Sleeping Bear Dunes

A view of Lake Michigan from Empire Bluffs at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. (Photo: Rod/Flickr)

Congress designated 32,500 acres of protected wilderness in Michigan this week, ending the longest period in half a century that U.S. lawmakers didn't set aside any new public wilderness areas.

In a rare unanimous vote, the House of Representatives approved protections for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a glacier-carved wonderland of forests, wetlands, bluffs and beaches along 65 miles of sparkly Lake Michigan shoreline. The measure was passed by the Senate last summer, so it now goes to the desk of President Obama, who is expected to sign it into law.

Until this week, Congress hadn't designated any new wilderness areas since 2009 — the longest such drought in the history of the 1964 Wilderness Act, which marks its 50th anniversary this year. The five-year deadlock had driven Obama to use his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to protect several renowned areas, including five new national monuments created in 2013.

The new bill, widely heralded as bipartisan, was introduced in the Senate last June by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and sponsored in the House by Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich. It was also co-sponsored in that chamber by the majority of Michigan's House delegation, the Detroit News points out.

"Once President Obama signs this important legislation into law, we will ensure that future generations will always be able to enjoy the splendor of Sleeping Bear Dunes," Benishek said in a statement.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in February after a winter storm. (Photo: Cody Pope/Wikimedia Commons)

Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes National Lakeshore was established in 1970, covering 70,000 acres of pristine lakefront ecosystems. 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 endeavor to establish wilderness in this iconic national park on Lake Michigan has been in the works since 1981," Lynn McClure of the National Parks Conservation Association said in a statement Tuesday. "Today's designation, a result of strong public participation, will preserve visitor access and hunting and fishing opportunities, while protecting the fragile dunes, bluffs and forest in the park."

Signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Sept. 3, 1964, the Wilderness Act offers this raison d'être:

"In order to assure that an increasing population ... does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness. For this purpose there is hereby established a National Wilderness Preservation System to be composed of federally owned areas designated by the Congress as 'wilderness areas,' and these shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people."
For a closer look at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore — which was crowned "the most beautiful place in America" in 2011 by ABC's "Good Morning America" — check out the photos below highlighting its diverse natural beauty. (And see a map of the proposed wilderness here.)

Photo: Jim Sorbie/Flickr

Photo: U.S. National Park Service

Photo: Jim Sorbie/Flickr

Photo: U.S. National Park Service

Photo: U.S. National Park Service

Photo: U.S. National Park Service

Photo: U.S. National Park Service

Photo: Amy Selleck/Flickr

Russell McLendon is science editor at MNN. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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