Cover to A Nationalized Lakeshore: The Creation and Administration of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Cover Page


Table of Contents


Chapter One,
"National Parks Are Where You Find Them:" The Origins of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Chapter Two,
"We're Going For The Right Thing:" The Legislative Struggle to Create Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, 1971- 1977

Chapter Three,
Changes on the Land: The Early Management of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, 1977-1983

Chapter Four
Plans, Programs and Controversy: The Reassessment of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, 1977-1983

Chapter Five,
"A Local and National Treasure:" Managing the Sleeping Bear Dunes Park, 1984- 1995

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore At Twenty-Five

Appendix One,
Budgetary Progress of Sleeping Bear Dunes N.L.

Appendix Two,
Selected Past and Present Employees of Sleeping Bear N.L.

Appendix Three,
Selected Visitation Statistics

Appendix Four,
Public Law 91-479

Chapter 1 Notes

Chapter 2 Notes

Chapter 3 Notes

Chapter 4 Notes

Chapter 5 Notes

Conclusion Notes




A Nationalized Lakeshore:
The Creation and Administration of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Chapter Five

Road Wars

     The movement of visitors through the lakeshore was one of the primary and has been one of the most enduring concerns of the National Park Service in the Sleeping Bear area. The original master plan for the lakeshore called for the creation of a scenic road system which would relieve tourist congestion on local roads and provide interesting overlook points. While even in the early plans M-22 and M-109 were planned to be partially used by visitors, the agency hoped, as much as possible, to "separate Lakeshore traffic from local or residential traffic." But that plan, dating from a time when parks were unabashedly designed landscapes, did not survive the more preservation-oriented 1970s. The preparation of a new general management plan for the lakeshore between 1978 and 1980 brought with it two features which would have a great impact on road policy at the Sleeping Bear. The general management plan endorsed the aggressive designation of large areas of the park as wilderness and removed the Leelanau County portion of the scenic road system from the lakeshore. The Benzie County scenic road corridor was effectively rendered defunct by local opposition during the early 1980s. These decisions seriously exacerbated what under any circumstances would have been a thorny relationship between park management and the local government authorities charged with maintaining area roads.

     One of the defining features of wilderness is the lack of roads. Roadless character is critical for an area to meet the legal requirements of the 1964 Wilderness Act. When the new general management plan validated the decision to administer more than half of the lakeshore as an official wilderness, the park service was set on a collision course with the Leelanau County Road Commission. As the lakeshore completed more and more of its land acquisition the park service planned to close vehicular access to large portions of the Sleeping Bear landscape. But the roads throughout the park were maintained by the local road commission, whose funding came from local property taxes and state appropriations based upon the amount of road mileage under their jurisdiction. The road commissions in both Leelanau and Benzie counties had already been hurt by the establishment of the national lakeshore because it took more than 40,000 acres off of the local property tax rolls while at the same time attracting thousands more tourists to use the local road system. Wilderness designation and its roadless requirement hit those commissions a second time by threatening road closures that would trigger a drop in state appropriations. The conflict between the interests of the local road commissions and the National Park Service came to a head on North Manitou Island.

     During the late nineteenth century North Manitou Island was a microcosm of the rest of northern Michigan. The 14,000-acre island was inhabited by 300 people who either worked for a lumber company cutting Manitou timber or they scratched out a living from forest farms. The people on the island had a school, baseball team, and their own railroad-a narrow gauge logging line. A network of roads linked the remote farms to the logging dock and the U.S. Life Saving Service station. The disastrous crash of the forest economy in the 1920s helped to spur the depopulation of North Manitou. From the 1930s to the creation of the lakeshore North Manitou was largely depopulated, save for a handful of summer homeowners and the sporting activities sponsored by William Angell and later by his foundation. Nonetheless, the Leelanau County Road Commission had kept on their books forty-two miles of roads on North Manitou. By 1984, when the island was formally and finally acquired by the National Park Service, the annual payments received by the road commission for the all but unused Manitou roads was $40,000. In return for this large sum all the road commission had to do was retain a part time maintenance worker on the island to occasionally remove a fallen tree with a chain saw. As a New York Times reporter observed North Manitou was used by the Leelanau Road Commission "as a sort of interest-bearing account for years." Wilderness designation threatened to foreclose on that account.[2]

     Both the National Park Service and the road commission anticipated a problem regarding the closing of the island roads. As early as 1972 Leelanau County asserted that roads within the lakeshore would remain under local government control because they had no intention of giving them up and the lakeshore's enabling legislation prevented it from acquiring public land by condemnation. In 1979, Superintendent Donald Brown reviewed with the Leelanau County Road Commission the implications of the new general management plan. Brown believed that the only resolution of the conflict between the wilderness and road revenues was for a new source of funding to be made available for Leelanau County. He recommended that no time be lost exploring new legislation, on both the state and federal level, to make up the difference.

     That advice fell on deaf ears. Yet as late as 1983 no legislative action had been taken. Part of the problem was that the local road commissions were unsure how much federal assistance to request. "We know we need assistance in doing the job," a Benzie County Road Commission engineer admitted, "but we don't know how much to ask for." Part of the problem was institutional, in that county road commissions are fairly powerful local entities in Michigan. They are run by pragmatic-problem solvers, jealous of their prerogatives. They found the National Park Service's bureaucratic style of issue resolution plodding and unresponsive. "They are quick to raise objections, but slow with solutions," complained James Gilbo, engineer and manager of the road commission. "If something is not black and white in their plan, they tend to shutdown and say an action is not authorized by Congress." [3]

     Also a problem was Congressman Guy Vander Jagt, who did finally sponsor a bill to provide federal assistance for Sleeping Bear road building in 1984. Vander Jagt was a fiscal and philosophical conservative. He strongly supported President Ronald Reagan's efforts to reduce federal domestic spending programs. In 1986, Vander Jagt even advocated repeal of the Twenty-Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, so that Reagan could be elected to a third term. Failing in that Vander Jagt called for Reagan to run for the House of Representatives, so he could lead the nation as Speaker-of-the-House. The Congressman regularly voted zero funding for the Department of the Interior during House budget debates. His special pleading for extra Interior funds for his district did not win much sympathy among the Democratic majority. Even the Reagan administration testified against Vander Jagt's bill during a House hearing. National Park Service Director Russell Dickinson reminded Vander Jagt that seventy percent of the lakeshore's visitors were Michigan residents and that the federal government already provided the state with millions of dollars from the Highway Trust fund. Part of the problem with obtaining federal funds for local roads within the lakeshore was the fear of establishing an expensive precedent for scores of other parks. Vander Jagt tried to point out that Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore already had been receiving special annual appropriations with which to improve locally owned roads. The powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Chicago Congressman Sidney Yates had special affection for the sister lakeshore park but an antipathy for Guy Vander Jagt. The latter had lent uncolleageal support to a Republican who had given Yates a tough reelection challenge, which made Yates more than happy to rain on Vander Jagt's lakeshore road initiatives. Another congressman, with less ideological and interpersonal baggage, could have won at least temporary federal assistance for Leelanau and Benzie county.[4]

     With no special federal relief in the offing the roads within the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore continued to suffer from neglect. Arthur Clark, the Benzie County Road Commissioner, complained that the roads and bridges in the area were deteriorating faster than he could repair them. "Someone could get killed," he complained. This was only a slight exaggeration. A 1982 Department of the Interior study of M-22 and other highways in the lakeshore described the roads as "heavily impacted" by tourist traffic and "deficient" in design and surfacing. To maintain the roads properly the road commission estimated they needed $16.7 million in additional revenues over ten years. They would surrender no existing revenue sources until new monies were forthcoming. [5]

     North Manitou Island became the symbolic battleground between the park service's determination to follow through with their management plans and the road commissioners insistence on holding on to every financial asset at their disposal. The National Park Service had requested that other roads within the lakeshore be closed, but North Manitou became the battleground because it was a large, insular portion of the park to which the park service could control access and it had forty-two miles of defunct road.[6]

     Without receiving federal funds to make up the shortfall the Leelanau County Road Commission refused to surrender the island roads. In August 1984, the Commission voted to explore "all possible commercial uses" of the road rights-of-way, including commercial logging and the operation of motorized scenic tours through the wilderness island. Meanwhile the park service, which had just completed the purchase of the Grosvenor's ferry dock on the island, announced it would not allow the road commission use of the dock, as their actions threatened the island's environment. The road commission, headed by strong willed Glen Noonan, refused to be so easily outflanked. They asserted ownership of an abandoned dock at the end of one of their island roads and notified the park service they would use it to bring road equipment to North Manitou. Superintendent Richard Peterson knew that dock was in severe disrepair so he "authorized" the road commission to conduct operations on the island for one year but placed severe restrictions on their activities, including the provision "no timber may be cut or destroyed from federal property." The road commission dispatched a forester to the island to estimate the value of the timber along the county's road right-of-way. In October 1984, the commission's attorney warned Congressman Vander Jagt, "Something serious" was about to happen between the feuding agencies.[7]

     The "something serious" was the enforcement of North Manitou's wilderness status by park rangers. All unauthorized vehicles were ordered removed from the island. In August a private vehicle leased by the road commission was impounded by island rangers. The 1973 Chevrolet Blazer belonged to James M. Munoz, a local schoolteacher and charter boat operator. He had the truck on the island for several years and made it available to the road commission when they needed access to the island's roads. Munoz had ignored a registered letter warning him to have the Blazer removed from the island. "I have been wronged," Munoz complained to the road commission, after the park service shipped the truck to a mainland storage facility. Congressman Vander Jagt expressed "shock" at the rangers' action and offered to intercede in the dispute. The truck was eventually returned to Munoz, but only after he signed an agreement pledging not to leave it overnight anywhere in the lakeshore. The road commission responded to the incident by giving Suttons Bay High School permission to transport a vehicle to the island, use it to give students a tour of North Manitou, and keep the truck on the island indefinitely. The commission also informed hunters preparing to participate in the North Manitou deer hunt that it was all right to bring motorcycles on to the island. Munoz struck his own blow against the lakeshore by proposing to the Leland Board of Education that the one-acre site of a former North Manitou school house be developed for educational or commercial recreational use.[8]

     The road commission-park service melodrama took on a tragic dimension on December of 1986. A single engine plane on a training flight from Marquette, Michigan, to Traverse City became caught in a winter storm. With the craft's carburetor icing badly, it began to lose altitude. The flight instructor attempted to make an emergency landing on the partially frozen surface of Lake Manitou, on North Manitou Island. The ice could not hold the plane, which broke through and sank to the bottom of the interior lake. Before that happened one of the men, although badly injured, managed to escape from the wreck and make his way to the shore. Unfortunately he yielded to hypothermia within an hour. The attempt by park rangers and the Leelanau police and firemen to search for survivors and find the lost plane fed local discontent with the National Park Service's plan to manage the island as a wilderness free from motor vehicles. The three-day search took place amid blowing snow and gusty thirty-mile an hour winds. Searchers on the island requested the use of snowmobiles so that they could more quickly reach the priority search areas. Lakeshore officials demurred, but the State Police and the Coast Guard approved the use of snowmobiles. Unfortunately heavy seas prevented their transportation to the island. The parents of the missing student pilot were dismayed to discover that two pairs of cross-country skis were the only equipment available to speed the searcher's efforts, and immediately contacted their congressional representative. Red-hot calls from Washington, D.C. encouraged Superintendent Richard Peterson to belatedly offer the use of the lakeshore's all-terrain vehicles. But by that time the pedestrian patrols discovered the crash victims.[9]

     Loudly voiced criticisms to the contrary, nothing the lakeshore did hindered the use of motorized equipment in the search. Weather conditions were simply too rough to transport any equipment to the island. The road commission, which claimed to maintain vehicles and roads on the island, did not look much better. They had offered rescuers the use of their four-wheel drive vehicle ("if they can get it running") and were forced to admit to the State Police that there were many downed trees blocking the roads. Superintendent Peterson responded to the lessons from the crash by having several snowmobiles prepositioned on the island to aid any future winter rescue. Ironically the lakeshore agreed to allow a heavy flatbed truck on the island to transport the fallen plane from Manitou Lake to the Lake Michigan dock. Still to many people the incident gave the appearance that the National Park Service valued the sanctity of wilderness more than the prospect of saving human lives.[10]

     The bad blood between Leelanau County and the lakeshore continued into the following year. After the road commission's North Manitou dock was wrecked in an autumn storm, the National Park Service blocked their efforts to obtain a Department of Natural Resources construction permit on the grounds it wanted only one dock on the island. The lakeshore offered the road commission the right to use the new National Park Service dock that was being planned. Rather than greet this offer as an olive branch, the road commissioners saw it as a plot to control Leelanau County's options. The response came in August of 1987 when the park service's own dock required a Department of Natural Resources permit. Officials in Lansing requested Leelanau County's approval for the dock because it would be used for a Leelanau County commercial operation, the island ferry. After sitting on the permit for several months the Leland Township supervisor tore up the park service application. The supervisor, who also blamed the park service for traffic congestion in Leland, had met with Superintendent Peterson and hoped to interest him in a shuttle system from the lakeshore to Leland. Peterson was unwilling to compromise on either North Manitou roads or Leland's traffic woes. "It's like talking with God," the supervisor complained. "They're nothing but a bunch of buck-passers." In disgust he declared "tell them to go suck an egg."[11]

     The war of words between the park service and the county became more heated when a third party to entered the fray. The slow pace at which the lakeshore was implementing the wilderness recommendations in the general management plan dismayed many environmentalists. After six years of waiting for North Manitou to be purchased and another five years for the wilderness plan to be put into effect, the environmentalists were ready for action. In August of 1986, the Sierra Club announced that if the park service did not act to have the road commission removed from the island it would initiate legal action. The Sierra Club lobbied Michigan Governor James Blanchard to investigate the road commissions collection of revenues based on the unused island roads. An investigation by the state attorney general followed. "We don't care whether the county gets any money for the roads or not," declared Anne Woiwode, head of the Sierra Club's Mackinac Chapter, "but we are not going to sit by and watch them degrade this proposed wilderness area." The Sierra Club's threat of a suit brought prompt action from the lakeshore. On April 6, 1987 the National Park Service published a public notice of its wilderness rules for North Manitou in the Federal Register. "Use of vehicles in wilderness areas is prohibited under federal statute," the notice made clear.[12]

     By this time the Sierra Club was not the only one threatening legal action. In March of 1987 Leelanau County filed a complaint with the federal district court to force the park service to allow them to maintain the island's roads and to establish that the road commission were the rightful owners of the right-of-way. The Sierra Club then filed suit to be named co-defendant in the suit, with the goal of insuring that environmental considerations would be given strong representation in any negotiated settlement. Leelanau County, however, objected to the Club's involvement and filed a brief in opposition to their joining the case. For its part the court did not seem to anxious to take on the case. Judge Douglas W. Hillman was slow to set deadlines for the pre-trial motions, leaving the lakeshore and the county to find their own way through the issue of road management.

     By 1988, it was clear that the fight over the roads on North Manitou Island had spiraled out of control. "I don't understand what this is all about," Lakeshore Assistant Superintendent John Abbett admitted in a moment of candid frustration. The fate of the roads on an offshore wilderness was not really important to Leelanau County. What did matter was money. The county needed more of it to provide appropriate care for heavily used tourist roads. But the old bitterness over the creation of the lakeshore, the land acquisition process, and the general management plan had been allowed to bleed into the road maintenance issue. "The main issue is the public's rights," Glen Noonan told his fellow commissioners. "Are we going to let the National Park Service dictate the final policy of the Road Commission?" Both the lakeshore and the county looked in vain to Congressman Vander Jagt to solve the road commission's problems. Unfortunately, Vander Jagt had tried and failed to even convince his own political allies to provide the county with federal support. That left the road commission with two practical alternatives: a local property tax increase and a larger share of state highway funds. As the prospect of a meaningful legal victory in federal district court faded the county turned to these other solutions. In 1987, Connie Binsfeld, Glen Lake's Republican representative in the Michigan Senate, shepherded a bill through the legislature, which increased the amount of road funding received by Leelanau and Benzie counties from the state. Leelanau's share of $146,000 for 1988 came with the provision that the funds be "used exclusively" for construction or reconstruction which provided "safe and efficient…access to national parks and lakeshores."[14]

     The National Park Service also sought creative alternatives to the regular head-butting with the road commission. An out of court settlement was crafted between the lakeshore and the county in which the Nature Conservancy purchased the bulk of the county's rights-of-way on North Manitou for around $150,000. The National Park Service then purchased the land from the Conservancy, thereby getting around the lakeshore's legislative mandate to acquire public lands only by donation. In the wake of this settlement a more constructive relationship between the road commission and the park service gradually emerged. A turning point came when the road commission sought to make improvements to County Road 616. The hilly road had several dangerous curves the commission had long wanted to have straightened. Glen Lake school buses had to make long detours in winter to avoid its winding, icy surface. Superintendent Peterson made a special effort to accommodate the commission's need to use park land to realign the right-of-way. The lakeshore also worked with the road commission on applications to the Public Land Highway Fund and to the state department of transportation. Such funding requests did not solve Benzie and Leelanau counties escalating transportation costs, but they did help to ease the local burden. "We'll take anything we can get," became the watchwords of James C. Gilbo, manager of the Leelanau Road Commission. Gilbo could even state publicly that "We're happy the Park Service is willing to explore solutions to the problem."[15]

     While the lakeshore was in the midst of their dispute with the Leelanau Road Commission, Superintendent Peterson ran head-on into an additional road controversy concerning planned improvements to Pierce Stocking Drive. The seven-mile dune road had become the single most popular attraction in the park. It had long needed to be resurfaced and partially realigned. The National Park Service believed the entrance to the scenic drive, which began and ended with a very steep hill, needed to be relocated and a more gradual approach laid out up the dune. A bike lane on the Scenic Drive and additional parking, especially for recreational vehicles and trailers were further planned. The project, budgeted at $2.2 million had been placed on the back burner many times due to funding shortfalls. When it looked like the road improvements were finally going to go through in May of 1986, the project hit a snag from an unexpected source.

     The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Preservation Committee was the snag. Formed by Marie Scott, a Michigan native and a former lakeshore seasonal interpreter, the committee believed the road improvements as planned by the park service were too intrusive on the environment. The committee, which was largely made up of local people, also objected to the fact that the park service had not held public hearings specifically on the project. Superintendent Peterson contended that the realignment had been part of the general management plan, which was the subject of extensive hearings in 1979. Instead of building a new entrance road to the scenic drive, Scott's group advocated that the lakeshore partially take over the county owned Dune Valley Road. Superintendent Peterson, however, felt this would cause potential traffic problems with regular users of the county road, not to mention further conflict with the road commission which was loathe to lose more road mileage to the park service. Scott's committee expressed objections, which were shared by some lakeshore staff. One ranger, speaking to the press anonymously, complained that the scenic drive was being widened "so much that it doesn't become any different than any of the county roads." The design team from the Denver Service Center, however, had no problem with that criticism since the Stocking Drive had heavier traffic than most county roads. The complaint revealed a split in the ranks of the park service that was becoming increasingly common nationwide. Many younger employees saw the park system as an archipelago of ecological islands, protected from the rest of the world, while more traditional managers still thought of a park as primarily a recreational destination.[16]

     Marie Scott elicited the support of the office of U.S. Senator Donald Riegle, which pressed Superintendent Peterson to hold hearings on the project. Peterson agreed to delay the start of the project and to entertain individual comment. The lakeshore management was not on firm ground and should have known it. There had not been an environmental assessment of the much tinkered with project. Superintendent Perterson demurred on holding hearings, although he did reluctantly scale back the bike lane and more importantly eliminate a large parking lot near the entrance. The parking lot had been a nonessential late addition to the plan and would have destroyed a large stand of mature hardwood trees. Driving the superintendent to push through objections to the project was the need to reopen the popular road as soon as possible. "We've answered all their questions," a lakeshore spokesman said after meeting with Scott and her group. "They just don't like the answers." One of management's objections to altering the park plan was the argument that the project was actually underway. Construction contracts had been signed and the realignment had been surveyed and flagged. It was, therefore, with grave suspicion of Scott's group that Superintendent Peterson viewed the news that during the first week of June 1986 someone had pulled up between 300 and 500 survey stakes at the construction site. The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Preservation Committee strongly denied association with the "monkey wrenching" incident, which caused more than $1,000 damage. The group threatened to sue the park service if it went ahead with the construction, but in the end lacked the financial resources to make good that threat. The project was completed in November, a month too late for tourists visiting the park to appreciate the beautiful autumn hardwoods.[17]

     The incident was at once an illustration of the fact that for the National Park Service nothing ever came easy at Sleeping Bear. It also served as a warning that a transition was taking place in northwest Michigan. The old-style knee-jerk opposition based on the idea of "keeping the park service out," was gradually giving way to new coalitions of citizens who looked to the National Park Service to play a leadership role in preserving the natural and cultural heritage of the Sleeping Bear area. These citizen-activists could be articulate supporters of the lakeshore or vocal opponents. The warning of the Stocking Drive protest was that public participation would be insisted upon in all phases of the planning process.

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Last Modified: January 10, 2001 10:00:00 am PST

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