A plan to designate large portions of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore as wilderness could move forward today in Congress. It’s been five years since the plan was first proposed. It would designate 32,000 acres, more than 40 percent, of Sleeping Bear as wilderness.
Deputy Superintendent Tom Ulrich says that wouldn’t change much in the daily operation of the park, since those areas are already treated as wilderness. It would put the land off limits to future development.
“No superintendent in the future will say, ‘We need a new scenic drive through the Platte Plains and let’s put a little visitor contact point down in there.’ That won’t happen,” says Ulrich. “That will be legally precluded.”
Most of the wilderness area in the lakeshore would be on North and South Manitou Islands. Some land near Good Harbor Bay and Otter Creek will also be protected, as will the Sleeping Bear Plateau, behind the popular dune climb.
More than a decade ago, there was talk of a wilderness plan that could have led to closing roads in the Platte Plains and that raised a firestorm of controversy. The current proposal would not seek to close any roads and won wide support in the region.
Even so, Congress has been unable to get the measure through the House of Representatives since it was proposed in 2009.
One change that would result from the wilderness designation being finalized is the National Park Service could pursue historic preservation more aggressively. That’s because some of the buildings associated with old farms in Sleeping Bear fall within an old wilderness plan that goes back to 1981. So the park service has to honor that and use the least disruptive methods to preserve those structures, for instance using hand tools rather than power tools when feasible.
Once the new boundary is set, sections of the park where historic preservation is the primary focus would be outside the wilderness designation.