July 20, 2008

Benzie Agencies Unhappy With Park Plan

By Victor Skinner, The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, Mich.

Jul. 20--EMPIRE -- Benzie County agencies continue to bemoan Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore's preferred general management plan, while park officials work to finalize the years-long project.

Park officials are analyzing feedback from a recent round of public hearings on a new management plan and expect to make minor changes to the "preferred alternative," one of five posed to the public that outlines the park's future.

Meanwhile, the Benzie Fishery Coalition and Benzie County's Lake Township continue to express concerns over 32,000 acres that would be designated as wilderness under the "preferred alternative."

"Once wilderness is legislated it will never likely change, but how it is managed is part of park policy and there is nothing stopping the (park service) from tightening access," said Coalition President Edward McIntosh, who supports "alternative B," which would limit wilderness designation to the Manitou Islands.

"Our membership includes local business owners who are directly affected by tourism, and we believe the preferred alternative is literally 'closing down' Benzie County's appeal to visitors," McIntosh wrote in a letter to park officials last month.

The National Lakeshore's first attempt to draft a management plan in 2002 included the removal of salmon from the Platte River and the closure of vast stretches of county roads within the park. Public outrage over the proposal prompted the park to restart the process.

The new "preferred alternative" -- crafted from public input over the past year -- maintains the salmon and keeps county roads open. It also expands the amount of designated wilderness by about 1,000 acres, said Tom Ulrich, Sleeping Bear's assistant superintendent.

If approved, the wilderness area would be subject to federal laws that prohibit development, as well as motorized and mechanized traffic. The park then would develop a more specific management plan for those areas through another public input process, Ulrich said.

"It appears to me that people by and large really support the preferred alternative. I think people hear the word wilderness and all kinds of assumptions spring to mind," Ulrich said. "I think that the fear that somehow the wilderness would stifle tourism is completely unfounded. When an area becomes designated wilderness ... suddenly it shows up on the map and that becomes a tourist draw."

Benzie County's Citizens for Access to the Lakeshore strongly opposed park plans in 2002, but the group supports the "preferred alternative" now under review, said Jeannette Feeheley, CAL president.

"This plan has got a totally different outlook and tone. The use of the roads is assured as long as the county takes care of them and maintains them," Feeheley said. "There are also a number of visitor-friendly improvements" including better parking at road-end beaches and better access for handicapped and elderly visitors.

Lake Township Supervisor William Robinson believes there's no need to designate any wilderness in Benzie County and, like McIntosh, favors "alternative B" that keeps the wilderness area off the mainland.

"What we are afraid of is if it is classified as wilderness they will do away with some of the roads that are in there. There are several kind of two-track roads that we still can use," he said. "It's just another way for them to heavily control it, I believe."

The Benzie County Visitors Bureau and the Benzie County Chamber of Commerce expect to hold a meeting within the next few weeks to discuss both the "preferred alternative" and "alternative B."

Officials will weigh each plan's potential impact on area business and tourism before taking a stance on the park plan, said Mary Carroll, executive director of both agencies.

Sleeping Bear officials hope to forward a finalized plan to the regional Park Service office in November for approval. Any wilderness designation must be approved by Congress.


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