Michigan features 3,200 miles of coastline, our Great Lakes hold 20% of the surface freshwater in the world; and with an additional 11,000 inland lakes, there may not be another place with better access to freshwater than Michigan.

Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance

A native of Michigan, Dave Dempsey was an environmental advisor to former Governor James J. Blanchard and longtime policy advisor and director at the Michigan Environmental Council. He has published numerous books on conservation and environmental topics and the Great Lakes. He lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. You can follow his blog here.

By Dave Dempsey

From my earliest memories, Lake Michigan has been a friend.

Sometime in the 1960s, my parents introduced me to this magnificent body of water and its remarkable shoreline.  As a student at Western Michigan University, my friends and I frequently made a 40-mile trip to South Haven to escape our studies in the calming presence of something far greater than ourselves.

Later, as a young man living in Lansing, I would head west a few times a year to find refuge and renewal.

It was only later that I acquired the statistics to support the feelings:

  • The Great Lakes contain almost 20% of the world’s surface freshwater.
  • Lake Michigan is the sixth largest lake in the world.
  • The shoulders of the Great Lakes, particularly Lake Michigan, feature the largest freshwater sand dunes on the planet Earth.

In politics, one of the clichés is “making Michigan a world-class state.”  When it comes to sand dunes, we already are world-class.  No refinement of humans can make them better.  We can only diminish them by our actions.  We cannot let that happen any longer.

Imagine Lake Michigan’s eastern shoreline the way the Native Americans and first Europeans experienced it—a largely unbroken beach and astonishing high dunes, a 300-mile necklace of sand. Over time, our misguided actions have eroded that beauty and ecological value more than the wind ever could.

I am inspired by the stories of our predecessors, always citizens taking the lead, who have fought successfully to rescue important remaining Lake Michigan dunes.  In researching Michigan’s conservation history, I encountered the heroic work of ancestors and contemporaries who protected Sleeping Bear Dunes, Arcadia Dune, Nordhouse Dunes, Ludington Dunes, Grand Mere Dunes, Bridgman Dunes and other dunes from the plans of miners and speculative developers.

One of my earliest experiences in conservation advocacy was a battle over the proposed removal of the Sleeping Bear Dunes from the national park system.  Later, politicians—in the pocket of special interests—tried to remove patches of the Dunes from federal protection. Many of those with heart from the community rallied in defense of the Dunes.

I remember an Ohio Congressman, John Seiberling, a Teddy Roosevelt of his time, making it clear at a public meeting that he would not tolerate passage of legislation to undo what had been done only a dozen years before: the creation of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Seiberling once said:  “We will never see the land as our ancestors did. But we can understand what made it beautiful and why they lived and died to preserve it. And in preserving it for future generations, we will preserve something of ourselves.”
The work of the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance is the latest chapter in this rich heritage.  Motivated by wonder and love but also by a long-term understanding of economic, ecological, historic, and aesthetic values, the Alliance has rendered citizens of the region, the state, and the nation a service of inestimable worth.

An entire community spanning Michigan and the nation now knows about, and is eager to defend, this community of dunes.

Clearly, the battle is not yet won.  There are those who will always try to punch loopholes in zoning laws, community norms, and democratic processes that protect the Saugatuck Dunes.

We hear from some about “win-win” solutions that foster development of Saugatuck Dunes.  A more durable “win-win” would be the conservation of the dunes and job-creating development elsewhere in Saugatuck. The Dunes are already an economic asset. Tourists come from hundreds of miles away to enjoy them and to find their personal connection to the eternal.

Interconnected with a compelling human history that reaches back millennia to the first inhabitants and continues to the present day, the Dunes are, in fact if not in law, a national monument.

I commend the work of the Alliance and look forward to its ultimate success—a win for all of us, and those who will come long after us.


The fresh water of the Great Lakes defines not only the two peninsulas that form the geography of the State of Michigan but also much of our culture.  The statistics alone are absolutely astounding:  Michigan features 3,200 miles of coastline—more than any other state except Alaska; our Great Lakes hold 20% of the surface freshwater in the world; and with an additional 11,000 inland lakes, there may not be another place with better access to freshwater than Michigan.

While Lake Superior and Lake Huron are even larger, Lake Michigan is one of the most significant freshwater lakes on the planet Earth.  Over 300 miles long and 118 miles at its widest point, it reaches to a depth of over 900 feet with an average depth of 279 feet.  Based on surface area, Michigan is the fourth largest freshwater lake.  Based on volume, Lake Michigan is the fifth largest in the world.  By any measure, Lake Michigan is a natural wonder, an economic asset, and a national treasure.

And especially in the spring, summer, and fall, many aspects of who we are as a culture are also defined by our relationship to freshwater.  We swim, sail, canoe, kayak, motor, hunt, fish, surf, go to the beach, build sand castles, watch sunsets, or just hang out next to our favorite body of water:  our lake, our creek, our river, or even our pond.  There’s something in these bodies of freshwater that inexplicably draws us back again and again, and we are somehow better for having been there.

In addition, the Great Lakes are an essential part of our economy in the Upper Midwest.  They contribute a significant source of drinking and industrial water; they provide a water highway for the transportation of goods and raw materials; and they draw millions of tourists who come here to experience something other than what they have access to at home.  For example, our water and coastal habitats here in the Saugatuck Dunes support a wide range of plants and animals that are unique to this one place.

As the Tri-Community plans states, “Although waterfront lands have a high revenue generating potential, a major attraction of both the Lake Michigan and Kalamazoo River waterfronts is their scenic, natural shorelines composed of forested sand dunes and large wetland areas. Should these natural areas be greatly damaged or destroyed through inappropriate development, then the ‘goose that laid the golden egg’ will be dead.”

Despite the wonder of the Great Lakes and the fact that access to clean freshwater is one of the essential necessities to sustain any form of life, we have been negligent in protecting these natural resources.  In little over 200 years, non-point source pollution, toxic chemicals such as PCBs, invasive species, sewer overflows, water diversion, and habitat loss have become major threats to the health of the dynamic system of the Great Lakes and to the people and creatures living in the Great Lakes watershed.

So, how do we respond to these threats to our ways of life?  A few questions to begin with are as follows:

  1. What are the top priorities for cleaning up our freshwater resources?
  2. What are the major levers of change?
  3. How do we cause ourselves and the general public to understand the critical importance of the dynamic systems of the Great Lakes?
  4. How do we manage growth responsibly in our own community?

This is surely a multi-generational process, but we owe it to our children and our grandchildren to begin finding better ways of securing our most precious resources.