This week, Congress did something that would have been unthinkable just a few short months ago: they passed a wilderness bill. Such an action, which used to be routine and bipartisan, has been blocked by House Republicans for the past five years. The last time Congress passed any new wilderness protections was in early 2009.
The bill, sponsored by Senators Carl Levin (D) and Rep. Dan Benishek (R-MI) now goes to the President’s desk for his signature and, once done, will designate 32,500 acres of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan as wilderness. The lakeshore stretches for 35 spectacular miles along Lake Michigan on the "little finger" of the mitten of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. It also includes north and south Manitou Islands, which in the legend of Sleeping Bear Dunes represent the bear cubs of the mother bear whose shape is seen in the 450 foot tall dunes on the shoreline. The area is extraordinarily popular with families, anglers, paddlers and birders. A wide variety of activities draw well over 1 million visitors every year. The area is also home to several threatened and endangered species including the Piping Plover, Pitcher’s Thistle and Michigan Monkeyflower. I'm proud that Sierra Club was a driving force behind the creation of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in the 1970s and that today the wilderness designation further protects these amazing places.
The passage of this legislation not only affords greater protections to a beloved area of the Great Lakes region, but hopefully signals a thawing of the gridlock that has prevented widely-supported bipartisan bills from moving that in total would protect several million acres of wilderness. Last Congress became the first since 1966 to not designate a single new acre of wilderness. This year, the Wilderness Act celebrates its 50th Anniversary and we hope that Sleeping Bear Dunes is only the first area that Congress moves to protect. Wilderness areas, national parks, monuments, and protected public lands are part of our special American heritage. And if Congress doesn’t continue to act, we hope President Obama will use his authority to designate national monuments to ensure that our outdoor legacy lives on.
-- by Anne Woiwode, Sierra Club Michigan Chapter Director