An Overdue Dose of Wilderness

Congress Passes New Protections for Sleeping Bear Dunes

SleepingBearDunes-Ashok-Rodrigues-iStockphoto

Earlier this month, Congress passed the first bill designating a new wilderness area in five years—the longest lapse ever between such designations. The bill specifically protects 32,500 acres at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a national park site in Michigan famous for its immense sand dunes and bluffs, as well as its beaches, forests, and inland lakes on the southeastern shore of Lake Michigan.

It took 30 years of hard work building consensus among people who use and love the park to achieve this milestone. The new bill doesn’t add any new land to the existing park boundaries, but it does add a higher level of protection to existing areas within the park.

What does the new bill mean for the park? Fortunately for most park visitors, there will be virtually no change in their experience at Sleeping Bear Dunes. The designation doesn’t restrict public access to any part of the park, and it doesn’t change most of the ways visitors already enjoy the park. Hiking, camping, canoeing, hunting, fishing, and even scientific research are all permitted on wilderness lands and park officials will continue to allow most recreational activities.

The new designation primarily helps to protect the park against future threats to its fragile dunes, bluffs, and vegetation. For example, people can’t drive motorized vehicles through these sensitive areas (except in emergencies), and developers can’t establish new infrastructure on these parcels—no new roads, utility lines, buildings, or shelters will be allowed.

What’s exciting about declaring these parts of Sleeping Bear Dunes wilderness? These lands aren’t swaths of vast and intimidating backcountry. Often, people view wilderness as potentially dangerous places where they can get lost. By comparison, in most places, Sleeping Bear is literally a walk on the beach. The park is a long and relatively narrow strip of land along the coast, and the new wilderness areas are places that are relatively easy to explore—although North and South Manitou Islands do provide a more traditional rustic, woodsy backcountry experience for those seeking it. Overall, the new designation can make the concept of wilderness more accessible to many visitors.

In short, it’s a win-win. People can continue to enjoy these lands like they always have, but park officials must preserve and protect them “in their natural condition” as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,” as stated in the Wilderness Act. It’s a good deal for people, wildlife, and the park.

This newest designation at Sleeping Bear Dunes comes just a few months shy of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, a landmark preservation bill which President Lyndon Johnson signed into law on September 3, 1964, creating the first 9.1 million acres of protected wild lands in America. Over the last five decades, Congress has helped to preserve more than 100 million additional acres of land around the country through the National Wilderness Preservation System.

About the Author

Lynn McClure is director of NPCA’s Midwest Regional Office. She would rather be outside than in any day of the week, even during the often harsh Midwest winters. Her favorite parks are the Great Lakes national parks as well as Kenai Fjords, Acadia, and any national park on water that is in between!