National Park Initiative

As some of the most remote, wild, beautiful, and historically and biologically significant islands in the Great Lakes region, the Grand Traverse Islands and their surrounding landscapes deserve national park status. We’ve put a proposal together and are encouraging legislators to make the Grand Traverse Islands National Park a reality.

Click here to view the proposal!

Something as big as this would have far reaching consequences, and you may be wondering a thing or two about the whole idea. Why should I care? How much would it cost? How likely is it really? How will this affect the Garden Peninsula? What about the US Fish and Wildlife Service? What about private property owners?  Continue scrolling down for a list of frequently asked questions, and their answers…

Letters of Support:

Delta County Chamber of Commerce

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Door County Visitor Bureau

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Town of Washington Island

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Delta County Historical Society

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US Lighthouse Society

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Village of Sister Bay

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Ephraim Business Council

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Town of Liberty Grove

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Door County Economic Development Corp.

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Lakeshore Natural Resource Partnership

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Niagara Escarpment Resource Network

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Sign the Petition!

Frequently Asked Questions:

1.  Why a National Park?

The Grand Traverse Islands and their surroundings would be most effectively managed by a single organization or government agency.* Since the Grand Traverse Islands cross state lines at the Rock Island Passage, midway between the Door and Garden Peninsulas, it seems reasonable that any overseeing agency should be Federal. Although the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has made room for historic preservation and limited public access in its new Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the area—and is working with the Friends of Plum and Pilot Island to open Plum Island up to the public—historic preservation and cultural interpretation are not part of its mission. In contrast, they are part of the National Park Service’s mission. Furthermore: the tendency of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is to restrict public access and not allow for camping out of concern for wildlife. This policy is not wrong in any moral or ethical sense, but wildlife and landscapes will never be truly appreciated unless people can experience them. The National Park Service supports and promotes visitor experience as a core tenet of its mission and would allow for public access in a way the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wouldn’t.

*Note: there is some nuance to what we are proposing. See FAQ #8, regarding the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

2. In the past, FOGTI has called for a National Lakeshore. What’s the difference between a National Lakeshore and a National Park? 

Not much—they’re basically the same in all but name. Generally speaking, the “national lakeshore” designation is simply given to describe a national park’s character. We’ve started calling for a national park rather than a national lakeshore because the national parks are more recognizable and understood.

3. Why now? 

There are three reasons why now is the right time for national park designation: 1) Recent pictures of lighthouses on Pilot Island, Poverty Island, and Plum Island, when compared to historic photographs, document the area’s maritime heritage is deteriorating rapidly and maybe permanently. These buildings have been left to collapse and decay, and are now among the most endangered maritime structures in the country. 2) The creation of a national park here would also support current efforts to establish a Lake Michigan Water Trail, an International Niagara Escarpment Interpretive Center in Northern Door County, and a United Nations Global GeoPark along the length of the Niagara Escarpment. 3) The creation of a national park unit would boost regional tourism and create jobs directly within the park unit and indirectly in the surrounding gateway communities.

4. What’s the process? How is a national park created?

The process for creating a national park unit is complicated but not insurmountable. It would require an act of Congress or an executive order from the President, both of which can only be issued following an affirmative Special Resource Study (SRS) of the area in question by the National Park Service. The National Park Service would conduct a SRS only if it is authorized and funded by Congress to do so. You can read more about the process here.

5. How much would it cost? How would it be paid for?

A component of the SRS is a feasibility study, which provides estimates for “start-up” costs and long-range costs. The estimates would be identified as ranges depending on the various management tools identified in the SRS. Although no land would need to be purchased from private landowners, money would be needed to transfer control of public lands and structures over to the National Park Service. The cost of doing that is unknown—and that’s part of what a special resource study from the NPS would help determine.

6. Does the park need to include all of the proposed lands?

No, it does not. The proposal is just a proposal. It is a conversation starter, a vision for what’s possible. It doesn’t dictate what the Grand Traverse Islands National Park has to look like—there are many alternative boundaries.

7. What are the alternatives? 

Alternatives to the proposed boundaries would be developed during public meetings conducted as part of the Special Resource Study. The alternatives could include one or any combination of the following: a) the withdrawal of lands on the mainland; b) the withdrawal of State Park lands; or c) the withdrawal of U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) lands.

The mainland is included in the current proposal to increase overall visitation to the park. Accessibility is expanded when visitors don’t have to take a ferry or boat to experience the national park unit. State Parks are included in the proposal because the area would be most effectively managed by a single agency, and any backcountry permit system implemented would be more streamlined and flexible if visitors can book campsites and backcountry zones at the same time, from the same provider.*

There is no limit to the number of alternatives developed under the SRS, but a couple of very preliminary alternatives for a Grand Traverse Islands National Park unit in the Grand Traverse Islands include : a) a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service-managed national monument; b) an Interstate Wilderness Park (as was suggested in the late 1960s and early 1970s); c) a Grand Traverse Islands State Park in Wisconsin only (as is technically on the books); and d) a National Historic Park or National Heritage Area.

The advantage to a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service-managed national monument is that it would be easier to establish: the land is already federally owned (by the USFWS) and the President can simply declare federally-owned lands to be a national monument under the Antiquities Act. Moreover, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is already working with the Friends of Plum & Pilot Islands to open Plum Island up to the public and restore the historic structures found there. We are not opposed to this alternative, but we see at least four disadvantages to pursuing this route: 1) the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service operates wildlife refuges with limited access and limited recreational opportunities; 2) they are unlikely to allow overnight public use; 3) they are not nearly as marketable as national parks, and 4) the USFWS is much less likely to protect, preserve, and interpret the historic buildings found throughout the islands than the NPS would be.

The advantage to the Interstate Wilderness Park alternative is that it was the original idea proposed back in the 1960s and early 1970s. The disadvantages to this alternative are that it continues to separate the northern half of the islands from the southern half—making it difficult to coordinate an interstate park’s creation and management, and Interstate Wilderness Parks are not as understood or marketable as National Parks.

Advantages to the Wisconsin Grand Traverse Islands State Park idea are fourfold: 1) the park already technically exists; 2) consolidation of Newport State Park, Grand Traverse Island State Park, and Rock Island State Park into one large state park could potentially cut down on administrative costs for the state; 3) backcountry camping and permitting between the state parks would run more smoothly for visitors than it currently does; and 4) there wouldn’t need to be any coordination between states.

The obvious disadvantage to this alternative is that it ignores half of the Grand Traverse Islands, including some of the most endangered maritime structures in the area (on Poverty and St. Martin Islands). This alternative is also disadvantaged by the fact the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is unlikely to sell Plum & Pilot Islands back to the State of Wisconsin.

The final alternative to a national park is a national historic park or national heritage area, as seen on the Keweenaw Peninsula or in Essex (respectively). To explain the differences between the two very simplistically: national historic parks are federally owned and administered, whereas national heritage areas are locally owned and administered. While the NPS manages national historic parks, national heritage areas are often managed by local non-profit associations. This means that no single organization or agency needs to own all the land within a national heritage area, removing one of the largest hurdles to the protection and preservation of historic places. However, funding and assistance to national heritage areas from the National Park Service sunsets after 10-15 years, whereas it continues indefinitely with national historic parks.

The disadvantages to these alternatives are 1) they do little to promote the protection and coordinated management of threatened and endangered plants and animals; 2) they do not allow for overnight access; and 3) they are not as marketable as national parks.

For all of these reasons, we believe the creation of a national park is the right path forward for the Grand Traverse Islands.

* Should State Parks not be included in the national park, a streamlined reservation system should be implemented to allow for booking of multi-day trips in a way that allows kayakers, sailors, and boaters to remain at their site when weather deteriorates (without threat of losing their campsite elsewhere).

8. What about the US Fish and Wildlife Service? What about the Wildlife Refuge System?

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service deserves a credit for the work it has done monitoring and protecting the health of marine bird populations throughout the region. The USFWS has also been working with the Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands to restore the historic structures located there, as well as open Plum Island to the public for daytime use. The proposal is not a rebuke of anything they have done.

A critical nuance of the proposal is the continued management of Spider, Gravel, Hog & Rocky Islands by the USFWS. Additionally, the proposal suggests the expansion of USFWS lands to include Fish Island, Gravelly Island, Gull Island, and Little Gull Island. These smaller islands are ideal for wildlife habitat preservation and management as a National Wildlife Refuge under the USFWS, whose mission is to “conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats.”

*Note: for “How would a national park affect the islands’ ecological balance?” see #14.

9. What about private property owners? Why should they want to support this? How would it affect them?

No private lands are included in the proposal. Furthermore, the National Park Service is not interested in kicking people off their land. The benefits of national parks include economic growth, improved property values, protection of nearby historic structures and the environment, greater public access, and higher quality of life.

10. People living on the Garden Peninsula do not want another Door County. What effect would the creation of a National Park have on the local people?

While the creation of the Grand Traverse Islands National Park would certainly boost local tourism and in some ways connect the Garden Peninsula to Door County, we do not believe it would result in the mass commercialism and development that is found in Door County. The two are still separated by over 20 miles of water—a “Long Crossing”—and Door County would likely continue to remain the much larger attraction for families in Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, and the Twin Cities. Since no mainland in Michigan is included in the proposal, the main point of access for visitors would likely remain in Door County.

That said—given that the Garden Peninsula is closer to both Canada and Lower Michigan—the creation of a national park would certainly position the Garden Peninsula to shoot for greater development down the road if residents wanted it and a concerted effort was made.

11. What about hunting and fishing? Would these activities be restricted?

Nothing says that national parks can’t allow hunting and fishing (both commercial and recreational), even if those areas are also designated as wilderness areas—both happen in the Apostle Islands, for instance.

Our proposal calls for all traditional and appropriate recreational opportunities to be allowed in the Grand Traverse Islands because those uses are just as worth protecting as the area’s incredible maritime history and natural qualities. To ensure this, language would be included in the final bill passed by Congress specifically allowing for such use.

12. Would power boats and jet-skis be restricted?

As with hunting and fishing, nothing inherently prevents power boats or jet-skis from being used in national parks. Power boats are allowed in designated areas within the Apostle Islands and around Isle Royale, for instance, and we believe they should be allowed in the Grand Traverse Islands as well. However: small buffers need to be maintained around important nesting sites (which is already the case).

Additionally, because the national park wouldn’t include Washington Island, Detroit Island, large sections of the mainland peninsulas, and private holdings on Summer and Little Summer Island, we don’t think the use of power boats and jet-skis could be seriously restricted.

13. But I don’t want to see jet-skis racing around the islands!

Nothing prevents them from doing that now, so there really won’t be a difference. And the creation of a national park isn’t likely to increase the use of jetskis in the heart of the Grand Traverse Chain either, given the dangerous nature of taking jetskis out there. So those wishing to seek peace and quiet on the islands would still find it—just as they do now.

14. How would a national park affect the islands’ ecological balance?

There will always be a tension between public accessibility and perfect ecological protection. Some may reasonably wonder then, how a national park might upset the fragile ecological balance of the Grand Traverse Islands…

Well planned and balanced management strategies for accessibility and environmental protection would be one of the park unit’s goals. Most visitor traffic would likely only occur around the mainland sections of the proposed park, and a 500ft buffer zone could be established around important nesting sites for birds—mostly the smaller islands (see Question #8 for more information). Most of the proposed national park could be managed as wilderness too—preventing the kind of overdevelopment found at some national parks. Finally, a backcountry permitting process could limit the number of individuals who spend time on the islands.

15. What kind of national park are you proposing? Would it be a developed park, like Yellowstone? Or a wilderness park, like the Apostle Islands?

A wilderness-managed park. There really is a fine line to the ecological health of the Grand Traverse Islands—one that should not be crossed. Furthermore, given the geologic make-up of the islands, they really can’t support much in the way of development.

The proposal is for limited backcountry camping in small, designated campgrounds on Summer Island, St. Martin Island, Rock Island, and the mainland sections of each peninsula, as well as sparse backcountry camping on Poverty and Plum Islands (requiring instruction in Leave No Trace techniques, as many other national parks do).

Safe harbors would be ideal in order to provide protection for sailors and boaters during inclement weather, but aside from that (and the restoration of historic sites) there would be no development of any kind.

16. What about logging? Would logging still take place?

Just as with hunting and fishing, national parks do not preclude logging. In fact, selective logging may need to take place in order to properly manage the forests and/or prevent the threat of future wildfires.

17. So how realistic is the Grand Traverse Islands National Park? What are the obstacles to making it a reality?

Realistic? Yes! Very! There’s nothing that says it can’t be done except pessimism. All it takes is undying effort and a strong argument.

Of course it will not be easy. There are many obstacles to overcome: 1) funding at a time when the federal government is trying to rein in spending; 2) the bureaucratic politics involved with convincing the Department of the Interior that a national park is preferable to a national wildlife refuge; 3) opposition from private landowners who might fear being affected by the creation of a national park; 4) the potential for a negative SRS from the National Park Service, should ever-tightening budgets make NPS administrators deem new national park system units no longer feasible; 5) the difficulty in coordinating and creating a multi-state national park unit; and 6) a general lack of awareness and appreciation for the Grand Traverse Islands and their maritime history; and 7) political gridlock in Washington.

Yet obstacles can be overcome, and a national park is the right thing. No national park—not even Yosemite of the Grand Canyon—was created overnight. We will do all we can to make the Grand Traverse Islands National Park a reality. And you can help! Find out how here.