About half of the sweeping Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was designated a federally protected wilderness area under legislation signed Thursday by President Barack Obama.
The bill, sponsored by both of Michigan’s U.S. senators, designate about 32,557 acres of the 71,1999-acre lakeshore as wilderness under the National Wilderness Preservation System, MichiganLive reports.
It’s the first wilderness protection bill since 2009 to pass both chambers, making the president’s signature a huge economic and environmental victory in an area that ABC’s “Good Morning America” called “the most beautiful place in America” in 2011,” saying the park on Michigan’s Lower Peninsula is one of the nation’s best-kept secrets.
"Today is a huge win for Sleeping Bear Dunes, our economy, and for the citizens of Northern Michigan," Rep. Dan Benishek, a Crystal Falls Republican who represents the Upper Peninsula and northern Michigan, said in a statement.
Benishek sponsored legislation that unanimously passed the House this month. Democrats Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan sponsored it in the Senate, where it passed last year. The legislation has been the works for decades and the president’s signature on it ends the longest drought on the designation of federal wilderness areas since the 1964 Wilderness Act was approved.
The wilderness designation won’t limit public access to the park, known for shorelines, hills, valley, small lakes and sand dunes resulting from the powerful forces of ice, wind and water.
But it will change some of visitors’ activities at the park, which has 35 miles of shoreline along Lake Michigan, two islands and 26 inland lakes, as well as enormous trademark sand dunes. The law ensures the area will be preserved, Benishek said, and the right to hunt and fish in designated wilderness areas is also protected.
The park was established in 1970. In 1981, the park's general management plan recommended protecting 30,000 acres as federal wilderness — an idea that's just now coming to fruition 33 years later, the Mother Nature Network reports.
Tourism spiked 14 percent to a record 1.5 million visitors in 2012, the year after the most-beautiful-places designation, but it dropped 12.5 percent in 2013, due in part of the federal government shutdown, experts from Michigan State University reported at a tourism conference earlier this week.