President Obama signs Sleeping Bear wilderness bill

Update: on Thursday, March 13, President Obama signed the Sleeping Bear wilderness bill into law, nine days after it passed the House of Representatives.

By Jacob Wheeler
Sun editor

The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore wilderness bill passed the House of Representatives yesterday on a voice vote and will head to President Obama’s desk, where he is expected to sign it into law. Congressman Dan Benishek (a Republican representing Northern Michigan) championed the legislation in the House and expects it to be signed within the next couple weeks. Democratic Senator Carl Levin co-sponsored companion legislation that passed the Senate last year.

“I’m ecstatic that we got it past the finish line,” Benishek told the Glen Arbor Sun this morning. “This is the first wilderness type bill that has passed in five years. It’s a model for how these types of bills should be done in the future because it’s based on what local citizens want. This was developed in the area to make sure that the Park remains open.”

Congressman Dan Benishek visited Park Deputy Superintendent Tom Ulrich at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Jan. 11.

Congressman Dan Benishek visited Park Deputy Superintendent Tom Ulrich at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Jan. 11.

The wilderness bill, a rare example of popular legislation with bipartisan support, would designate approximately 32,500 acres of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore as “wilderness” areas. Just as important to Benishek and House Republicans, however, the bill protects county roads, historical structures, and access to recreation and enjoyment of Lake Michigan. The right to hunt and fish in designated wilderness areas is specifically protected in this legislation.

The reason the bill took years to pass Congress, according to Benishek, is that the term “wilderness” alarmed his colleagues in the House, particularly Republicans from rural western states. In late January, the bill finally passed the House Committee on Natural Resources during a Congressional mark-up hearing.

“Republicans in the House don’t like how federal land management is done back in their states. Utah is 80 percent federal land. Their representatives can’t stand how Washington tells them to manage their lands. So we just had to educate them that this Sleeping Bear management plan was developed in the local community.”
(Actually, 66.5 percent of Utah is federal land, according to the Washington Post.)

Read our feature story from last fall about the local grassroots push behind this wilderness bill — spearheaded by Beulah resident Jeannette Feeheley — how it was borne of the Park’s unpopular 2002 General Management Plan, and how it reflects the current National Lakeshore’s management effort to win over the local community.

Oil pipeline through Straits of Mackinac

MackinacOilPipelineRally2The Sun also asked Benishek about his position on the decades-old Enbridge oil pipeline that runs through the Straits of Mackinac — an important topic for local environmentalists. (Enbridge was responsible for the 2010 Kalamazoo River oil spill in southern Michigan — the largest on-land oil spill in U.S. history. Last summer, leader Bill McKibben spoke at a rally at the Straits of Mackinac, where speakers called on Enbridge to upgrade its pipeline and commit to not pump heavy and corrosive Tar Sands oil through those pipes.)

The Sun was apparently the first media source to ask Benishek about Enbridge.

“I’m concerned whenever there’s a risk of an oil spill,” the Congressman answered. “We need to make sure that our infrastructure is maintained up to snuff. But I think we can have both good environmental policy and energy policy in this country.”