Exporting America’s best idea to Saudi Arabian sands


Photo: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore superintendent Scott Tucker (third from left) worked with Saudis last month on developing their own national parks.

By Jacob Wheeler

Sun editor

“The national parks are the best idea we ever had,” novelist and environmentalist Wallace Stegner proclaimed in 1983. “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

Many nations around the world agree.

Last month, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore superintendent Scott Tucker and Apostle Islands National Lakeshore superintendent Lynne Dominy spent two weeks in Saudi Arabia working with their peers in Riyadh and coaching them on community engagement, resource management, interpretation and education programs, park policy, and collaboration.

Saudi Arabia has 15 designated protected areas managed by the Saudi Wildlife Authority, and the oil-rich Gulf country is rolling out a network of national parks inspired by the National Park Service (NPS) in the United States.

“Our National Parks are the gold standard,” said Tucker. “We’ve been doing this for more than 100 years.”

Yellowstone—the nation’s first national park, located in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana—was established in 1872, and the NPS was officially created in 1916. Here in Northern Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was established in 1970.

According to Tucker, the Saudi government reached out to the NPS’s Office of International Affairs in Washington, D.C. a couple of years ago to seek out advice on launching its own parks. The initiative appears to be part of a broader Saudi push to modernize its kingdom, encourage tourism, host sporting events, and revamp its international image.

President Joe Biden—who as a candidate for the White House in 2020 vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” in response to the brutal murder in 2018 of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as its spotty human rights record—traveled to Riyadh and rebuilt relations with the wealthy country last year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine destabilized global oil supplies.

During an interview at Sleeping Bear Dunes headquarters, Tucker shrugged off any mention of U.S.-Saudi politics.

“I went on the trip because I got to meet with my equals,” he said. “My greatest enjoyment was talking resource management with [other park leaders].”


The trip that almost wasn’t

Originally scheduled for March 2023 but postponed because it would have coincided with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, his Oct. 5 departure looked unlikely when the U.S. government appeared to be heading for an Oct. 1 shutdown, when U.S. Congress could not agree on an appropriations bill. All national parks, including Sleeping Bear Dunes, were preparing to close. Instead, eleventh-hour negotiations in Washington kept the lights on—and kept Tucker’s trip on track.

Tucker arrived in Riyadh late on Oct. 6, went to bed and woke up the following morning to news of Hamas’ attacks in Israel and what suddenly felt like a different Middle East. (Saudi Arabia and Israel were reportedly pursuing a peace deal at the time.) But neither the news of Oct. 7 nor the ensuing conflict in Gaza tarnished Tucker’s trip, the hospitality he enjoyed, the delicious food he ate, the wondrous natural and archeological sites he visited, nor the role he got to play advising his Saudi peers on establishing their own national parks.

“It was really a collaborative peer-review—park manager to park manager,” he said. “We were equals at the table sharing ideas.”

Accompanied by officials from the U.S. State Department and U.S. Embassy, Tucker and Dominy began the trip by teaching a four-day class in Riyadh to other park managers on community engagement, education programs, collaboration and ranger skills. During the second phase of the trip they visited Al-‘Ula, an ancient Arabic city on the historic incense route; they watched the release of 60 gazelles into the Sharaan Nature Reserve, an oasis for endangered desert animals; and they toured the Ibex Reserve and Najran. They also learned about the country’s ambitious Neom and Red Sea ecotourism project on an offshore archipelago.


Sleeping Bear similarities

Al-‘Ula may be similar to Sleeping Bear Dunes in a few ways. The desert park opened in 2018 and attracts a quarter-million annual visitors. By 2035, Saudis told Tucker that they expect Al-‘Ula to draw an estimated two million—that’s similar in numbers to Sleeping Bear, which topped 1.7 million visitors in 2020 and 2021. Al-‘Ula’s “high season” also runs about six months, albeit the inverse of Sleeping Bear, whose peak months run from May until October; visitors will flock to Saudi parks during the cooler months of October-March, when daytime desert temperatures are below 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

During his trip last month, Tucker experienced temps in the high 90s during the day and the 60s at night, though the thermostat hit 105 on one day. He didn’t mind the heat so much when he called home and learned from his family that Leelanau County weather was in the low 40s with rain.

“After experiencing 105, the mid 90s seemed very tolerable,” he said.

During his visit, Tucker saw other Europeans, other Americans, Asians, as well as Saudi nationals visiting the parks—and he saw both men and women out and about, despite their traditional society with a long reputation for curtailing women’s rights. “They are opening up a tourism economy and diversifying their visitor base,” he said.


Restoring Native Species and Ecosystems

Tucker will seek to connect Saudi park managers with U.S. National Parks that have similar opportunities and challenges. He visited a protected area on an island in the Red Sea where turtles live.

“That’s an easy crossover with Padre Island National Seashore (in Texas) and the sea turtle work they do,” said Tucker. When it comes to learning about how parks work with other endangered and protected species, such as the Piping Plover bird of Sleeping Bear, Tucker said, “We’ll match their biologists with our biologists.”

As the Saudis reintroduce gazelles and Arabian leopards at Sharaan and Al-‘Ula, they can lift a page from what American parks learned when they reintroduced wolves and other wild animals in Yellowstone National Park over the past 25 years.

After being absent for seven decades, wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995. The number of deer had skyrocketed, because they had been largely unchallenged by a predator and left alone at the top of the food chain. Their grazing had reduced the vegetation so much that the river banks were eroding. Once the wolves arrived, they thinned out the deer—but perhaps more importantly, the very presence of the wolves changed the behavior of the deer, which began avoiding the valleys, so as not to be easily picked off. This allowed the vegetation in those places to regenerate; the number of trees quintupled in just six years, for instance. Because of this, birds moved in, as did beavers, whose dams created habitat for other aquatic species, such as otters, ducks, and fishes.

In other words, the animal ecosystem regenerated, but the rivers themselves actually changed, as well—the plant growth stabilized the river banks, so they stopped collapsing, plus the rivers slowed and steadied. The reintroduction of the wolves, which had been killed off by humans decades before, led to both river and animal renewal.

“Whether you’re in Sleeping Bear or Yellowstone or in Al-‘Ula, all the big challenges are related to human behavior more so than natural resource challenges,” said Tucker. “Will visitors make poor choices or great choices? Saudis face the challenges of illegal hunting, poaching or grazing which impairs the natural resources they’re trying to restore.”

Meanwhile, here in the United States in late October, “someone got gored by a bison in Yellowstone again,” he offered an example of visitors making poor choices.

Tucker also shared with his Saudi counterparts some lessons that he and his staff have learned about communicating with northern Michigan locals who have known our land, harvested and hunted here since before the park was formed.

In the 1970s, the U.S. government used eminent domain to buy out many families and force them off land that would become Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The rough equivalent for Riyadh is the semi-nomadic Bedouins who have inhabited the Arabian Peninsula for thousands of years.

“We had good conversations about how to communicate and establish goals,” said Tucker. “I used the Anishinaabeg lesson of how we make decisions not just for today but for seven generations forward. You have conversations with a Bedouin family with a long relationship to the land, about how the goals are the same. You want to ensure the health of the land, its water, trees and landscape.”

Another challenge faced by Saudi park managers mirrors hurdles in our own national park community. Riyadh must build up communities that neighbor its new parks to accommodate tourism beds, dining options, as well as places for workers to stay. Similarly, Sleeping Bear’s gateway communities such as Glen Arbor and Empire struggle each spring and summer to accommodate the influx of workers who empower our tourism economy.


Sleeping Bear on the Baltic Sea

National Park leaders traveling around the world and comparing notes is a two-way journey. Our U.S. parks often host foreign counterparts. In fact, representatives from three national parks in Poland visited Sleeping Bear last May. Like our National Lakeshore, Slowinski National Park on Poland’s Baltic coastline is known for its huge, shifting sand dunes which are shaped by wind and waves.

In 2021, Tucker and his staff hosted park officials from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. One day he joined them on a tour of the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. As they stood at Overlook #9—which gazes down a steep dune toward open Lake Michigan—Ramunas Lydis, the director of Zemaitija National Park in Lithuania, snapped a photo and texted it to his friend, the manager at Slowinski National Park.

“Why don’t you come join me for lunch,” she replied. She thought he was in Poland, visiting her park.