Looking Back At The Fight For Sleeping Bear

Jun 19, 2013

As we celebrate 50 years on the air, IPR is looking back at stories and events that made a significant and lasting difference for life Up North.

In 1970, the U.S. Congress passed a bill to create a national lakeshore at Sleeping Bear Dunes. It protects in perpetuity a place that many consider a gem --not just for the Great Lakes -- but for the whole country.

But it was a bitter battle that lasted nearly a decade. Eventually people in the area accepted a role for government in protecting the environment.

Idea for a Lakeshore Park

The man most responsible for getting the Sleeping Bear Dunes area recognized as a national lakeshore was U.S. Senator Philip Hart of Michigan.

The National Park Service had done a study that said there were just a few remaining stretches along the Great Lakes that might yet be protected for public use.

These were places that possessed what Senator Hart termed the unique combination of natural beauty and geological charm.

In a recorded interview at the time Hart said: “All of us, age 20 or older, can remember places which in our childhood were delightful, fun. And we go back to them today and they’ve changed. Maybe it’s progress. But we’ve lost something. In the passage of time, man and the machine can make changes which all the money later can never recreate because they’re changes affecting things that God made.”

Many of new shoreline parks around the country were within a day’s drive for millions of people. And the idea was not just to protect pristine areas but to open them for public recreation as well.

Brian Kalt writes about this in his book, “Sixties Sandstorm.” It’s based on research he did as a grad student about the fight over Sleeping Bear. He’s now a law professor at Michigan State University.

Carving a shoreline park out of an area already settled with homes, farms and cottages was bound to stir a tide of local resistance. “It wasn’t a fight between people who wanted to protect the dunes and people who didn’t. The opposition in the area was mainly from people who thought that they were doing a fine job of protecting it. And that they didn’t trust the government to do a very good job,” Kalt says.

Enough Public Land

The state of Michigan already owned quite a bit of land around Sleeping Bear, including the main dune climb. Plus, there were two state parks nearby. Locals thought that was enough for public recreation and that the feds didn’t need to take any more property.

It didn’t help that early park managers advocated letting the land go back to nature. And they bulldozed many houses and cottages that they bought.

Kathleen Stocking remembers the park’s first superintendent, Julius Martinek, sitting at her kitchen table complaining about how her dad had ruined the wilderness. It was the early 1970’s and Kathleen was a single mother with two young kids living in an old farmhouse at the base of the dunes and running her dad’s scenic drive.

Pierce Stocking was a timberman who bought up thousands of acres around Sleeping Bear. He built a private park maybe a half-mile from the main dune climb. Kathleen says Martinek talked on and on about how he was going to rip out the roads and scenic overlooks her father built up on the dunes.

“First of all it wasn’t a wilderness, there were lots of people living here. But it was another six months before someone in Washington said, no, that’s the right idea. You let them go there but you keep them corralled because it’s a fragile environment,” Stocking says. Today a bigger, paved scenic drive handles more than 15,000 cars a year and is named after Pierce Stocking.

Shift in Attitudes

Dave Taghon, a local historian who oversees the museum in the village of Empire, was right in the thick of the controversy as president of the village council. He recalls that plenty of locals were none too happy about the prices the land buyers for the park service were offering.

“When they first came in here it was pretty much a ramrod job,” Taghon says. “Martinek, as I recall, was the first superintendent and he was tough. And he had some tough people working for him when they come in and give you two-hundred bucks an acre when you knew it was worth five or your son-in-law would say, but Dad, that’s worth a thousand an acre.”

Eventually, Taghon says, most locals accepted that their land was necessary to create the lakeshore. Some people were even happy with the deals they got. And he thinks the general consensus today is that the national lakeshore is good for the region.

Things would surely be a lot different if the park hadn’t come in. For instance, a popular spot, around North Bar Lake, was at the time already being developed with more than three dozen lots staked out.

“Several of them were developed and it would have blocked the public from ever using that area around North Bar Lake. And it would have been the same in Good Harbor Bay or anyplace else. It would have been private ownership. And obviously they don’t even want you to walk in front of their place,” Taghon says. 

To tamp down opposition and get the park approved meant the Department of Interior also gave ground. Most significantly, areas around a couple of popular inland lakes, Glen and Platte, were removed from the park’s boundaries. And people within the boundaries who built on their property before 1964 also could keep their homes.

That took a lot of air out of the opposition. At the same time, Brian Kalt says, public attitudes across the country also were shifting.

“We sort of had this approach to environmental issues by the end of the sixties which was: development, private interest bad; government good. And what changed was the willingness of the public to accept government action as the best way to protect the environment,” Kalt says.

National groups such as the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation got behind the new park. That made it possible for Senator Hart to outlast local opponents and finally to get a bill passed in 1970, after several tries.

Worth Protecting

For Kathleen Stocking, who grew up in and around the dunes, Sleeping Bear remains an emblem, a symbol for the kind of place that’s worth fighting to protect. “It’s a really unusual natural formation. And it’s interesting.  It’s interesting how the glaciers created it. It’s beautiful. It should be a national park, like all the other national parks,” Stocking says.

To this day, there continues to be some tension between protecting the park’s natural features and making them available for more people to use. Brian Kalt thinks too many visitors could change what makes Sleeping Bear a special place just as surely as private development would have.

“I think it’s pretty clear that if the federal government hadn’t come in, in 1970, with this legislation that the development in the area would be very different. The natural character of the area would not be nearly what it is today. And I think that that would be a great loss,” Kalt says.