The Birth of a National Lakeshore
On June 16, 1969, the car ferry City of Green Bay departed Frankfort harbor for a cruise up the shore to Sleeping Bear. Aboard the ship were Senator Philip Hart, James Kellogg, the official representative of William Milliken, the Governor of Michigan, and various representatives of state and federal agencies. Jostled together in uneasy association on the crowded ship were hundreds of people evenly divided between chamber of commerce members and Sierra Club supporters, the latter led by their national president. But the beauty of the scenery and the splendid weather made the media event a huge success. Television, radio, and newspaper coverage of the four-hour cruise publicized the growing popularity of the Sleeping Bear proposal, while the “Save the Bear” slogan lent an air of urgency to their call for action—as if dump trucks were ready to haul the dunes away to a glass works. In the midst of the voyage local Republicans telephoned Congressman Guy Vander Jagt (R-Michigan) to let him know that the event was a big success and admonishing him “not to miss the boat” on Sleeping Bear.
By 1969, Congressman Vander Jagt was scrambling to catch up “with the boat.” The Republican from Luther, Michigan, had gone from being one of the bitterest opponents of the Sleeping Bear proposal to a late, but vital proponent. He began his journey in 1965 when as a state senator he testified against both the Hart and the Griffin bills. He was so against the prospect of a national lakeshore that a year later he secured passage of a bill that, against all precedent, required the State of Michigan to sell rather than donate all of its Sleeping Bear lands in event of federal park. Later he tried to secure federal funds to expand D.H. Day State Park, thereby removing the need for a national lakeshore. But even fellow Republicans were cool to this idea. Vander Jagt, however, began to waiver in his opposition in 1968. Richard M. Nixon’s victory in the presidential election returned the executive branch to Republican control for the first time in eight years. Nixon was a pragmatist determined to direct domestic policy from the center of the political spectrum. In 1968, it was clear that environmentalism was an issue with broad public support. Neither Nixon nor key Republican conservationists in the House, such as John Saylor (R—Pennsylvania), were going to be caught unprepared on the issue. While the White House staff focused the bulk of its environmental energy on the Task Force which paved the way for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior continued to support the scores of park proposals generated during the Udall years. On the local level, Vander Jagt also saw the GOP getting greener. In 1968, party faithful packed the meeting of the Benzie County Republican Committee at the Crystal Lake Township Hall and resolved to support a national lakeshore. These shifts in the dynamics of environmental politics as well as a new set of economic incentives forced Vander Jagt to move toward a Sleeping Bear compromise. 
The new economic incentive which stirred Vander Jagt was the prospect of a four-lane limited access highway. Michigan’s Ninth Congressional District embraced a long stretch of Lake Michigan’s east shore, from Holland, Michigan, north to near Traverse City. In 1967, the Michigan U.S. 31 Corridor Association, an alliance of every chamber of commerce from the Indiana border to Mackinac, began to push for such a road in order to attract Michigan-bound Chicagoans to their part of the state. By dramatically reducing travel times such a road would greatly increase the rate of development and tourist spending in the Ninth District. But communities east of the U.S. 31 corridor were not going to sit by and idly wait for the stream of tourists to be diverted away from them. By 1968, the business community of Vander Jagt’s hometown of Cadillac, Michigan, realized that the creation of a Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore could be a powerful argument that the freeway should indeed be built through their town and not farther to the east. There were more voters in Cadillac than Leelanau County, so it did not take long for their congressman to move from the status of opponent to supporter of Sleeping Bear lakeshore. As one businessman put it: “We need the highway, we need the park. Anyone in business opposed to the park must have rocks in their head.”
While Congressman Vander Jagt did not have “rocks in his head,” he did try to make a final effort to protect his constituents in the Sleeping Bear area. In September 1968, Vander Jagt announced that he would support a Sleeping Bear bill if two issues could be resolved: 1) The local school districts would be reimbursed for the land withdrawn from the tax base, and; 2) That the rights of the owners of unimproved property within the proposed lakeshore, including their right to a speedy sale, be protected. Although these were not issues the Department of Interior could itself immediately solve, they were not deal breakers. From the time Vander Jagt first raised the issue, the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee made it abundantly clear that they would not countenance a provision for the federal government to make compensatory payments to the Leelanau County public schools. The committee did alert their colleague to the precedent in some park areas for the state government to commit itself to take up the burden. At Vander Jagt’s instigation Governor George Romney and key members of the state house and senate pledged to make such payments, if they were needed. The second issue, securing the rights of the owners of unimproved property proved a bit more complicated. Vander Jagt proposed setting up a strict time limit in which all land acquisitions had to take place, so that owners of isolated tracts of land would not be surrounded by federal holdings and left for years with little more than the right to pay taxes on land that could not be developed, until such time as the government decided to make them an offer for their tract. The National Park Service rejected the very concept of a strict time limit because it would leave lands unpurchased by the deadline lost to the park forever, regardless of their importance for recreation or preservation purposes. Practically Vander Jagt’s proposal would put the Sleeping Bear land acquisition priorities, ahead of all other park development projects in the system, something neither the agency nor the other members of Congress, with parks in their own districts, would tolerate. The solution was to place all lands within the proposed lakeshore into three land-use categories: 1) Public Use and Development, lands owned outright by the National Park Service; 2) Environmental Conservation lands, some of these Category II lands might be owned in fee by the government but others could remain in private hands subject to a scenic easement; 3) Private Use and Development, included all private lands within the lakeshore which were protected from condemnation. Vander Jagt also extracted a promise from the park service that at least fifty percent of the land acquisition funds would be expended within two years of authorization. 
A howl of protest was let loose from the Sleeping Bear area when word of Congressman Vander Jagt’s change of policy was received. The concessions achieved by their representative were of no consolation to the core of an opposition that was unilaterally opposed to any type of national park in their area. But by June of 1969 there were four separate Sleeping Bear bills before the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee and every member of the Michigan congressional delegation, Republican and Democrat alike, had signed on to the project. The days when Citizens’ Council could stop a Sleeping Bear park were at an end. Nonetheless, Muriel Ferris who had handled Sleeping Bear for Senator Hart’s office for nine years confided to a friend, “we are all treading as though on eggs until we see the bill through the House.”
At a final hearing on the proposed lakeshore, held in Washington, D.C. in June of 1970, the Council was clearly dispirited and on the defensive. “Now I feel sort of like the Indians felt 100 years ago,” their spokesman observed. Stanley Ball, the Citizens’ Council’s Executive Secretary, tried to outline how state and private initiatives alone were sufficient to preserve the area and that a federalization of the area was “just plain wrong.” Congressman John Saylor’s (R—Pennsylvania) heated response to that sentiment indicated how far the pendulum had swung since the evening when Conrad Wirth was assailed eight years before. “I can tell you that you are like a good many other people,” Saylor lectured. “It is all right to establish a national park as long as it does not affect you. This seems to be the attitude of a good many people in that area. They would like a national park in Wyoming, they would like a national park in California, they would like a national park in Key Biscayne in Florida, in Texas, but they do not want one in Sleeping Bear, Mich. In other words, ‘because that is my home.’” Other members of the committee joined in to push Ball to explain why it was “plain wrong” to condemn land for national parks, when Leelanau County itself condemned land for schools and roads and benefited from the practice of condemning land to create parks in other parts of the country. Ball finally shook his head and resignedly said, “I am not too sure now what I did mean, after you fellows get through with me.” Congressman Saylor concluded the exchange by declaring: “what I have an inclination to do right now, I will introduce a bill instead of taking 77,000 acres it will probably take about 277,000 acres up in that area, and then I will compromise it down to 177,000 acres, and those who oppose it will think they have won a great victory and I would have won a bigger one, and the American people a few generations from now will look around and say, ‘Gee, we are sorry Saylor was not able to get 277,000 acres instead of 177,000.’” 
In spite of such contentious exchanges the hearing did establish a broad common ground concerning the Sleeping Bear area. The testimony of the Citizens’ Council, the Sierra Club’s endorsement, and the advocacy of the chamber of commerce boosters all shared a concern about maintaining the area in its current condition. Dayton Willard, who chaired the Platte Lakes Area Association, concluded his testimony before the House committee by putting new lyrics to the then popular “Hamm’s” northwoods beer jingle:
A beer is a beer, is a beer.
James Dorsey of Empire, Michigan, was one of those local people who cared. “Every man of good conscience agrees this should be done,” he wrote, “the quarrrel is over the method whereby it is achieved.” To many people in northwest Michigan the issue had come down to “either turning our backs and going home and watching the area go to pot, or making sure that steps are taken to curtail development in the area with a view to preserving it in a manner consistent with the interests and needs of those residing in the area, those owning property in the area, those using the area and those visiting the area, both now and in the foreseeable future.” Put in those terms the difference between the supporters and the opposition to the lakeshore seemed less one of principle and more one merely of degree. With every member of the Michigan congressional delegation in favor of a Sleeping Bear lakeshore, the House committee chose to accept those areas of agreement at face value and ignore the very real differences of method between the two sides. 
While the hearings in June of 1970 may have established the desirability of a federal lakeshore in northwest Michigan, Interior Committee Chair Wayne Aspinall was faced with two competing bills to protect Sleeping Bear. House Democrats supported the bill introduced by James G. O’Hara of Michigan’s Twelfth Congressional District. O’Hara had been a tireless advocate of the Sleeping Bear bill and a close ally of Senator Philip Hart. Since 1967 he had championed the lakeshore in the House. Michigan’s Republican representatives had signed on to Congressman Vander Jagt’s bill. The differences between the two bills were slight, and Chairman Aspinall requested a consolidated bill that everyone was prepared to support. Since Vander Jagt’s support had been the critical breakthrough, it made sense for his bill to be the basis of the consolidation. For Congressman O’Hara, who had carried the torch for Sleeping Bear for so long, it was a bitter pill to be deprived of authorship of the final bill. The wisdom of the compromise was made manifest, however, when the bill moved to the Rules Committee. Charlotte Reid (R—Illinois), the Crystal Lake cottage owner who made herself the champion of the local property owners, used her influence to stymie the bill in that committee. Only when Vander Jagt came before the committee and in secret session argued his right to speak as the genuine representative of the people of northwest Michigan was Reid’s influence overcome. The Sleeping Bear bill, H.R. 18776 then went to the House floor where it passed via a voice vote on September 22, 1970.
A final attempt to trap the bear was sprung in the Senate. Senator Robert Griffin had never been reconciled to Philip Hart’s vision of a Sleeping Bear lakeshore that embraced inland as well as shoreline acreage. In a last minute attempt to monkey-wrench the compromise Senator Griffin attempted to replace his own Sleeping Bear bill, one based on his 1963 bill for a 37,000 acre park, for Senator Hart’s 60, 600 acre bill. Senator Griffin had communicated his support for the compromise to the Senate subcommittee in June 1970, yet he had also remained largely aloof of the issue during his Senate career. To try and destroy Hart’s bill at this point seems a contradictory and gratuitous gesture. Perhaps it was merely a play to the disgruntled property owners in Leelanau and Benzie counties. Robert Griffin argued his was the “better” bill, yet in seven years in the Congress he had done nothing to advance it toward passage. The majority, however, were with Senator Hart. He was one of the most respected members of the majority party. Griffin’s maneuver, that would have robbed Hart of the fruits of victory after the latter had labored with such determination for so long, did not have a chance. After a brief debate the Sleeping Bear bill was approved by acclamation. President Richard M. Nixon signed the lakeshore into law on October 21, 1970.
At the conclusion of the long divisive legislative incubation Senator Philip A. Hart was justly hailed as the "father” of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. “Stick to your guns, & remember you’ve got millions of us little guys on your side,” a supporter of the lakeshore wrote him back in 1962. Hart did stick to his guns and the fact that a large portion of the Lake Michigan shore in northwest Michigan is now open to use by people who could not afford the price of lake frontage is the result of his effort. That property owners on Glen and Platte lakes do not today enjoy the privacy or serenity of a generation ago is the cost they pay for the exclusion of the inland lakes from the national lakeshore. The long fight to secure Sleeping Bear exacted its price in the development of the area. In 1970, Genevieve Gillette lamented “its already pretty late….Sleeping Bear was already being eroded beyond sensible thinking.” Yet if it had not been for the less than perfect bill that was finally passed in 1970 there would be even less of a wonderful landscape left to enjoy today.
If Philip Hart was the “father” of the Sleeping Bear Dunes then Muriel Ferris and E. Genevieve Gillette were the midwives. They crafted the basic concept and made the necessary compromises to make the lakeshore possible. Gillette not only built the coalition of environmentalists and state officials who made up the backbone of the bill’s Michigan support, she was single handedly responsible for the inclusion of a significant portion of the lower end of the park within the original proposal. In the later years of the fight her role was less prominent in part because of her heavy involvement on several White House commissions as well as her role securing the Sylvannia National Recreation Area, the McCormick Experimental Forest, and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. By 1970 travel became more difficult for the seventy-two year old dynamo but she still contributed her “know-how and energy.” After passage Hart sent Gillette a copy of that day’s account in the Congressional Record along with the sentiment, “You deserve these historic pages.” Muriel Ferris was Gillette’s friend and associate during the long struggle. As Hart’s legislative assistant it was she, not the Senator, who arranged the testimony for each of the hearings and attended the meetings and negotiations that made the lakeshore a reality.
“Phil Hart is the father of the park; I might be the uncle or something like that,” joked Guy Vander Jagt. The congressman from Cadillac, Michigan, had to make the hardest decisions regarding the Sleeping Bear proposal. His heart was with the people trying to keep the federal government out of their backyard. His proposal for federal funding of a state managed “Sleeping Bear Dunes U.S.A.” recreation area was literally laughed out of Congress in 1968, fifteen years later amid the “Reagan Revolution” the Department of the Interior was itself making such proposals. In a climate of rising concern with environmental abuse, with opportunities for economic development at stake, Vander Jagt made the pragmatic decision to get the best deal he could for all of his constituents. It was fitting that when all of the rhetoric concerning the constitutional rights of property owners and the need to save the environment for future generations had been spent, the Sleeping Bear Lakeshore came into existence the same way most bills are born, swaddled in a blanket shorn from high principle and bundled in the basket of compromise.