Tom Ulrich’s tenure at Sleeping Bear Dunes dawned collaborative relationship between Park and local citizens
Photo: Tom Ulrich in front of the Sleeping Bear Dune Climb in July 2011 during a groundbreaking ceremony for the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail.
By Jacob Wheeler
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore deputy superintendent Tom Ulrich, who will retire from the Park later this month after he turns 62, once heard a poignant analogy at a leadership conference that compared the old style of managing a National Park to the Star Wars jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi, who deftly and constantly fends off outside threats with his light saber.
By contrast, the new style of Park management is not to deflect or fight off criticism from the public, but to engage, listen and teach as Yoda does. “Teach you I will,” says the jedi instructor.
“Parks aren’t fortresses with walls,” said Ulrich. Especially not Sleeping Bear Dunes, which shares western Leelanau County and northern Benzie County with villages, with commerce, with private homes. This is not a park like Yellowstone, a massive rectangle of land with only four entry points. “You absolutely need to be part of the community if you’re going to do a good job.”
Ulrich, a native of Portage, Michigan, arrived at Sleeping Bear Dunes in late 2002 after working for four different National Parks out west: Crater Lake in Oregon, Homestead National Monument in Nebraska, Grant-Kohrs Ranch in Montana, and Florissant Fossil Beds in Colorado. When he started, the Lakeshore staff was reeling from widespread criticism after it promoted an unpopular new General Management Plan (GMP) that would expand portions of the Park classified as “wilderness.”
The public believed the new plan would close off access points such as Esch and Lake Michigan Road by the Good Harbor picnic area, making popular Lake Michigan beaches much more difficult to reach. Mistrust of the Park was rampant; people were pissed. (In fact, Esch and Lake Michigan Roads would have closed to the public only in the unlikely event that the Benzie and Leelanau County Road Commissions had given up ownership of the roads.)
Longtime Sleeping Bear Dunes employee Bill Herd told the Glen Arbor Sun in 2002 that the new GMP was flawed because the public wasn’t given the chance to opine what areas of the Park should be considered wilderness; in addition, no environmental impact studies had been conducted. The debacle threatened to unravel much of the hard-earned trust that the Park had built with local citizens after the contentious and painful early days of the National Lakeshore, when local families were forced off their land through federal use of eminent domain to take their land for the new Park, which President Nixon signed into law in 1970.
Sleeping Bear Dunes superintendent Dusty Shultz offered Ulrich the job as her deputy in July 2002, and he was to begin working at Park headquarters in Empire that December. But by late summer, anger over the perceived wilderness encroachment had reached Washington, D.C. Beulah resident Jeannette Feeheley and other concerned citizens had formed the advocacy group “Citizens for Access to the Lakeshore” to fight the Park’s General Management Plan, and their pleas reached key officials in the Bush administration. Shultz learned not from her National Park supervisors in Washington, but from a friend at the Glen Lake Community Reformed Church in Burdickville, that the unpopular GMP had been scrapped—by Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Paul Hoffman.
That fall, Michigan Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumous, Congressman Pete Hoekstra, and local leaders held a press conference at Riverside Canoe Rentals near Honor to claim victory that “this wrongheaded plan had been stopped.” Shultz’s hands were tied. Her staff was operating under a stipulation that Congress had made in 1982 (in the absence of guidance from President Reagan’s Interior Secretary James Watt) to manage wilderness-designated areas as wilderness. The process toward a new GMP had been taken away from them.
Shultz sent a news release about the plan being halted to Ulrich, who had yet to arrive in Leelanau County and knew nothing about the feud. “Don’t even think about backing out of the job,” he recalls her telling him.
Ulrich didn’t quit. Instead, he quickly concluded that “we hadn’t explained this process very well to people. … It wasn’t well articulated by the management team then that we have this law we have to follow. (But) if we can advance something else to Congress that they find palatable, (the law) could be changed.”
By his nature a gregarious extrovert, Ulrich engaged with the community. He shot hoops at the Empire public beach; he performed poetry at the Beach Bards Bonfire in Glen Arbor, and he took the lead on public outreach — both to educate citizens on the complex and bureaucratic process the Park had to follow, and to show people that this Sleeping Bear Dunes uniformed official was willing to listen to their concerns.
“When I arrived,” said Ulrich, “our regional director told me, ‘We have to get back in the driver’s seat here. Control over where this goes could be taken away from us. If we don’t reengage (with the public), there could be a legislative solution that we don’t like that’s forced upon us.’”
“I talked to our team here and said that we really needed to go out and explain the public’s misconceptions. It’s not true that the Park wants to lock them out of the Lakeshore. Wilderness is intended for human recreation, just a certain kind of recreation.”
Ulrich put together a detailed PowerPoint presentation and convinced Shultz to let him take it on the road, even to those who stood for private property rights or mistrusted the National Lakeshore on ideological grounds. To his knowledge, no one prior to him had engaged in this kind of outreach and had these conversations. “As the new guy in town, it probably helped,” Ulrich laughed. “They could vent to me about the Park.”
Between 2004 and 2008, Sleeping Bear Dunes launched a new public planning process for a more inclusive General Management Plan. Ulrich estimated that his staff facilitated more than 100 public meetings, and he gave 90% of the PowerPoint presentations—in board rooms and businesses, at public meetings, in the office of a U.S. Congressman. “I met with everyone,” he said. “We wanted to know what the public wanted.”
Ulrich explained that unless Congress acted, the Lakeshore would be stuck with the status quo, which meant wilderness designations where people wanted greater access. “People realized they didn’t like the status quo,” he said. “So we scrapped the old plan.
“People were really glad about the outreach. They said we had never had someone come out from the Park and speak so candidly before.” An editorial in a local newspaper even reported that Sleeping Bear Dunes staff was “begging for the opportunity” to come and listen to the public, Ulrich recalled.
In time, the Yoda approach even patched relations with Feeheley and Citizens for Access to the Lakeshore. Ulrich invited her to Park headquarters and shared the PowerPoint and updates with her; his words or the process he described was initially misconstrued in Citizens’ newsletters, “until she finally understood and trusted that we were telling the truth,” said Ulrich.
“She realized they needed to engage and support this process. Because this was how we were going to get what we all wanted, which is the Lakeshore we all enjoy now, guaranteed into the future.”
The Citizens group pivoted from its fierce opposition to wilderness in the old proposed GMP to testifying in Washington in favor of an increase in wilderness acreage — just not in coveted access points like Esch and Lake Michigan Roads. The new General Management Plan passed in 2009 with public support, and it took another four years for Congress to consider the “Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Conservation and Recreation Act” which would codify wilderness designation in certain portions of the Park.
On July 23, 2013, when Feeheley testified to Congress, her words also offered a resounding endorsement of the role Ulrich had played in facilitating the process: “Ulrich was not sent for window dressing or simply to smooth ruffled feathers,” Feeheley said. “Instead, we found him to be a dedicated public servant who was committed to listening to the concerns of the agency’s stakeholders and who adeptly helped establish a working relationship among what had become, by that time, two distinct adversaries: the National Park Service versus the surrounding local communities.”
The Conservation and Recreation Act enjoyed broad bipartisanship support that included Michigan Democratic Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, Republican Congressmen Dan Benishek, as well as Bill Huizenga and Dave Camp. Benishek, who represented northern Michigan, convinced his colleague, Congressman Dan Bishop, who seemed opposed on ideological grounds to wilderness in National Parks, to move the bill out of Bishop’s subcommittee. President Obama signed it into law in 2014. Ulrich has a framed copy in his office of the Sleeping Bear Dunes Wilderness bill, with a personal inscription from Sen. Levin that reads, “Tom, thanks for your great work on this.”
Another watchdog group which originally had a mistrustful, if not antagonistic, relationship with the Park but later pivoted to one of understanding and collaboration was the Sleeping Bear Citizens Council, which rebranded itself as the Sleeping Bear Gateways Council. The Citizens Council advocated for private property owners during the early decades of the National Lakeshore, as the federal government used eminent domain to remove disgruntled landowners from their homes to create the Park.
Each year the Citizens Council and the National Lakeshore superintendent would meet, giving council members unabridged time to voice concerns and criticism and offer recommendations. Ulrich recalled that he and Shultz would attend the Council’s meeting each August and offer a summary of the year’s activity. “We’d get peppered with criticism,” he said. “It was a forum for people to vent at the Park.”
“The superintendents didn’t look forward to going to those meetings,” said Scott Tucker, who followed Shultz as Sleeping Bear Dunes superintendent in 2016. “But today, (Gateways Council president) Mike Rivard calls me about something, and we meet formally or informally for coffee.”
The council’s new goal is no longer to protect landowners from the Park, but to work with the Park to manage growth. As Ulrich tells it, when the Citizens Council realized that the Sleeping Bear was done acquiring land, they no longer had a purpose, so they changed to the Gateways Council to manage the impact of visitors here.
“The watchdog part has dissipated,” confirmed Rivard. “Scott is the most forward-thinking superintendent that’s been here.”
Under the leadership of Tucker and Ulrich, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore almost feels like a new Park, or at least one that enjoys a very different relationship with the local community. This Sleeping Bear now openly welcomes attention and visitors. Conversations about expanding access to the Lakeshore as part of the 2009 GMP led to the creation of the popular Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, a non-motorized, paved trail between Empire and Bohemian Road (and soon further east to Little Traverse Lake). The Heritage Trail broke ground in 2012 and opened the following year.
Ulrich worked together with a media team from the ABC TV show “Good Morning America” in August 2011 as Sleeping Bear was voted “most beautiful place in America,” which lead to record visitation the following year. Visitors to the Lakeshore topped 1.7 million during the COVID pandemic summer of 2020 and again in 2021, before plateauing at between 1.5 and 1.6 million last year and this year. Predictions and fears among some locals that Sleeping Bear would attract 3 million visitors have never come close to materializing. Nevertheless, during the height of summer, the Park encourages visitors to spread out and explore less-known trails and roads, away from the trafficked Dune Climb and Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.
Tom Ulrich turns on 62 on Sept. 16 and will work his last day at Sleeping Bear on Sept. 22. He plans to spend more time with his daughters, ages 13 and 11, who attend Leland Public School. His wife Lindy works at the Leelanau Conservancy.
“I’m gonna hike, bike, paddle and ski more than I’ve been able to while working in an office,” said Ulrich. “During the summer we’re gonna take road trips in our camper.” As a boy growing up near Kalamazoo, Ulrich often traveled west in a conversion van with his father, a professor at Western Michigan University who established a commune for his students. On those trips, and on a hitch-hiking journey when he was 21, he fell in love with National Parks.
“Being a 21-year-old male, you think the world revolves around you,” he said. “But seeing the parks, I realized there was something bigger than me.”
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore will also offer Ulrich something new in his retirement, even after more than two decades of guiding its path forward.
“There are places in Sleeping Bear that I want to get to know. I want to get out the topo maps, or find that sugar shack I’ve heard about but never been to. Usually if I’m in the Park. it’s very purpose driven. I can’t just wander around at my own pace.”
Ulrich has advice for his successor, the next deputy superintendent.
“Get to know your Park, and get to know your community. Everything is relationship driven.”