Leelanau News and Events

Ranger No More: Tom Ulrich To Retire From Sleeping Bear After Two Decades

By Brighid Driscoll | Sept. 18, 2023

After more than two decades serving Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore as Deputy Superintendent, Tom Ulrich will hang up his ranger hat and retire at the end of the month.

Ulrich has spent his career with the National Park Service (NPS). He double majored in environmental science and geography at Western Michigan University where, in his junior year, he wrote an independent study proposal for a six-credit experimental living course. The Honors College accepted the proposal, giving him the unique opportunity to hitchhike nationwide for five months. He visited several national parks, including Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. When he returned to school, he joined the Student Conservation Association and got an internship at Crater Lake. The internship eventually led to a full-time job, beginning Ulrich’s career with the NPS. After stints in Nebraska and Montana, he later became chief ranger of Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in Colorado.

When a spot opened in Sleeping Bear Dunes, Ulrich jumped at the chance; he grew up on a commune outside of Kalamazoo, and the thought of moving closer to his roots was attractive

“Apparently, we traveled to Leelanau as a family but I was really young and don’t remember it well,” he says. “So, my first real memory of Sleeping Bear was when I arrived for the job. It was Christmas 2002, and a harsh winter,” he laughs. “But it was great. I quickly got out in the park and started exploring and cross-country skiing.”

During Ulrich’s time, the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Conservation and Recreation Act came to be. The bill designates over 32,000 acres of SBD to be left as wilderness. When SBD initially set forth a wilderness recommendation for the park in 1981, it was stalled by the Department of Interior. To protect the land in the interim, Congress passed a law to prevent it from being altered until a final decision could be made. The acreage sat in untouched limbo until a controversial SBD General Management Plan was halted just before Ulrich arrived in 2002.

The debate was fierce throughout the County, as locals worried the wilderness designation would remove beach access roads and prevent hunting. Following aggressive land acquisition tactics in the 1970s, the public was wary of another federal plan in and around the park.

That year, Ulrich made presentations on the wilderness issue to 2,855 people at 118 public meetings for various local governments and organizations, as well as to the Michigan congressional delegation.

The collaboration with the community resulted in a wilderness bill finally moving out of limbo and into law, thawing tensions between locals and the park. In March 2014, President Obama signed the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Conservation and Recreation Act. A framed copy hangs on Ulrich’s wall with a personal inscription from Senator Carl Levin.

Ulrich also worked closely with locals on making the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail an established part of the National Lakeshore. The Leelanau Scenic Heritage Route (LSHR) includes M22, M-109 and M-204. The state legislature officially recognized the route as a Michigan Scenic Heritage Route in 2002.

But Ulrich defers to a committed group of Leelanau locals who launched the Leelanau Scenic Heritage Route Committee.

“The Sleeping Bear Heritage was really something that was started by the community. When it was designated as a scenic byway that gave a platform for the committee to apply for grants,” he says. When the committee suggested a bicycle trail to the park, SBD was creating a new general management plan. “It was the perfect time to add that in as one of our considerations.”

“We told the group that we can’t have people riding through the middle of the dunes, you know. We’re here to preserve those. But [the bike trail] could parallel existing roadways or be on corridors that already exist. So, we insisted upon that to the committee, and they were receptive,” Ulrich explains.

The first leg of the bicycle trail was added to SBD in 2012, through a partnership with the LSHR Committee, the Michigan Department of Transportation, Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes, and TART Trails.

The trail now allows visitors to recreate at Sleeping Bear year-round. “People love the trail. I remember when it was first built, if I were out on the trail, people would come to shake my hand and thank me.”

Ulrich says he’ll miss the Sleeping Bear Dunes team. “Anytime you’re trying to accomplish something, you can’t do it alone. Everything is relationship-based, and you have to have good relationships to make things happen. We were able to make lots of great things happen.” He’s looking forward to spending more time hiking, camping, and just hanging out with his wife Lindy Kellogg, and their two daughters.

“I’m actually looking forward to getting out into the park and exploring. There’s still a lot of it that I haven’t seen. I’m looking forward to being with my family, biking, paddling, skiing, reading. All of the things I like doing now, just doing more of it.”
 

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