Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore turns 50 with virtual celebration

Photo: Travel companions Siddhika (left, pointing toward the Glen Lakes) and Soham Gokhale hiked the Dune Climb Trail and jumped into Lake Michigan on June 17. The couple use their Instagram account “PeachyAndPumpkinsBucketList” to document their travels through American National Parks.

By Jacob Wheeler

Sun editor

Twenty-five years from now a future superintendent of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore will open a time capsule stored in a metal lockbox and read a letter written to them by Scott Tucker, the Lakeshore’s current superintendent, on the occasion of Sleeping Bear’s 50th anniversary on October 21.

“As Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore celebrates the 50th anniversary of the park’s establishment, we must remember our story is not finished,” wrote Tucker. “Throughout 2020 and 2021, we will look to how the past 50 years will shape the next 50. One key piece of the celebration is acknowledging how we have gotten to where we are today. These ventures would not have been possible without the passion and commitment from innumerable employees and partners throughout the years, not to mention the sacrifices of former landowners within the current boundaries of the park. … My hope is the Sleeping Bear Dunes of 2045 is as recognizable as it is today and the relationship created over the next 25 years contributes to the park you are managing today.”

In the time capsule the future superintendent will also find memorabilia showing what it felt like to experience 2020 here in northwest Michigan. The items in the lockbox will tell the story of a global pandemic—of signs encouraging people to wear masks and practice social distancing, of a spring shutdown of the National Lakeshore prompted by COVID, a celebrated reopening, a record number of visitors during a gorgeous summer, and also record-high Lake Michigan water levels. As intense, bewildering, and painful as 2020 has felt, Sleeping Bear Dunes has leant us a sense of joyous normalcy. Swims in Lake Michigan feel just as exhilarating, rolling in her sand dunes releases just as many pheromones as any other year.

Sleeping Bear Dunes, and national parks in general, may be more important this year than ever before for Americans, said Rob Wallace, assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks at the Department of the Interior, during a visit on Sept. 15. Wallace was in town to learn how the Great American Outdoors Act, signed into law on August 4, could expand recreational opportunities and address long overdue infrastructure and modernization challenges for this and other parks.

“From a national perspective, the titans of the national park movement—the Teddy Roosevelts, the John Muirs, the Ansel Adams—they all understood the power of the outdoors,” said Wallace, who complimented Sleeping Bear’s staff for finding innovative ways to safely reopen the Park after closing it in April.

According to Sleeping Bear’s interpretation and education program manager Lisa Griebel, the time capsule will contain the Park’s 2020 visitor guide, the 50th anniversary logo, and news about innovative staff projects, such as the virtual learning initiative to bring an educational Sleeping Bear experience to classrooms during a school year when yellow buses aren’t bringing kids to visit the Lakeshore.

Those 45-60-minute, webcam-based virtual learning programs are geared both for elementary and middle school students and focus on water health, geology, history, and Anishinaabeg native tribes. Sleeping Bear’s lead education technician David Fenlon said that schools nationwide, and even in India and South America, are calling to sign up for the program via Zoom.

“I started back in June, and knew I would be involved in distance learning,” said Fenlon. “I couldn’t foresee how timely it would be for this program. We’re getting a lot of great feedback from teachers, that we have something like this when they can’t come here in person.”

Prior to the Coronavirus pandemic, National Lakeshore staff had planned a year-long series of in-person events to celebrate 50 years since President Nixon signed the Park into existence on Oct. 21, 1970. The series was to culminate with a large public gathering. COVID interrupted those plans. Lakeshore staff hope to hold those anniversary events next year. The expression “51 is the new 50” has become a guiding principle at Park headquarters in Empire. 

Instead, said Griebel, Park staff have found innovative, virtual ways for the public to celebrate Sleeping Bear’s 50th birthday. A new website offers opportunities to participate in a “Plan Your Way” 50-mile challenge, an “Explore the Shores” scavenger hunt, a Junior Ranger downloadable book, peruse a Sleeping Bear artists in residence virtual gallery, take part in daily online activities in the runup to Oct. 21, and share ideas with Park staff and take a pledge to protect our National Lakeshore. Sleeping Bear is also teaming up with the Grand Traverse Astronomical Society to hold a virtual star-gazing party on Oct. 16.

Depending on the weather on Wednesday, Oct. 21, Sleeping Bear staff may hold pop-up events at the Dune Climb and other popular destinations such as Platte River, Empire Bluff, and Pyramid Point. In addition, a mobile visitor center featuring multimedia exhibits and a television screen mounted on the side of a passenger van playing videos of the Sleeping Bear experience will soon be ready to bring the Park to underserved communities. However, the mobile visitor center won’t hit the road until after the COVID threat passes.

An environmental movement, a new Park

President Nixon officially established the Lakeshore on Oct. 21, 1970, nine years after U.S. Senator Philip Hart of Michigan introduced legislation in 1961 to add the Sleeping Bear Dunes and 77,000 surrounding acres to the nation’s National Park system. As reported in the book Sixties Sandstorm: the Fight Over Establishment of a Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (Michigan State University Press, 2001), “the 1,600 people who lived in the proposed park area feared not only that the federal government would confiscate their homes, but that a wave of tourists would ensue and destroy their beloved and fragile lands. In response, they organized citizen action groups and fought a nine-year battle against the legislation.”

Sleeping Bear Dunes was born at the zenith of a new American environmental movement, one that ushered in the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, and a renewed interest in protecting our environment and cleaning up industry’s carcinogens and pollutants. Here in Michigan, Gov. William Milliken, who ran the state from 1969 until 1983, was considered an environmental champion. Calls are growing today for a new environmental movement in the United States, particularly as communities struggle to mitigate the destructive impacts of man-made climate change.

In the past 50 years, our National Lakeshore has undergone tremendous changes: the Park’s headquarters moved from Frankfort to Empire in 1987; long a fixture of local maritime history, the Great Lakes lighthouses were automated, and the Coast Guard was modernized; shipwrecks were protected from commercial interests; citizen movements grew to preserve public access to road-end beaches within the Lakeshore, historical buildings and barns were preserved. Through it all, resentment lingered among landowners within the Park who lost their homes, even as others with financial clout and political connections were allowed to stay. Local citizen opposition to The Homestead Resort’s proposed golf course on the Crystal River eventually led to an artful “land swap” that involved The Homestead, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and the Leelanau Conservancy.

Through the decades, tourism has boomed during the summer months. The “Good Morning America” TV show anointing Sleeping Bear Dunes as “America’s most beautiful place” in 2011 brought record crowds to the National Lakeshore—records that have since been broken, and will likely be again this year. This National Lakeshore plays a huge role in Michigan’s tourism industry. According to a recent study, Sleeping Bear Dunes supported an estimated $173 million in economic contributions to the state’s economy and supported more than 2,370 jobs.

The first leg of the popular Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail opened in 2012, reflecting a commitment to promote recreation in certain parts of the Lakeshore, whereas the Park just a decade before had contemplated closing off access to the public. The massive storm of Aug. 2, 2015, changed the forests near Alligator Hill for generations, and an unprecedented fluctuation in Lake Michigan water levels, from all-time low in 2013 to all-time high in 2020—a period of just seven years—showed the challenges Sleeping Bear Dunes faces in an era of unpredictable climate change.

Sleeping Bear’s next 50 years

Asked about climate change during his Sept. 15 visit to Sleeping Bear, the Department of the Interior’s Rob Wallace said, “I try to change the conversation to what it means for someone like Scott [Tucker] to manage resources. You’ve got to think about adaptive management strategies for forests, for beaches. Regardless of the impacts of climate change, you’ve got to be prepared for change.”

Wallace and Herbert C. Frost, National Park Service Regional Director for the Department of the Interior Regions 3, 4, 5 will have a hand in allocating the $6.5 billion afforded by the Great American Outdoor Act to pay for maintenance backlog in parks nationwide. Sleeping Bear’s backlog is estimated to be $16 million and includes projects on standstill at the Port Oneida Rural Historic District in the Park’s northern reaches.

“This is the first time in modern memory that there’s a commitment to funding the maintenance backlog,” said Wallace.

“Not since the 1950s has this kind of money been made available,” added Frost. “It is the investment of a generation—the most we’ve ever seen in our careers.”

The Great American Outdoor Act also provides $900 million a year for the land and water conservation fund in perpetuity, funds that can be tapped for land acquisition. According to superintendent Tucker, Sleeping Bear Dunes sent a letter last year to approximately 150 landowners within the Park’s boundaries, asking if they would consider selling. Seventeen of those have responded and expressed interest. The next step is for the Park to appraise the land and make an offer.