Eight states border the Great Lakes, but only five national parks. For those who think the spectacular values of the freshwater coast are underrepresented among the crown jewels of the national park system, there is good news: a small but dogged group of Wisconsin citizens is keeping the torch lit for the establishment of a national park on the Grand Traverse Islands of their state and Michigan.
Not to be confused with the Grand Traverse region of the northwest Lower Peninsula of Michigan, the Grand Traverse Islands span “the gap between Door County, Wisconsin, and Michigan’s Garden Peninsula. Marking the dangerous maritime divide between the warmer, shallower waters of Green Bay and the colder, deeper waters of Lake Michigan, they are a richly biodiverse, historically significant, and largely undeveloped wilderness archipelago,” in the words of the citizen group.
Friends of the Grand Traverse Islands are proposing a park of about 7,000 acres scattered across two Michigan islands, four Wisconsin islands, and various features of the tip of the Door Peninsula. Significantly, all of the proposed parkland is already in public (federal, state and local) ownership, nullifying resistance from those who might oppose acquisition of private lands. Still, Washington is not particularly friendly to expanding the federal domain, so park backers acknowledge they are in this for the long haul.
The other Great Lakes national park in Wisconsin, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, took 40 years to get Congressional approval, Friends of the Grand Traverse Islands Chair John Bacon points out. “When we started this, we never expected it would happen tomorrow, or even in five years. The logic will eventually win out.” A sea kayaker and guide, Bacon has frequently recreated in the archipelago and said it so impressed him that he wondered from his first experiences in the area why it was not already a park.
The idea of creating a park among the islands dates back to at least 1970, when an Islands of America report released by the federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation recommended something called an “interstate wilderness park” encompassing 6,000 acres on what it called the 14 Green Bay islands. “Yet 45 years later, after attempts made by Michigan and Wisconsin, the island chain remains unopened, unprotected, unsung and falling apart. This is a national tragedy,” the Friends say in their proposal.
St. Martin Island Lighthouse, photo by John Bacon
State officials from both Michigan and Wisconsin pursued the idea for about a decade before Michigan pulled out. Because of local opposition to inclusion of land on Michigan’s Garden Peninsula, the Friends have scaled back the Michigan portion of their current proposal to only St. Martin’s and Poverty Islands, which are already in federal ownership.
The Friends’ lyrical description of the proposed park’s assets is enticing. A central feature is the Niagara Escarpment. The islands “consist of dolomitic limestone rock formed 420 million years ago from the compressed sediments of a shallow, tropical sea. Rare wildflowers and orchids found almost nowhere else on earth call them home. Neotropical songbirds, bats, and butterflies return to them each and every summer. And trees believed to be over 500 years old cling to their nearly vertical, rocky bluffs.”
David Hayes, a retired Park Service regional planner, owner of a bed and breakfast in Sturgeon Bay and now a member of the Friends group, says he has long supported the designation of a Great Lakes national maritime park. Learning of the Grand Traverse Islands proposal, he joined forces with Bacon and others.
Hayes told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “it’s unbelievable to have such a large geologic formation in the U.S. that has no national anything. This is huge – it’s over 500 miles worth of geologic formation. That alone to me is one very important reason to do it.”
Creating a national park is about more than safeguarding geology, scenery and natural resources, backers say. Recreational opportunities, ranging from birding to camping to sailing to kayaking to snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, are abundant. There are historic sites reflecting both indigenous peoples and European settlers, and historic lighthouses. And a national park would be an economic shot in the arm, proponents say. Apostle Islands has generated approximately 300 jobs for a northern Wisconsin community where they make a significant difference. Meanwhile, existing uses on adjacent lands and waters, including timber harvest and commercial and sport fishing, would be unaffected.
Dave Dempsey, FLOW Senior Advisor
The initial Congressional objective, Hayes says, is an NPS special resource study, a necessary prelude to park creation. The study would review the area’s national significance, cost and suitability. Bipartisan support for the study exists, he says.
“There’s something about national parks that touches the imagination,” Hayes says. “They bring people from all over the world.”
Highlights of the Grand Traverse Islands National Park Proposal
Michigan proposed lands:
St. Martin Island (Federally-owned parcels)
Acreage & Ownership: 1,244 acres under federal ownership.
Features: Niagara Escarpment, old hunting/logging cabins, old fishing village sites, small harbor on south shore with dock, access to St. Martin Island Lighthouse.
Acreage & Ownership: 171 acres under federal ownership.
Features: Niagara Escarpment, Poverty Island Lighthouse.
Door Bluff Headlands County Park, Door Peninsula
Acreage & Ownership: 156 acres under county ownership.
Features: Niagara Escarpment, Native American pictographs, beach, hiking trail, commanding view of Green Bay.
Plum & Pilot Islands
Acreage & Ownership: 330 acres under federal ownership.
Dolostone Pillar on NE Shoreline of Rock Island, photo by John Bacon
Features: Niagara Escarpment, Pilot Island Lighthouse & Fog Signal Building; JE Gilmore, Forrest, & AP Nichols Shipwrecks; Plum Island Lightkeepers House, Fog Signal Building, & Range Lights; ruins of Old Plum Island Lighthouse; last remaining Duluth-style US Life Saving Station on Great Lakes; two beaches; Grapeshot shipwreck; maintained trails.
Rock Island State Park, Rock Island
Acreage & Ownership: 912 acres under state ownership.
Features: Niagara Escarpment, Thordarson Estate, small boat dock, sand beach, old fishing village site, numerous cemeteries, Native American archeological sites, the first lighthouse built in Wisconsin, campground, maintained trails, and backcountry campsites.