Featured Wilderness: Sleeping Bear Dunes - The Most Beautiful Place in America?

Your Wilderness - September 2012

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore stretches along 35 miles of the Michigan shore of Lake Michigan near Traverse City. Its miles of sand beach, bluffs towering 450 feet, lush forests, clear inland lakes, and unique flora and fauna earned it the title of “Most Beautiful Place in America” last year  from ABC's “Good Morning America” program.  

The area's distinctive features were shaped thousands of years ago by glaciers, which created the immense sand dunes with steep cliffs dropping to the lakeshore. The main “Sleeping Bear” plateau is a dune field some five miles long and three miles wide; its bearlike profile seen from a distance gives the place its name.

The national lakeshore includes not only the area along the mainland, but also two large pieces of land just offshore: North and South Manitou Islands, which together have 35 miles of shoreline.  Large areas of the islands would be designated as wilderness under a proposal now before Congress.

In early 2011, Sen. Carl Levin (MI) introduced the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Conservation and Recreation Act (H.R. 977/S. 140), seeking to protect more than 32,500 acres in the Sleeping Bear Dunes as wilderness. 

Sleeping Bear Dunes“The ancient sand dunes at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, products of wind, wave, and ice action over thousands of years, are truly one of nature's great masterworks,” Levin said. “The lakeshore celebrates these natural wonders and interprets the fascinating history of Native Americans, early pioneers, farmsteads, and maritime activities that created the Michigan of today. This bill would preserve these natural treasures for current and future generations and enable thousands more to enjoy the scenic beauty and appreciate the generations of Michiganders who came before.”

Bird species thrive in the area, including woodcock, snipe, warblers, and other songbirds. They migrate from one island to another, traveling across Lake Michigan and finding shelter in the islands' contiguous forests.

Some of the beaches are home to the piping plover, which is listed as an endangered species. There are only about 30 nesting pairs in all of the Great Lakes, and three-quarters of those nests are found on the remote beaches of North Manitou Island.

More than three decades ago, Congress officially recognized the area's wild qualities. In 1970, after years of local debate about who could best manage the land, Congress established the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a unit of the National Park Service, and protected the area from development, logging, and commercial interests.

The legislation stated: “Be it enacted…that the Congress finds that certain outstanding natural features, including forests, beaches, dune formations, and ancient glacial phenomena, exist along the mainland shore of Lake Michigan and on certain nearby islands in Benzie and Leelanau Counties, Michigan, and that such features ought to be preserved in their natural setting and protected from developments and uses which would destroy the scenic beauty and natural character of the area.”

Levin's bill to afford Sleeping Bear Dunes permanent protection as wilderness has moved through the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and is one of a number of wilderness measures awaiting a vote in the full Senate.