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Book Cover
Our Fourth Shore
Great Lakes Shoreline






The Lakes and Their Areas

A Region for Recreation

Sands and Scenery

The Land and Its Life

Discovery and Development


Great Lakes Shoreline Recreation Area Survey
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sandy beach
The tenuous line between water and land, sand and forest.

Sands and Scenery

The endless variations of Great Lakes shoreline hold a tremendous appeal for all of us. This is true of those who live along Lake Michigan's "Riviera" or along Lake Superior's North Shore. It is even more true for our landlocked citizens who flock to the Great Lakes beaches whenever they can — for swimming, for fishing or merely for enjoying the sun, the sand and the refreshing breezes.

Great Lakes shoreline means many things to many people. To some it is symbolized by the Sturgeon Point Lighthouse guarding a lonely stretch of Lake Huron shore. To others it means pounding surf on the rockbound shore of Lake Superior. Still others think of the Lake Erie and Lake Ontario marshlands that shelter the elusive mallard, the migrating goose or the stately heron. To most people, however, the Great Lakes shoreline is a combination of surf and sand as seen along eastern and southern Lake Michigan. Here, the beaches are backed by rolling dunes and forests that create an atmosphere of solitude — a soul-refreshing contrast to our hurried, everyday way of life.

The recreation use of the Great Lakes is as varied as its shoreline. This use, of course, is predominant during the warm summer months when proximity to the cool water climate offers a relief from the heat of city pavements and inland dust. However, plentiful game and waterfowl attract hundreds and hundreds of hunters to this region every fall along with those who enjoy the annual display of spectacular autumn colors.

Until recently, the winter climate was considered too severe for recreational use other than occasional ice fishing. This is no longer true. Skiing has now become a major winter activity in the rugged terrain surrounding the northern lakes. With improved equipment and shelters, the popularity of ice fishing now attracts anglers from near and far.

Generally speaking, though, the recreation spotlight remains on summer use of the Great Lakes. During this warm period, activities run nearly the full gamut of those usually associated with large bodies of water. However, specialized factors — unique with the Great Lakes — alter the intensity of use and offer variations found only on this inland sea.

Along the southern shores of Lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron and Michigan, swimming is a popular pastime. On a hot summer's day, the beaches there are crowded over and above accepted capacity standards. On the beaches further north the emphasis switches to sun bathing — and with good reason. On Lake Superior, for instance, the summer water temperature seldom rises above 50 degrees. This fact apparently doesn't deter the swimming enjoyment of young children, but it does affect adult participation — the latter being limited primarily to shallow, sheltered coves where the water is more temperate.

Recreation Boating — also flourishing on the Great Lakes. — Michigan Waterways Commission Photograph

Water temperature is not a limiting factor on boating, though, and the Great Lakes have become one of the major centers for this fast growing activity. Twenty years ago motor cruises were still considered a luxury. Not so today. Improvements in design and materials have brought costs down to the average family man's budget. In the Detroit area alone, an estimated 100,000 motorboats are used to enjoy the lure of open water and for escape from the restrictions of crowded highways.

Calm as millponds one hour and covered with raging seas the next, the Great Lakes have justly earned a reputation for occasional treachery. Until recently, this has kept pleasure boats near the plentiful refuge harbors in the southern waters. However, the lure of the upper lakes has created a demand for northward expansion of small boating. In answer, the Corps of Engineers, in cooperation with state and local authorities, has set up a program to establish small craft harbors every 30 to 40 miles along all shores. This program is active, and considerable progress has been made. Soon, round-the-lakes voyages will be feasible; inaccessible areas will be opened to the boating public and natural areas, formerly considered inviolate, will become vulnerable. Consequently, a new concept in recreation travel and accommodation will have to be incorporated in shoreline planning. Because of these possibilities, additional emphasis will have to be placed on preservation of the natural scene.

Sailing, water skiing and lake cruises also play their part in the recreation use of the Great Lakes waters. But, in many cases, the water itself serves primarily as a backdrop for associated activities. Primary among these land uses are scenic enjoyment, camping and general appreciation of the natural habitat.

The Great Lakes, with their abundance of scenic variety, have long been a mecca of the sightseeing public. Round-the-lake tours have been popular since the advent of the automobile and improved highways. With the new Straits of Mackinac Bridge and an expanding highway program at the federal, state and local levels, these tours and scenic enjoyment of the Great Lakes shoreline are bound to receive a bigger play.

Closely associated with this touring public is the increased emphasis on camping. The Great Lakes scene is ideally suited to such a summer recreation pastime. Here where the cool lake breezes cut through the heat waves, here where hay fever is blotted out by the verdant forests, thousands of people come every year to pitch their tents within earshot of waves lapping on the lakeshores. Unfortunately, however, insufficient facilities exist to provide for them. In Michigan alone, every fifth camper (or some 28,000) in 1958 was turned away for lack of space.

The Great Lakes region also possesses much interest from the standpoint of natural history. Whether one be interested in geology, zoology or botany, the remaining natural areas on the lakes, provided they can be protected, will serve as outdoor laboratories and museums in telling the story of the natural world for countless future generations. And with the passage of time, their importance to education will be heightened as they become, in fact, all that is left of nature.

One of the surest ways of protecting and perpetuating such areas is through an intelligent program of interpretation. There are few people who do not enjoy the works of nature, but probably fewer yet who understand them well. A sound nature program interesting both to children and adults, using all the subtle and appropriate methods of audio-visual interpretation, lectures, hikes and nature trails, would go a long way toward arousing the public consciousness for the necessity of nature preservation.

Straits of Mackinac Bridge
The Straits of Mackinac Bridge — a ribbon of steel tying the population of the southern lakes to the recreation opportunities of the northern shores. — Photograph by National Geographic Society.

Present Situation

Steeped in history and legend, abounding in natural resources, the Great Lakes and their surrounding eight states have played an important role in the discovery, expansion and development of our nation. Lumbering, mining, agriculture and industry have, through the past 350 years, attracted the adventurous, the ambitious, the assiduous in such numbers that the Great Lakes States now encompass over one-third of our country's entire population.

Progress in this respect has been steadily accelerating, and along with its advantages and benefits have come the usual problems and detrimental effects. Of general concern has been the destruction of natural resources. The particular concern of this report is that scenic and natural shoreline values around the Great Lakes have been pre-empted for residential, commercial and industrial purposes without due regard to public needs and benefits.

taconite ore plant
Taconite ore plant on Lake Superior's scenic North Shore.

With a few exceptions, development is concentrated near the large population centers along the southern and eastern lakes. One notable exception to this generalization is the north shore of Lake Superior where string development and ore-rendering plants have already used up approximately 40 percent of this scenic shoreline. Other string developments along the St. Marys River, around Green Bay and the Straits of Mackinac are contrary to the general rule.

Conversely, the remaining undeveloped areas are primarily in evidence along the south shore of Lake Superior, the northern and eastern shores of Lake Michigan, the northern section of Lake Huron and, in most cases, on the lake islands. This latter category is significant because, with the notable exception of Mackinac Island in Lake Huron and the Bass Islands in Lake Erie, these isolated bodies of land have withstood the onslaught of residential development. They may very well become the last strongholds against the "Urban Sprawl." Although inaccessibility factors presently limit intensive public use potential, the same factors also offer the best opportunities for preserving examples of the natural scene.

Some provisions for public use of the Great Lakes shoreline have already been made. Two areas within the National Park System (Isle Royale National Park and Perry's Victory National Monument), encompassing 197 island shoreline miles, have already been established. A third, Grand Portage National Monument, with a mile of frontage, has been authorized.

Each of the eight states has at least one major state park on the Great Lakes. Michigan has 33, New York 24, Minnesota 7, Ohio 5, and Wisconsin 3, for a total of 75 which encompass some 163 miles or 3.3 percent of the entire shoreline. This, plus the frontage contained in existing national forests, national wildlife refuges, state forests, state wildlife areas and municipal parks, brings public shoreline holdings to a total of 700 miles or nearly 13 percent of the over-all Great Lakes shoreline.

At first glance, it appears that 13 percent of shoreline should be sufficient public ownership. On the Great Lakes, however, this is not true. First of all, much of the public holdings are along rockbound shores bounded by icy water. Less than 100 miles, or 2 percent, are of the Indiana Dunes State Park caliber, where people can actually enjoy active use of both the water and shore.

Secondly, the distribution of public ownership is such that the majority of it is far removed from population centers. In fact, 66 percent of public shoreline is located on Michigan's Upper Peninsula and Isle Royale where less than 1 percent of the Great Lakes' 40 million people live. Around the large metropolitan areas of Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland, existing public ownership provides for only one-quarter inch of frontage per person living within 50 miles of the shore.

Isle Royale National Park
Isle Royale National Park — scenic wilderness in an island setting.

Signs: Park Closed Filled to Capacity and Sorry
Public Campground Full

Such signs are becoming more numerous every year around the Great Lakes as the growing pressure for public shoreline use overtaxes the present capacity. Even where capacity limits are not recognized, the overcrowded conditions are such that outdoor recreation is becoming a chore rather than a pleasure.

From all indications, this situation is going to get worse before it recovers. In the Great Lakes region, as everywhere else, increases in population, leisure time, travel and popularity of outdoor recreation are at work. By themselves, these trends will be sufficient to overrun present public recreation facilities in a few years. They are not alone, however; certain factors singular to the Great Lakes region are adding to the critical situation.

The most current, single event was the opening of the Mackinac Straits Bridge. In addition to being a major tourist attraction itself, this spectacular ribbon of steel ties together the recreation lands of the northern and southern lakes. Replacing the former ferry bottleneck across these vital Straits, the new bridge provides rapid access to Michigan's scenic Upper Peninsula and encourages round-the-lake tours that will affect tourist travel on both sides of the Canadian boundary.

St. Lawrence Seaway
The St. Lawrence Seaway — a new era for the Great Lakes. — Photograph by courtesy of Power Authority of the State of New York

Another far-reaching influence on recreation area future is being brought about by the St. Lawrence Seaway. Here again, the locks, dams and impoundments along the St. Lawrence River are tourist attractions. However, the broad effects are of a different nature. Instead of creating a demand for additional recreation space, this project for opening the Great Lakes to world-wide shipping will encourage industrial expansion on undeveloped shoreline. This, in many cases, is already threatening lands with high recreation potential, and careful evaluation of relative benefits must be made to determine the best land use program.

Active highway expansion programs around the Great Lakes are posing both a boon and a threat to recreation lands. Improved access to former isolated areas — such as Minnesota's North Shore Drive — provides for increased enjoyment by larger numbers. At the same time, however, many of the natural values and inherent charms are lost to the general public because private residential development beats public acquisition to the draw. Here again, careful planning is needed in conjunction with highway improvements so that thousands instead of scores of people will receive the over-all benefit.

Then we come to the "Urban Sprawl" which is actively consuming the Great Lakes shoreline. Recently, Henry T. Heald, president of the Ford Foundation, made a statement in Philadelphia that in 20 years there would be "unrelieved urban areas ... from Milwaukee along the Great Lakes to Buffalo." This situation is well on its way to reality and is extending beyond these defined limits. High concentrations of private development have already used up most of the St. Lawrence River frontage, Lake Ontario and Lake Erie shorelines along with the majority of the lower Lake Michigan and Lake Huron shores.

This again has increased use pressure on the existing public areas so that they are overcrowded to an extreme. In answer to these overcrowded conditions, many lakeshore communities (especially around Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland) have restricted beach use to local residents only. This, of course, is fine for the residents of these cities but it makes shoreline access a greater problem for the inland dwellers, weekend vacationers and the tourists.

This problem is not one that can be treated lightly from the standpoint of either the economy of the region or the threat to its recreation resources. The recreation industry constitutes a major source of income in many segments of the Great Lakes shoreline. The potential exists for increasing the contribution recreation can make to the economy. However, to realize this potential as well as to insure the preservation of this resource for future generations, steps must be taken now to provide adequate public beaches and to preserve the natural environment.

city views
Modern superhighways link our mushrooming suburban population with overcrowded beaches. — Photographs by courtesy of Chicago Park District

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Last Modified: Mon, Dec 22 2003 10:00:00 pm PDT

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