Environmentalist Doug Scott on Establishing Sleeping Bear Dunes

The University of Michigan alum also talks about his career, the Great Lakes, and where he wants his ashes scattered
Doug Scott
Doug Scott waves at the audience at an Earth Day kick-off rally at University of Michigan in 1970. // Photograph of Doug Ccott © Regents of the University of Michigan, University of Michigan News and Information Services Photographs, Bentley Historical Library

Fifty years ago this fall, President Nixon established Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore as a national park, the culmination of a years-long battle won, in large part, by then-University of Michigan graduate student Doug Scott.

The 111-square-mile gem west of Traverse City remains a crowning achievement of an environmental career that includes helping to create Earth Day while Scott was still at U-M. Each year, more than 1 million people visit Sleeping Bear Dunes, dubbed by Good Morning America in 2011 as the USA’s most beautiful place.

Scott says his work at U-M prepared him for a life in activism that included key roles in passing of at least five major conservation measures from the Eastern Wilderness Areas Act of 1975 to the California Desert Protection Act of 1994. In 1997, Scott received the Sierra Club’s highest honor, the John Muir Award.

Still, those U-M days remain special. Scott, now 76 and living in Palm Springs, California, spoke with Hour Detroit about his career, the distressed Great Lakes, and where in Michigan he wants his ashes scattered.

Hour Detroit: How did you help establish Sleeping Bear Dunes?

Doug Scott: In the spring of 1968, members of the Mackinac Chapter of the Sierra Club learned I was to spend that summer in Washington working as a lobbyist for The Wilderness Society. They had been advocating for creation of Sleeping Bear Dunes, along with [Michigan] Sen. Philip Hart. I got my first look at the area and thought it was spectacular. Before I left for Washington, I wrote letters to Sen. Hart; Rep. James O’Hara, the lead sponsor of the House version of the Sleeping Bear bill; and Rep. John Dingell, always a strong supporter of environmental causes, to tell them I would be coming to work on Sleeping Bear.

The key was getting the support of Michigan Rep. Guy Vander Jagt, who represented the area and was opposed. We pursued some of his biggest donors, got them on board, which helped sway him. We also worked with Sen. Hart to organize a boat tour of the area, which also included someone from Gov. (William) Milliken’s office and other representatives of government agencies. There was huge media coverage. I was sitting in the House cafeteria when I was paged to Vander Jagt’s office, and he said, “Doug, you have been a good guy through all of this, and I will be endorsing the bill.”

At U-M, you also worked to protect Isle Royale.

I noticed a press release in the office of one of my professors about a hearing to set Isle Royale’s wilderness boundaries. The proposal left out about 14,000 acres, including some of the most used areas of shoreline, which meant it could be built on in the future. My professor was scheduled to go to the hearing on Feb. 1, 1967, in Houghton, so I wrote to tell him how stupid it was to leave that shoreline out. He said I could go in his place, and about 10 of us flew up there through a snowstorm. I delivered a 20-page presentation on what boundaries should be. The wilderness boundary plan for Isle Royale was revised.

How did your passion for environmental causes begin?

Growing up in Portland, Oregon, my parents instilled a love for the outdoors on trips to a cottage overlooking the Pacific Ocean and to national forest campgrounds in the Cascades. I joined a local climbing club in middle school and went on excursions all over Oregon and Washington. Later, I spent two summers as a ranger at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Before that, I thought of myself as introverted, but that ranger uniform on made it easier to open up.

What environmental challenges does Michigan face? 

Protecting the Great Lakes shoreline from development is the biggest one — everything from new roads to subdivisions. Government should do all it can to discourage private landowners from building things like condos on the shoreline.

What are you up to these days?

I’m working on an anthology of outdoor writing and serve on the boards of two organizations, the national Wilderness Land Trust and the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance. When all is said and done, though, I’ll be back in Michigan. I have arranged for my ashes to be dropped over Isle Royale from a seaplane.