Park wants community input on Port Oneida


Deadline extended to Friday for first phase of comments; Park will eventually draft Cultural Landscape Management Plan

By Jacob Wheeler
Sun editor

The Port Oneida Rural Historic District — the picturesque tapestry of late 19th century farms, fields and rolling hills, just east of Glen Arbor on M-22 — will soon have a Cultural Landscape Management Plan, which Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (the local branch of the National Park Service, or NPS) will develop together with an Environmental Assessment.

“The purpose of the Plan,” according to a Park press release, “is to explore the various ways in which the NPS might preserve cultural landscapes in the District in order to protect cultural resources and provide for visitor interpretive and recreational opportunities.”

But first, the Park wants public comments on how to best to preserve and celebrate Port Oneida. The National Lakeshore is especially interested in how you envision the landscape looking many years from now. Will some fields be allowed to return to mature forest? Will some fields be cultivated or planted with cover crops? Due to technical difficulties, the public comment period for the “scoping” phase was extended from last Friday to this Friday, Dec. 17. You can submit comments on the Park’s website, or write to them via snail mail at “Superintendent, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, 9922 Front Street, Empire, MI 49630”.

Representative of the late 19th and early 20th century farms of the Midwest, the District boasts 18 farms, 113 structures and 3,400 acres — all told one of the largest intact agricultural districts in the nationwide National Park system. Port Oneida is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places at the state level, and today the entire District is classified as an “Experience History” zone, according to the 2009 National Lakeshore General Management Plan.

According to the Park press release, the District provides an excellent opportunity to preserve a rapidly disappearing landscape associated with an important time period in the heartland of America. The Cultural Landscape Management Plan is needed to determine the best way to halt deterioration of the cultural landscape, and preserve it in the future.

“Since the end of agricultural activity in Port Oneida, historic spatial patterns have deteriorated somewhat. The physical and visual connections between landscape features, agricultural buildings, and community landmarks have diminished, and much of the historic plant materials have been lost. Landscape features such as windbreaks, orchards, and garden areas are deteriorated and overgrown. Invasive vegetation, such as black locust and spotted knapweed, has encroached on the landscape and threatens native plant and animal communities. Although National Lakeshore staff and volunteers have accomplished much to halt and reverse this deterioration, there is a need to decide the desired future conditions for the District, and how best to achieve them.”

Sleeping Bear Dunes Deputy Superintendent Tom Ulrich says that the Park typically sees a higher volume of comments once the “scoping phase” yields to a more advanced phase when specific alternatives are presented to the public. To date, the Park has received some comments that advocate for horse-riding trails in Port Oneida. Other comments have spoken up in favor of letting the District grow back to nature. But, Ulrich points out, Port Oneida is an “Experience History” zone, which means that the Park is committed to preserving the man-made history too.

Ulrich expects that the first round of public comments will be published as early as late January 2011. Landscape architects and assistants from the Lakeshore’s regional office will then become involved for the purpose of completing an Environmental Assessment. Phase two — unveiling specific alternatives — could happen in May, when much of the local population has returned to the area following winter hibernation.

Why this focus now on Port Oneida?

“We’ve been pretty successful in recent years in obtaining internal park service grant money for field clearing,” says Ulrich. “Take a drive to Port Oneida and see examples of tree clearing where the trees encroached on fields. We’d like to do that in a more comprehensive way.”

And therein may be one of the central questions at the heart of this coming discussion over how to preserve Port Oneida. Should certain farmsteads reflect the way they looked in the late 1800s, when the fields weren’t all cleared of trees? Or should they resemble the aerial photographs from 1938 that are featured in Tom Van Zoeren’s oral history books — the time period that may have featured the maximum extent of clearing? And should onetime boundaries in the fields, or between farmsteads, be redefined?

“Part of the difficulty is that we don’t want to choose an exact moment in time for the entire district,” explains Ulrich. “That’s a big area to cover. … Some of the farms have buildings with more modern additions. Other farms never really changed around the turn of the century.”

Perhaps someday a tour through Port Oneida will resemble a travel through time, from Civil War days to the Great Depression, and back again.

Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear

To get a feel for how some local organizations are weighing into this discussion, read a portion of Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear’s letter to the Park, which PHSB director Susan Pocklington graciously shared with the Glen Arbor Sun:

To further develop the plan for Port Oneida, we offer the following comments:

1. Determining the management plan for the cultural landscape would necessarily involve taking into consideration the many components that define a landscape. We support addressing these components – land, vegetation and structures – as a whole, as they go hand-in-hand in determining the desired future conditions. This cultural landscape plan needs to include structures as well as land and vegetation. It would be difficult to plan one without the other.

2. Several factors would influence the recommendations for management related to the Park’s goals of visitor experience and access, recreational and interpretive opportunities and preservation treatment of, and impact on, cultural and natural resources. Some of these factors to be considered include:

Defining characteristics of the cultural resources – including windbreaks, fence rows, orchards, historic plantings, open fields and structures
Historic integrity – condition and collection of resources on site
Viewscapes – that reflect the period of significance and/or that offer spectacular views of the cultural and natural resources in the District
Visibility – location on a major thoroughfare; location within the District
Stories to be told – quantity of resources and unique history related to the family, structures, community, or ways of life; the variety of stories inherent within the District; a farmstead’s place in the overall history of Port Oneida.
Determined period of significance
Visitor access – type of road (gravel, paved, two-track,etc), distance from major artery
Open space – selection of which should be maintained as historic agricultural fields with no invasive, nonnative vegetation; and which will allow these.
Flexibility – allow a range of uses within parameters of park goals
Visitor experience
Circulation and parking – the location, visibility, ingress and egress, size and surface of the parking lots is a significant issue. Limiting the amount of vehicular traffic and encouraging walking, biking and skiing is most preferable in maintaining the uncluttered, quiet, pastoral setting which is a significant factor in the appeal of Port Oneida.
Adaptive-use partnerships – how many partnerships and what types of activities would preserve the historic integrity, and at the same time offer enhanced visitor experiences and services. For example, there is great interest in activities such as leasing fields for haying and pasture.
Trails – considering the number, location, type, and network of trails to promote the desired circulation and minimal impact on the landscape and viewscape of the district.
Minimizing the impact of use on natural resources
Signage – consider the size, design and location of exhibits and signage to improve the visitor experience, but which would not pose such distractions from the historic landscape that would negatively impact either their experience or the landscape.

We would encourage the park to include Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear and other potential partners relative to the future of Port Oneida, in developing alternatives, through brainstorming sessions with the park. Points of discussion might include identifying and evaluating farmsteads for rehabilitation, stabilization and restoration, as well as ideas for desired uses; and the development of trails and exhibits.

The plan/EA should include a combination of farmsteads/landscapes (including vegetation, structures, and fields):
1. Stabilized as part of the landscape and left to the visitor’s imagination or that offer excellent interpretive opportunities (without restoration or rehabilitation)
2. Restored for adaptive-use and/or interpretation
3. Rehabilitated for adaptive-use and/or interpretation