Sleeping Bear Wilderness Plan Heads To President Obama

Mar 6, 2014

Tuesday evening there was an historic vote in Congress for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The U.S. House voted to create the park’s first-ever formal wilderness plan. The bill now awaits the president’s signature.

Credit Jim Sorbie/Flickr

Map of proposed wilderness areas.
Credit Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

  What Changes?

On the ground, very little will change, says Lakeshore Deputy Superintendent Tom Ulrich.

“But what it does is, it guarantees that the way people enjoy the park now is the way they’ll be able to continue to enjoy it,” he says.

Wilderness areas you see now will stay wild. This bill protects more than 32,500 acres within the lakeshore from future ever being developed with, say, a road or a little visitor center.

Ulrich says public roads that lead to popular swimming beaches, such as Esch Road, will remain open. Esch is a county road that leads to a beach where Otter Creek meets Lake Michigan – a popular spot among people with young children and others. Esch Road was a friction point with many members of the community, because, under the de-facto wilderness plan that has been in place at the park since 1981, the road was slated for closure if the county were to ever abandon it. That 1981 plan remains in effect until (and unless) the new plan is signed into law by the president.

The plan passed by Congress also adds a wilderness designation for the entire Sleeping Bear plateau – which increases the overall acreage of wilderness.

“Where the mother bear is up behind the dune climb, all of those wild dunes, oddly enough, were not included in that earlier proposal. So, just the addition of those increased the acreage fairly dramatically,” Ulrich says.

What Took So Long?

This plan is the result of about a decade of (often contentious) local discussion about the future of wilderness at Sleeping Bear. The result of that process is a plan that enjoys broad public support locally. It was first proposed in Congress in 2009. So what took it so long to pass through the House and Senate?

Congressman Dan Benishek, who sponsored the measure in the House, says it’s been five years since any wilderness proposal has made it through Congress. He says he spent a lot of time in committee convincing his fellow Republicans that this plan  was created through a public process.

“That’s what’s different about this piece of legislation,” he says. “The Republicans certainly hate the fact that, like in Utah, 80 percent of the land is federal and all the rules come down to Utah without any input from the people living in Utah.”

Public Support

The Sleeping Bear proposal did not start out as a local plan, nor did it enjoy public support in 1999, when the wilderness plan came to the public’s attention.

At the time, the park service was revising its overall plan for how to manage the lakeshore. Leaders did not update the wilderness plan from 1981. But that was the most controversial element of the management plan, and it ended up halting the process in 2002. It took a series of nearly 100 public meetings to create the proposal that has now made it through Congress, the first wilderness plan to formally pass Congress in the park’s history of more than 40 years.

What is wilderness?

Tom Ulrich explains:

“The idea of wilderness was created in the 1964 Wilderness Act, and it was something that was passed by Congress because they recognized that the country was rapidly developing and that, if they didn’t make some sort of provision for its continued existence, those wild areas that everyone in the nation was familiar with would no longer be present. People would no longer have a place to go and get away from it all and feel the kind of primitive naturalness that the nation’s founders all got to experience.”