Congress passes first wilderness bill in years: Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes is a winner!

About five years after Congress last protected any land as designated Wilderness, Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has broken the streak, a fitting celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

With the passage of a bill in March, more than 32,500 acres of the stunning Sleeping Bear Dunes landscape are now designated wilderness, the highest level of protection accorded any piece of public land. Sleeping Bear Dunes Wilderness includes portions of two islands, forests, miles of beach and spectacular sand dunes rising hundreds of feet above the only Great Lake contained entirely within the U.S.

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The bill enjoyed bipartisan support among the Michigan delegation and communities around the lakeshore. 

Outside of Michigan, the area is probably best known as “the most beautiful place in the country,” an honor conferred in 2011 by ABC’s Good Morning America. Indeed, its sandy shoreline, crystalline waters and lush foliage make for a unique experience--and some spectacular photos.

To see even more great Sleeping Bear Dunes photos, visit Ben Neumann Photography.

Credit: 22 North Photography.

Credit: flickr, xray10.

Credit: flickr, Joey Lax-Salinas.

Credit: flickr, Rodney Campbell.

The legend of Sleeping Bear Dunes

The rolling sand dunes that have made this place famous reach 450 feet in some areas, and the story behind their name far predates the modern tourists who clamber up and down them. Local tribal legend has it that a mother bear and her two cubs were driven into Lake Michigan from the Wisconsin side and began swimming for shore. The cubs eventually succumbed to exhaustion and slipped beneath the waves, and the forlorn mother slumbered on the beach, waiting for them. The Great Spirit Manitou recognized her devotion and brought the cubs to the surface as islands, North and South Manitou. The mother, covered with sand, became a Sleeping Bear Dune.

The dunes aren’t the only attraction in the area. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore encompasses 35 miles of Lake Michigan beaches, and, especially in the summer, it is packed with people looking to kayak, canoe, raft, swim, sunbathe or sightsee. The protected Wilderness areas will allow these activities as well as fishing. In the winter, permitted activities will include snowshoeing, cross country skiing, snowboarding, and hiking.

Credit: flickr, Charles Meeks.

Credit: flickr, Ken Bosma.

Credit: flickr, eyton Z.

Save haven for wildlife and birds

Though Michigan is renowned for its evergreen and hardwood forests and many picturesque wild areas around the Great Lakes, Sleeping Bear Dunes will be only the 16th protected Wilderness area in the state, and the second largest to Lake Superior’s sprawling and grandiloquently-named Isle Royale Wilderness.

Fittingly, this wild area contains valuable habitat for wildlife, including whitetail deer, beavers, porcupines and foxes.  Birds are especially abundant near the Sleeping Bear Dunes, including wood ducks, hooded mergansers, loons, pelicans, herons, egrets, ospreys, bald eagles and a variety of owls. This great diversity is due to the area’s range of habitat. According to the National Park Service, 240 species of birds have been identified in the confines of the lakeshore, which lies along the Sleeping Bear Birding Trail and is a popular stop for bird-watchers.

Credit: flickr, Pat Kight.

Credit: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (National Park Service).

Credit: flickr, lexusinabasket.

The swath of Lake Michigan that hugs the Upper Peninsula contours of the Sleeping Bear Dunes (as well as North and South Manitou Islands, several miles offshore) is rather remarkable on its own. It--along with 26 other lakes and ponds and several wetlands and bogs in the Lakeshore area—supports a staggering range of life. There are 93 known fish species within the park. Those currently in relative abundance near the lakeshore include pike, carp, pumpkinseed, bluegill and Coho and Chinook salmon.

Credit: flickr, Dee.

Credit: flickr, Pat Kight.

Credit: flickr, Delta Whiskey.

Credit: flickr, David Cornwell.

The impending designation of Sleeping Bear Dunes Wilderness is an apt celebration of the Wilderness Act’s 50th anniversary, and hopefully a sign that the public lands gridlock that has gripped lawmakers over the past five years is wearing off. The Wilderness Society is cautiously optimistic that the passage of this bill represents a newly constructive spirit. More than two dozen locally-backed public lands bill, many with bipartisan support, await attention in the House.

Ask your member of Congress to pass more wilderness bills.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore proposed Wilderness