Leelanau News and Events

More Visitors, Access To The Islands, Big Restoration Projects: What’s In Store This Summer At Sleeping Bear Dunes

By Emily Tyra | March 29, 2021

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Superintendent Scott Tucker gives advice to locals navigating the surge in visitors and reveals some of the hottest park projects on deck.

Leelanau Ticker: After the highest number of annual visits to the park on record, in 2020, there were 21,880 visitors to the park this January, up from 13,049 last year. February visits increased, too. Is this a trend you see continuing?
We are anticipating those numbers to keep rocking through the summer. It gets tricky because success isn’t just numbers. Our success is that visitor experience. Do they have a clean restroom, can they find a place to park, can they find a way to recreate on their own terms, and to experience something magical? If they can do those things, that’s success.

Leelanau Ticker: What would you tell locals who are witnessing higher use at their favorite spots?
All of our locals and folks that come to visit Sleeping Bear have their favorites. Empire Bluff, Pyramid Point, the Dune Climb, Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive overlooks. Those are what you see in all the travel brochures, on people’s social media. If they pull up at Empire Bluff and there are 50 cars, they say, ‘alright, we are at the spot.’ We could find a way to add 50 parking spots at Empire Bluff but that’s not going to help your experience. So, the challenge is: how do we convince the repeat visitor to get out of their comfort zone and find something new.

Leelanau Ticker: Tell us what’s on the Superintendent’s short list of lesser-known gems?
There are 100 miles of trail at Sleeping Bear. There are amazing vistas in Port Oneida of Sleeping Bear Bay and the Manitou Islands. Platte Plains — that whole trail system is awesome. Old Indian Trail gets you into that ridge-and-swale, and that final dramatic walkout to Lake Michigan.

Leelanau Ticker: The most recent estimate is that SBDNL has a $16.3 million deferred maintenance backlog…
If you walked in today with a bag of 16 million dollars, we have projects we could spend that on, everything from roofs and siding to docks to historic structures to restrooms.

Leelanau Ticker: The Great American Outdoors Act was signed into law last summer, with the express purpose of addressing the historically underfunded deferred maintenance backlog at all of our national parks and public lands. Will SBDNL see any of those funds?
Tucker: The Great American Outdoor Act (GAOA) is a 5-year, $9 billion funding stream for deferred maintenance; so, it's about 2 billion dollars per year. We’re competing with 426 national parks nationwide, and deferred maintenance for the national park service as a whole is around $15 billion. So, the GAOA off the top is an investment strategy but it’s not the solution. You look at Sleeping Bear’s deferred maintenance, it’s at about $16 million; you look at deferred maintenance at Yellowstone, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, you are at the $500-to-700-million level. We have our list, and all of our ducks lined up, so we will see how our agency prioritizes those projects.

Leelanau Ticker: While waiting to see how the GAOA funds cascade down, how are Sleeping Bear’s current maintenance projects funded?
We are a fee-collecting park. Out of every dollar that we collect, 80 percent stays in the park [with least 55 percent going to deferred maintenance projects], and 20 percent goes into a national pot that ANY national park can compete for.

Leelanau Ticker: What high-visibility deferred maintenance project is on SBDNL’s to-do list?
Tucker: If you’ve been to Pierce Stocking’s No. 9 Overlook, and you’ve looked down at the base, you’ve probably seen the sandbags lining that. It’s deemed safe — engineers have looked at it — but it is perched on a moving dune, that has been moving for thousands of years and has definitely been moving over the last past 50 years. That’s a deferred maintenance project that is going to require that deck adapting to the geologic forces of a dune ecosystem. We have to decide, do we put funds into keeping it in the exact same spot and then fighting mother nature or do we relocate to a sustainable location? I joke we work at a glacial pace here…we have to make sure we are in the forever business, preserving the resource so that your grandkids can come visit Sleeping Bear and have the same experience you have today.

Leelanau Ticker: What’s a project that will see some forward motion this summer?
We competed for and secured national funds – fee dollars — for a project at the South Manitou Lighthouse complex that will restore the lighthouse, and other buildings, and provide visitor access. There will be work starting this year, with most of the work happening next year and in 2023 hopefully visitors will be able to not only visit the lighthouse but also the keeper’s quarters and the fog whistle building. The more we can get visitors to interact with history, the easier it is for us to preserve it and protect it.

Leelanau Ticker: Since funding for maintenance comes through park fees, is that a motivator to monitor if visitors have actually paid?
Fee compliance is difficult. If you look at a Shenandoah or an Acadia, or get to the gates of Arches National Park, there is only one way in and one way out. Every visitor stops, talks to a ranger, pays their fee. Sleeping Bear has 30-plus entry points, the only spot we have control of ‘in and out’ is Pierce Stocking Drive and the Dune Climb. The 35 other entry points visitors come and go. So, I can hire a bunch of rangers to do nothing but fee compliance, and make sure every car at every trailhead has a receipt, but then I’m using all of the fee money to enforce. I’d rather use that fee money for a South Manitou dock or a historic structure.

Leelanau Ticker: Last year Manitou Island Transit made the difficult announcement that it would not run ferry service to South and North Manitou Island — for the first time in over 100 years — because of inability to access the docks at both islands. How is it looking this year?
Lake Michigan water was not anyone’s friend last year when it comes to infrastructure. But, the short answer is in the last year we have obligated over $1.5 million dollars to those two docks. At North [Manitou], we did a half-million-dollar dredge project last summer. After we dredged, Lake Michigan reminded us who is boss. So, this winter we found another half million, which we just transferred to the Army Corps of Engineers to do a second dredge under the previous permit. South Manitou’s dock was underwater because of high water; that’s now raised over a foot out of the water. Once spring comes we’ll get our contractor back out there; all they have to do is hammer in the deck boards. Our anticipation is both islands will be accessible, and hopefully we’ll have 10 to 20 thousand visitors to the islands again this summer.   


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