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Progress on Protecting 'the Most Beautiful Place in America'

Legislation would help preserve Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan.

In the waning days of the 112th Congress, the Senate approved a bill I’ve been fighting to pass to protect more than 35,000 acres of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

The bill was introduced almost two years ago and made its way through a committee hearing and then a committee vote, and finally was considered by the full Senate. The House of Representatives failed to take up the bill, but Senate passage makes me optimistic we can push this important legislation across the finish line in the incoming Congress.

Senate passage was the result of years of effort by concerned citizens and community groups, local officials, the business community and the National Park Service. I’ve introduced the bill along with Sen. Debbie Stabenow in the last two Congresses to establish a wilderness area that better protects precious natural habitat while improving access to areas with recreation opportunities or historic resources.

If you haven’t visited this Michigan jewel, it’s a must-see. Stretching for 35 miles along the northern Lower Peninsula’s Lake Michigan shore, the park features towering ancient sand dunes that are the products of wind, wave and ice action over thousands of years, and are truly one of nature’s great masterworks.

Just last year, ABC’s “Good Morning America” named Sleeping Bear Dunes the most beautiful place in America. The lakeshore, which encompasses more than 70,000 acres, also protects and interprets an extraordinary history of Native Americans, early pioneers, farmsteads, and maritime activities.

Unfortunately, because a requirement included in a 1982 law directs the National Park Service to manage significant portions of the park as wilderness, the public cannot access some roadways and historic areas. These areas include county roads and other areas the local community did not believe should be managed as wilderness.

Over a period of many years, the community and the National Park Service worked to revise the park’s management plan, including a new wilderness proposal, to preserve both precious habitat and public access. Our legislation excludes these features from the wilderness designation to ensure that access, recreation, and historic preservation are balanced at the lakeshore, reflecting community input. 

The wilderness designation in our bill redefines the areas that should be managed as wilderness to reflect a balanced approach to conservation, recreation, and historic preservation, which are all important goals of this lakeshore. The wilderness areas are undeveloped and possess significant and valuable natural characteristics.

In contrast, developed county roads and state highways, boat launches and many historical structures have all been excluded from the wilderness designation to maintain access and recreational opportunities and ensure preservation and interpretation of historical resources. Hunting, fishing, trail use and camping at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore would continue. Motor boats would still be allowed offshore of the dunes and allowed to beach in areas adjacent to the wilderness area.

The Senate passed the bill in late December. Rep. Bill Huizenga introduced companion legislation in the House that had the bipartisan support of the Michigan delegation, and we were hopeful the House would act before the end of the 112th Congress on Jan. 3 and send the bill to President Obama. Unfortunately, the House failed to take it up, which means that the bill expires.

We plan to reintroduce the bill in the 113th Congress, and Senate passage makes me optimistic that we can pass this important legislation in both chambers to ensure that the woods, waters and beaches of Sleeping Bear Dunes will remain unspoiled for countless generations to enjoy. 

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