The National Park Service Proposal: Sleeping Bear Seashore
That official proposal marked a major departure from the work of the shoreline survey, even though both reports shared several of the same authors. The reasons for this departure are more difficult to understand than to narrate. As late as the summer of 1960 the park service planners had in mind a modest recreation area of about 30,000 acres which included very little of the private lands around the shores of the inland lakes. This conservative view likely reflects the novelty in 1959 of carving national park units out of private holdings and a realistic understanding of the budget limitations traditionally placed on park projects. The shoreline proposals, particularly the Cape Cod seashore and the development of new streams of revenue dedicated to park projects, such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund, were about to effect a revolution in park expansion. But those developments were still in the future. It was only after local conservationists expressed a lack of enthusiasm for the National Park Service’s modest plans for Sleeping Bear did the proposed park become large and controversial. The person most responsible for that change was E. Genevieve Gillette, the President of the Michigan Parks Association.
Genevieve Gillette was the grand dame of conservation in Michigan. In 1920, she had been the first woman to graduate from Michigan State University’s School of Landscape Architecture. She went on to work for several years in Chicago as an assistant to the dean of American landscape architects, Jens Jensen. Returning to Michigan she set-up her own practice. In addition to consulting on landscape design she became a vigorous proponent of the establishment of public preserves and recreation areas. Her former Michigan State classmate and life-long friend, P.J. Hoffmaster, became the first head of Michigan’s budding state park system. His work with the Conservation Commission and her work as a tireless lobbyist played a major role in transforming the Michigan state park system into one of the best in America. In 1959, she founded the Michigan Parks Association to bring under one organization all of the naturalists, sportsmen, and tourism promoters she had previously rallied to sponsor park projects. That organization’s support would be vital to the National Park Service if their Sleeping Bear proposal was going to be successful.
In the fall of 1959, the planners from the Northeast Region Office briefed the leaders of the Michigan Parks Association on their recommendations for Pictured Rocks and Sleeping Bear. The response to the Pictured Rocks proposal was unequivocally supportive. But the briefing on a Sleeping Bear park by Regional Director Ronald F. Lee left Genevieve Gillette cool. “Mr. Lee, one thing you’ll have to explain to me,” Gillette said. “I have the understanding…..that our National Parks are examples of great natural architecture and that they are great pieces of natural scenery that we must all protect them, and while they are to be used by the people, the over-riding thing is that they are so unusual they should be protected for the generations to come….It didn’t seem to me that a sand dune compared in any way with such a thing as Rocky Mountain National Park. It seemed to be, while I didn’t like to admit it, that it was probably second-rate.” Gillette frankly thought that the park service must be so pushed to find recreational lands that it was “lowering its standards.” Lee defended the park plan by arguing Sleeping Bear’s unique geological origin as a perched dune created solely by the action of wind and water. Gillette countered that if it was the geological story that made Sleeping Bear of national significance than the 26,000 acre area set aside in the park service proposal was too small to “really tell the story of what happened before Sleeping Bear.” “The greatest part of that story is quite a bit farther south and you’re not even talking about it,” argued Gillette. She went to a map of the area and traced out Platte Lake and the Platte River and contended that they were crucial to telling the “natural history of this region.” She concluded by flatly stating, “I am not going to work ten years for a bill, unless it’s a better thing than this bill is.”
Gillette had used a complex geological argument, about the Platte River area illustrating how the creation of the dune changed the topography of the area to the south of Sleeping Bear to justify adding the Platte River, Platte Lake, and Platte Plains to the park proposal. It was an old argument that she had long used to try and persuade the State of Michigan to expand Benzie State Park. Since the early 1940’s, Gillette had worked with the Michigan Botanical Club and the Cranbrook Institute of Science to have the Platte Plains protected in a park. It was Gillette’s involvement, her insistence that “we’re going for the right thing,” that sent the National Park Service planners back to the Sleeping Bear area to reconsider their plan and to inspect the Platte River country. In the summer of 1960, the agency again met with Gillette and presented a greatly expanded park proposal. 
The new proposal was vastly different than the draft Sleeping Bear proposal. In place of a 26,000 acre park it called for 77,000 acres. While the earlier plan had emphasized the recreational resources of the area this final proposal put an equal emphasis on scenic and scientific values. “The most striking scenic landscape on Lake Michigan is found in the Sleeping Bear region,” the proposal claimed. It aimed to preserve a “Land of Vistas,” the bays and bluffs of the dunes, the morainal plateau, and the stunning views of the inland lakes. To do so it included within the park boundaries the entirety of eleven inland lakes including Glen Lake, Platte Lake, Little Traverse Lake, Long Lake, and Little Platte Lake. Also included were portions of the Crystal Lake Moraine, which afforded spectacular views of the gorgeous lake, but at the expense of taking out three holes from the elite Crystal Downs Country Club. The proposal had within it a contradiction which was later skillfully exploited by opponents to the park and which has bedeviled subsequent management of the lakeshore. On one hand the report clearly stated that “The mission of the National Park Service, if a National Seashore is created at Sleeping Bear, will be to protect and preserve the natural features and bring to the public an understanding of these phenomena through a program of interpretation.” Yet the report also predicted that within the first five years of establishment the lakeshore would have a major and favorable economic development impact on the area by attracting an additional 1.2 million visitors. Clearly economic development was the sugar coating that the park service hoped to offer the local communities for the bitter pill of land acquisition with its prospect of loss of tax base and dislocation of families. The linkage of economic revival and conservation would become the principal strategy for selling the Pictured Rocks and Apostle Islands proposals to the residents of the Lake Superior region. Benzie County with only 8,500 permanent residents and chronic sixteen percent unemployment, was not immune to the lure of jobs and a rise in property values, but the incentive was much less attractive than in the beleaguered Upper Peninsula. At Sleeping Bear the unlikely blending of development and preservation caused many to question the thoroughness of federal planning or to suspect an ulterior motive behind the park proposal. The published version of the proposal had an additional weakness, it was extremely vague. The boundaries were imprecisely laid out on a large-scale map. Large numbers of summer homes were included within the park but the proposal promised to “keep to a minimum the disruption of economic and private life.”