Back in 2002 the National Park Service decided that about half of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore needed additional protection against development, vehicle traffic and commercial activity.
While the idea was sound, the plan the Park Service came up with ignored decades of Benzie and Leelanau County tradition of wide-open access to park land and Lake Michigan through county and local roads, trails and dozens of road-end “parks” where friends could gather to swim, picnic and bask in the magnificent scenery.
For them, that’s what Sleeping Bear was all about. Restricting access by shutting down many local and county roads, trails and hunting spots also roused bitter memories of the days when many homeowners were forced to leave their land when the Lakeshore was created. Once again, the federal government was seen as bullying, inept and out of touch. One plan even called for the removal of salmon from the Platte River and the closure of vast stretches of county roads within the park.
Now the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Conservation and Recreation Act is on President Obama’s desk ready to be signed into law. It’s a compromise in the best sense of the word, a melding of necessary preservation goals and a commitment to maintain access to the land and the lake for locals and visitors alike.
This is the way government is supposed to work. It wasn’t particularly pretty, and the debate sometimes divided communities and friends. But in the end the Park Service twice shelved plans that ran into stiff local opposition and listened. The result was a proposal that won wide local support and was championed at the federal level by Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, and U.S. Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow.
Many local residents and groups stood up and showed real leadership. They stuck to their goals and their values while embracing the overall aim of preservation, and they never backed down. To its credit, the Park Service finally came to understood that meeting local needs is as important a goal as preservation.
A hundred years from now, when the park is still there and the magnificent views and beaches are still drawing visitors, they can thank the people who made this possible today.