Can You Love a Lakeshore to Death?
The answer depends upon your perspective, suggests George Weeks, a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame and owner of the last house standing on the road to Sleeping Bear Point. While locals may bemoan all this attention to “their” Lakeshore as visitation numbers rise rapidly toward a new record, the folks who vacation here appear happy to get away from all those downstate people.
“No, I don’t think so,” replied Jaci Jones of Grand Rapids, who was staying at D.H. Day Campground when asked if the Lakeshore has become too crowded. “We usually go to places like Grand Haven and Ludington. Compared to those places, it’s a lot more relaxing. Definitely cleaner, too.”
Such an answer would not surprise Traverse City native Weeks, who with his recently deceased wife, Molly, bought a cottage on Sleeping Bear Drive in the mid-60’s. All other homes along the road were removed after their leases expired; the Weekses bought in before the cutoff date to retain outright ownership. The park was established by an act of Congress in 1970.
To be sure, life near the Lakeshore is busier, so much so that getting a parking space in Glen Arbor might constitute the start of a lucky day. But Weeks, the press secretary for former Michigan Gov. William Milliken, understands both sides of the coin.
“I’d be glad to tolerate a little delay if it means my (businessowning) friends in town are going to have a successful season. I’ve adjusted. But my experience in recent days ... my gosh, it’s just so much busier,” said Weeks.
Lakeshore superintendent Dusty Shultz, who took over the park’s reins at a crucial time in its history, can put Weeks’ observations in numbers. She has been superintendent since 2001, when the National park Service was embroiled in a controversial effort to push more preservation into a rewrite of its 20-year General Management Plan. Shultz and assistant superintendent Tom Ulrich took control of the process, and eventually a gentler approach was adopted that did not decrease access.
After the Lakeshore was named the “most beautiful place in America” in a television poll last year and Traverse City — with a heavy push from the the Sleeping Bear Dunes sand dunes — was named one of the top 10 summer trips in the world by National Geographic, whatever secret treasures remained have been uncovered.
Visitation surged in August and September to reach its secondhighest level in 2011. The record attendance mark of 1,364,834 visitors set in 1999 seems destined to be broken in 2012, park offi- cials say. According to Shultz, the park’s visitors center is hosting 35 percent more people on average every day, and camping at D.H. Day Campground is up 31 percent. The Park Service has had to block off the parking lot at the Dune Climb due to crowds more often than at any time during Shultz’s tenure. Rangers have also been taking complaints about the size of the daily floatilla drifting
Overnight stays at Valley View, a small, back-country campground off Westman Road that was once known as a place to escape crowds, are up 400 percent because it’s being used for a steady overflow of campers who can’t get a site at Day Campground.
And yet, people keep coming, and most still seem happy to be “Up North.”
For instance, Scout adult leader Mike St. John and a contingent of Boy Scouts from Royal Oak took time while tossing backpacks into a hatchback to talk about their five-day trip to non-motorized North Manitou Island. When asked if the island seemed crowded, he said: “I don’t think so. It was beautiful. There were a few hikers, but it was absolutely beautiful.”
Shultz wouldn’t be surprised. “I haven’t received many complaints along that line,” she said.
And perhaps as a sign that most park visitors brought a healthy dose of Midwestern friendliness, she added. “I’ve been receiving more comments, more general helpful hints. And comments about the (just-opened) Heritage trail, with people appreciating the access to the park.”
Although many park employees are feeling the strain, Shultz said Lakeshore personnel are keeping up. The park received an $891,000 grant from the Great Lakes Initiative, which has helped to hire interpreters and a team to study the impact of all those new visitors. And it receives a percentage of revenue generated by permit fees whose sales have been increasing. The Lakeshore received $1.4 million in 2010 from fees, $1.6 million in 2011, and will get another big jump in the present fiscal year.
The money helps offset a rather stagnant budget. The Lakeshore’s operating budget, which does not take into account permit fees or grants, has only remained about even with inflation during the 11 years of Shultz’s tenure. It’s increased from $3,265,000 in 2001 to $4,346,000 in 2012, or 3 percent annually.
The park’s staffing level has more shifted than increased. In 2001, the park had 54 permanent and 80 seasonal workers; by 2011, the staff had changed to 45 permanent and 110 seasonals.
“There is no doubt that our employees are being stretched right now, and are feeling the effect of visitation ... but so far, so good,” Shultz said.
Matt Doss, policy director with the Great Lakes Commission with a station in Ann Arbor, believes having more visitors will serve the Lakeshore and all of the big lakes in the long run. The commission was set up by the eight states with frontage on the Great Lakes; its work includes advocating for the protection and proper use of the resource.
Doss said that the more people know about the Great Lakes, the easier it is to enlist and lobby on the lakes’ behalf.
“I wouldn’t say the (jump in visitation) is a concern at all ... I think the more people appreciate the Great Lakes and enjoy them, the more people will speak up and make sure that they are protected and preserved,” he said.
Like Weeks, he believes higher traffic counts have a direct benefit, expecting that “coastal communities would be pleased to see it busy ... We want the lakes to be viewed as an economic asset as well as an environmental asset.”
But about those crowds.
Rob Roux of Commerce Township camped with a different troop of Boy Scouts at the Lakeshore’s group campground near the Dune Climb last Thursday, and was about to lead the Scouts on an overnight stay on South Manitou.
A native of Northville, once its own community but now more of a suburb of Detroit, he understood how residents might feel with such a huge influx of visitors.
“Being from a small town, I’m surprised by the number of cars,” he said, walking with his 12-year-old son toward Fishtown. “If you were a lifelong resident, the traffic would drive you batty.”
But when asked if he was enjoying his visit, he replied, “It’s beautiful up here.”