un-sensetive to sacred things!" The holders of leases about to expire argued before Congress that since the park service could not care for the property under its control already, what was the logic of giving them more land? "Many of the homes already vacated have not been cared for or removed by the Park Service and have become serious hazards."
Under a severe budgetary regime construction projects proceeded at a very slow pace. The most important new construction at Sleeping Bear was the redesign of the Platte River Campground, the lakeshore's busiest visitor facility. The new campground had been at the head of Superintendent Martinek's wish list back in the 1970s. Plans for a new facility had been drawn up and approved since 1980, yet getting the construction funds to begin work took another decade. The delay facilitated the study of a major Indian encampment site impacted by the proposed new construction. Extensive archeological excavations were carried out in order to recover valuable cultural resource data regarding prehistoric Indian life in the Sleeping Bear area. Political high-jinks played a role in delaying the project. While lakeshore visitors had to be content with a site little improved from what had been the Benzie State Park Campground, Congress played havoc with the National Park Service's list of new construction priorities by adding pet projects to the head of the list. Projects that had nothing to do with existing national parks such as major funding for Chicago's Navy Pier and Boston's public library received funding ahead of Sleeping Bear Dunes. The lakeshore lacked aggressive support in the House of Representatives and so its projects were frequently bumped down the funding list. When the project finally was funded in 1990, it substantially improved the camper's experience. Thirty-five new sites were added and the spacing between sites was increased to allow greater privacy. New restrooms were added and all were equipped with flush toilets and showers.
Getting the Platte River Campground project finally underway was a relief to Superintendent Peterson. Advancing the lakeshore programmatically with limited resources was an exercise in frustration. In 1990, the task of directing the lakeshore passed from Richard Peterson to Ivan D. Miller. Peterson went west to become the Assistant Superintendent at Glacier National Park. During his ten-year tenure at Sleeping Bear the size of the lakeshore's full-time staff remained static, while the number of part-time employees actually declined substantially. Visitation to the park increased by forty percent, yet the overall budget remained flat. Peterson's most important contribution was enabling the lakeshore to move out of the highly inconvenient Frankfort bank building and into a new headquarters within the lakeshore boundaries.
Ivan D. Miller came to the lakeshore from Pacific Northwest Regional Office. The Minnesota native had been with the park service since 1963 and had experience working at some of the "crown jewels" of the system, including Yosemite, Glacier, and Denali, where he had been Chief Ranger. Miller had a Master's degree in Forestry and extensive experience in park planning, most notably a four-year tour in Saudi Arabia, where he helped to set up their first national park. Miller first came to Sleeping Bear as a tourist in 1975 and had long thought it would be a nice place to work. He returned to the park fifteen years later, warned about "the complex land issues out there at Sleeping Bear."
After negotiating cultural barriers in the Middle East, Miller was well prepared to handle the sometimes stormy public relations of Sleeping Bear. His first test came only weeks after arriving in Empire when the president of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs blasted Sleeping Bear Dunes as "the worst managed park I ever saw." Rather than responding defensively Miller invited conservation club president Richard L. Jameson to review the lakeshore's draft dune management plan and to participate in a dune management workshop. The program included tours of Sleeping Bear and other locally managed dune sites. While Jameson remained adamant that stronger protection measures were need at Sleeping Bear, he came to realize that public access was more sharply controlled by the National Park Service than at state and county parks. Miller's approach ensured that Jameson's critique was part of a cooperative solution not a public feud.
As Miller began work as superintendent many projects envisioned in the general management plan under Superintendent Brown and planned under Superintendent Peterson were finally being funded. The Platte River Campground was the most important of these in terms of improving the image of the national lakeshore. Less successful at demonstrating park service planning prowess was the installation of a new docking facility at North Manitou Island. Unlike South Manitou the northern island had no natural harbor, which necessitated the building of a large pier, long enough to accommodate fluctuating lake levels and stout enough to withstand the action of ice and gales. A major construction effort was required to build the 200 foot-long facility. The dock was completed in 1987, but within a year a sand bar had formed that made the pier unusable to the Manitou ferry. This was extremely embarrassing since providing a secure docking facility had been one of the reasons behind acquiring the ferry service and making it a park concession. Extensive prework studies had established that the site in front of the Coast Guard Station was prone to sand accumulation. Management, however, went ahead with building at that site in order to keep new construction out of the wilderness areas of the island. It was a bad decision made for a good reason. For more than a year after Miller arrived visitors to North Manitou Island had to be taken to a beach on the southern shore where the ferry could nudge close enough in for the campers to splash ashore. The new superintendent had to order extensive dredging to remove the sand bar. The first dredging was done in November 1992 and has been redone roughly every two years since that time. It is a biannual reminder of a less that successful planning effort.
The management plan for the Platte River corridor was another example of a flawed planning process. The planning had been underway for several years before Miller arrived at Sleeping Bear and pushing that through to completion proved to be no easy matter. The 1979 general management plan had proposed in broad-brush strokes design and policy changes to improve the experience of visitors to the naturally diverse area. A specific management plan for the Platte River corridor was deemed desirable as a way to advance the broad goals of the general management plan. John Abbett, lakeshore Assistant Superintendent, spearheaded the task. In 1985, a contract with the consulting firm Environmental Resources Management produced studies of visitor use of the Platte River and the effect of dredging at the mouth of the river. Abbett's small group of lakeshore staff followed this contract with further visitor surveys and consultations with other agencies. The large number of overlapping jurisdictions within the relatively compact, less than 2,000-acre, corridor made planning particularly difficult. The Benzie County Road Commission owned Lake Michigan Road, which provided vehicular access to the area. The Department of Natural Resources owned 161 acres near its fish weir on the river. At the mouth of the river Lake Township owned a 2-acre park and the county controlled the Platte River boat launch ramp area. More than thirty residential properties, some destined to become part of the lakeshore, some not, and the private canoe livery also had to be taken into account in establishing the plan.
Four planning alternatives were completed and available for public comment in the spring of 1991. Among the most controversial options was the proposal favored by fishermen to remove the boat launch from the Platte River and place it at the end of Tiesma Road, where semi-protected direct access to Platte Bay was available. Initially Abbett favored this site until it was discovered that the proposed boat launch would displace a prime pitcher's thistle habitat as well as the Prairie Warble, which had recently been listed as a threatened species. The need to avoid such sensitive areas should have been detected during the initial planning. The Tiesma Road launch was scuttled, but no solution to the annual dredging of the mouth of the Platte was presented. There was strong public support for planning elements which included trail and landing improvements, a pedestrian bridge across the Platte as an alternative to people walking on the M-22 highway bridge, and improved visitor facilities at the busy swimming area at the mouth of the Platte. A plan was approved in 1992 and within two years the lakeshore had completed improvements at several of the downstream public use areas and redesigned the parking lot at the mouth of the river. Also installed were improved comfort stations, changing rooms, and a boat-trailer turn-around. Together with improvements made at the Loon Lake public access and the picnic area along the Platte River, the park service had done much to improve the experience of canoeists on the river while at the same time directing visitor use in such a way as to stabilize the vulnerable river banks.
Planning for the future of the Platte River brought to a head the simmering disagreement between the lakeshore and Kathleen and Thomas Stocklen, the owners of Riverside Canoe Livery. Float and canoe trips on the Platte River were a major visitor activity during the summer months. No commercial activity within the lakeshore had as much impact upon the park as Riverside Canoe. Yet the National Park Service had less control over Riverside than any other piece of private property within the park. The Stocklens refused to sign a National Park Service restrictive use agreement that would give lakeshore management the assurance that the business would not be operated in such a way as to "impair the usefulness and attractiveness of the area." One hundred and fifteen other property owners within the lakeshore signed such agreements, which were specifically called for in the park's enabling legislation. The Stocklens were motivated partially by business considerations. They did not want what they felt was a capricious national park management process to have leverage over their business. Unlike the other 115 property owners who signed agreements the Stocklens insisted on being paid to accept a limitation on their property use. The possibility of negotiating the issue was further complicated because principle also drove owners of Riverside Canoe. Kathleen Stocklen had become very active in the National Inholders Association. For her defeating the National Park Service at Sleeping Bear was part of a larger struggle to protect individual rights from an overly aggressive bureaucracy. The clash between Riverside Canoe and the national lakeshore rested on core values. For the National Park Service the restrictive use agreement was vital to protect the Platte from a major business on the river, as well as to insist that all property owners be treated equally. For the Stocklens it was the National Park Service that was the threat, not to the river but to people's right to use the river. "It would be easy for us to make a deal and take their money," Kathleen Stocklen told the press. "But we want to be sure the public never gets shut off the Platte River."
In October 1990, after attempts to negotiate an agreement broke down, the National Park Service again began condemnation proceedings against Riverside Canoe. The goal was less to take the Stocklens property, which the National Park Service recognized would entail a disruption of vital visitor services, than it was to force the Stocklens to accept a restrictive agreement that would protect the lakeshore from future negative impacts. The Stocklens regarded condemnation as a declaration of war and they launched an immediate counter attack. They turned back federal appraisers' request for access to their property and made an appeal for assistance to Congressman Guy Vander Jagt. Kathleen Stocklen leveled charges of criminal breaches of the public trust against the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and was able to revive the inconclusive, ten-year-old, Inspector General's Office investigation of the park. She insisted that lakeshore officials filed false reports to improve their condemnation case. Backed-up by the Mountain States Legal Foundation, the Stocklens also filed a counter-suit against the National Park Service, requesting a declaratory judgement based on their 1971 certificate prohibiting condemnation. The park service won a key victory when the federal court established the validity of condemnation, in spite of the 1971 certificate. Despite the legal setback Kathleen Stocklen's conservative political connections and the good reputation of her business won her assistance at the highest governmental level. The press dubbed the struggle "David vs. Goliath," but when it came to political pull the Stocklens dwarfed the lakeshore. Senator Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyoming), a national property rights advocate and Vice President Dan Quayle both pressed the Department of the Interior on behalf of Riverside Canoe. In September 1992 the National Inholders Association even planned a demonstration on the steps of the Interior building in support of the Stocklens. It was cancelled, however, when the department bowed to the onslaught of political pressure.
On September 14, 1992 Kathleen and Thomas Stocklen met with National Park Service Director James Ridenour. At this level the Stocklens were a problem that Director Ridenour just seemed to want to go away. The park service director had owed his appointment to the influence of Vice President Quayle, which may have disposed him to take a direct personal interest in the case. Ridenour ignored detailed settlement negotiations, which had been underway between the Stocklens and Superintendent Ivan Miller over the content of a restrictive agreement that could resolve the issue out of court. Instead Ridenour drafted with the Stocklens a brief letter of agreement in which the latter promised:
…we will use our property for the purpose of a canoe livery/marina/general store as it has been used for the past 28 years. We have no intention of changing that use in the future. Our use has been and will continue to be consistent with the purpose and intent of the Act that created Sleeping Bear Dunes (Public Law 91-479). Moreover, our use has not and will not impair the usefulness and attractiveness of the Lakeshore.
The National Park Service and the Stocklen's both agreed to drop their suits. Recognizing a complete cave-in when she saw it Kathleen Stocklen further insisted that the legal expenses of Riverside Canoe be fully compensated. "I reminded him eyeball to eyeball that we weren't the ones who started this," Stocklen said. The park service paid the Stocklen's $26,750 to cover their attorney's fees. By going over the heads of the park service's local and regional officials, and going to the top of the bureaucratic food chain, Kathleen Stocklen won a complete victory. "We are pleased to have reached a settlement on this longstanding issue," Director Ridenour told the press. "God bless America," a relieved Kathy Stocklen wrote to Director Ridenour. "It is a 'Country Worth Saving' and we must all have the courage to do the saving."