At Long Last: The Dedication of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
On a blustery but sun-kissed Saturday morning, October 22, 1977, Sleeping Bear Dunes was formally dedicated as the nation’s newest national lakeshore. To the strains of patriotic marches played by the Frankfort High School Marching Band, dignitaries from Washington, D.C. and Lansing gathered on a platform at the base of the Dune Climb. They had come to celebrate a day in the making since 1959, when Congress first proposed a federal Sleeping Bear park. Typical of the way things had gone, the Sleeping Bear dedication took place under a cloud of litigation. The United States District Court had to brush aside a final attempt to block the transfer of D.H. Day State Park to the national park. Even a 1976 federal law designed to compensate local governments for federal land acquisitions in each state, which should have returned more than $120,000 to Leelanau County, was challenged in court by township officials who wanted to have the money disbursed to them instead. No restraining order, however, prevented Merrill D. Beal, Midwest Regional Director, from taking the podium as the master-of-ceremonies. William G. Milliken, Michigan’s popular Republican Governor, gave the principal address.
The dedication was as much about closing a chapter in the history of Sleeping Bear as it was honoring the opening of the new lakeshore. For the property owners who had lost the long fight to prevent the national lakeshore the dedication was not a day of celebration. Also missing at the ceremony were two of the people most responsible for the creation of the lakeshore, Philip A. Hart and Genevieve Gillette. Gillette had made her last contribution to the lakeshore during the wilderness hearings. At that time the old warrior for Michigan conservation found herself in opposition to the Sierra Club’s proposal to designate the Platte River area as wilderness. Her plan that the area be managed for natural history education was seen as too “pro-development” by the new style environmentalists and it was rejected. She had fought long enough and successfully enough to suffer the fate of most long-lived activists—to be passed by their own movements. Senator Hart’s name was mentioned frequently during the dedication. Less than a year before he had died of cancer. Governor Milliken, in his address honored Phil Hart and stated that the creation of the lakeshore was one of the “two most gratifying projects of his long governmental career.” Hart rather naively took on the Sleeping Bear project with little inkling of the difficulties before him. To his credit, however, he had the perseverance and commitment to stay his course during the long legislative fight. The dedication ceremony also marked an end to the work of Allen T. Edmunds. The retired park service planner had played a crucial role in creating lakeshore parks at Indiana Dunes, Sleeping Bear, Pictured Rocks, and Apostle Islands. The dedication ceremony marked the end of a process of expanding the role of the National Park Service in the Great Lakes region begun in 1958 with Edmunds’s Great Lakes Shoreline Survey. Edmunds had the great satisfaction during his retirement of watching his new parks grow.
At the dedication “Marty” Martinek wore his National Park Service dress uniform for the last time. The autumn wind tousled his thick hair as he summarized the difficulties encountered in establishing the lakeshore. Had the park not been created “in 1970 it may never have been,” he recounted. All the right pieces came to together at that last moment and the lakeshore was authorized. That moment was now past and with it an impressive, perhaps even in environmental history terms, a “heroic” period of national park expansion came to a close. The land of the Sleeping Bear remained, but the people who had done much to shape it and who had come to love it now had to leave the dune country to the stewardship of others.