Upper Peninsula Stories and Tips

The Politics of Dunes and Trees

Grand Sable Dunes Photo, Munising, Michigan

My wife grew up spending summers on the Lake Michigan shore, a place I’ve come to treasure as much as she does. In those first years in the late 1960’s, her family and their neighbors would spend days pulling up the dune grass that seemed to mar their vision of long, white sand beaches. Besides, its edges were rough, and would cut your feet if you brushed across it at the right angle.

If they thought about it all, they might have assumed that this one small change would lead to no others. It was a small version of the hubris that human beings constantly exhibit when we encounter the natural world: the idea that we can sculpt our surroundings to emphasize only those narrow aspects our current aesthetics picks out as valuable (assuming, of course, that commercial interests have yielded the playing field to aesthetics). As lakeshore residents learned throughout those decades, without the grasses, there’s nothing to hold the dunes in place against the forces of wind and wave. And subtly and slowly, the dunes shift, covering life that they previously protected, exposing the things buried by the even slower actions that formed them.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore came into existence in 1972, after a relatively brief six-year birthing period following the legislation that authorized the property acquisition necessary for its creation. Compared with the more heated history of its Lower Peninsula sibling, Sleeping Bear Dunes NL, it won over local residents and commercial interests fairly easily. Timber and mining interests had run their course in the eastern UP, and the appeal of a new tourist-based economy was strong in the shrinking communities of Munising and Grand Marais.

From the start, however, it was handicapped by lack of funding. Although tourist revenues have no doubt failed to meet both the projections of park developers and the expectations of area residents, I’m comfortable with the remote wilderness feel that still characterizes Pictured Rocks. There’s a reasonable balance between the ability to see the Rocks themselves via the Munising-based cruises, and the nearby sites at Miners Rock, Munising Falls, and Miners Falls. Further east, the lack of a highway makes the park inaccessible to the faint of heart.

That’s a direct result of the long-running underfunding. The Park Service's Mission 66 era planning that began the Lakeshore called for a cliff-side highway, running from Munising to Grand Marais. Nothing approaching that has ever materialized, and even the current plans to fully pave the county highway that traverses the park is a far cry from that idea.

The Lakeshore currently runs a $500,000 yearly deficit. I’ve never seen a park so clearly announce its fiscal limitations. Nonetheles, people are here: at the campsites, no matter how remote, it appeared to me. The work in the past has made this possible: the trails are well marked, the road signage is thorough, the interpretive trails are excellent. But if you want to see a skeletal park operation, come here. The Munising Falls Interpretive Center is open three days a week; trail brochures are missing or down to the last copy; campgrounds are staffed, if at all, by a volunteer. 2008 promised a $100,000 increase as part of the largest growth ever in NPS allocations. My guess is that this merely returns monies that were cut from even more skeletal (spectral?) budgets over the last eight years.

Is the park still functioning? Yes. Has the land been ‘preserved’? Yes; perhaps even more than its founders intended. But without the staff and funds to explain it, to continue to protect it, and to help lead us to appreciate it, who knows what the next generations' values will emphasize.

Two hundred years ago, towering white pines covered Michigan from shore to shore. Through 19th century lenses, they held only economic value until they were nearly gone. As 21st century Americans, what are we missing now? What will we neglect, without that effort to see a little deeper into the future than we naturally will?

The UP was always a bit of a trip back in time, a little too distant to allow residents from the midwest's large cities to reach it easily. Thus it never became the vacationland of thousands in the way the northern lower peninsula, Wisconsin and Minnesota did. Even now, that’s largely true, but signs of change are clearly there. I loved Munising from my first visit as a 13 year old, but condos are finally rising along its lovely bay, as well as in the smaller, more remote town of Grand Marais. Counting on these towns to preserve something of the past may be unfair, as they struggle to find a reliable economic base in the generations after the UP’s initial life as resource basin for the industrial age. Balancing these issues is a broader challenge for all of us: identifying the dune grass of our own era, as we try to keep seeing places as they were or might be. It won’t happen just by pining for an earlier time: after all, that era also saw petting zoos at Miners Falls and hot dog stands nearly atop Miners Castle. It will require the same foresight, intentionality and cultivation that set aside 400 places across our country for their natural beauty, historical import, and ecological significance. Maintaining that vision will prove even more difficult than starting it.

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