Wallace Stegner, Pulitzer Prize-winning dean of Western writers, famously said the National Parks are America’s best idea. The thousands of Americans whose homes and businesses have been demolished to make way for one of them might disagree
Tom and Kathy Stocklen met the Park Service in 1971, when they bought a successful rural business called Riverside Canoes on the popular Platte River near the mainland shore of Lake Michigan. They were escaping Tom’s grueling decades in a big high-paying corporation, only to plunge into the bureaucratic morass of the Department of the Interior – the NPS is one of its major agencies – and the brand-new Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Congress had established the new national park unit in 1970 – after a nine-year citizen battle against it – for public use and enjoyment of its sky-high dunes, cool forests, inland lakes and its picturesque farmsteads and historic maritime villages.
Sleeping Bear isn’t one of the 59 crown jewels like Yosemite or the Great Smoky Mountains with “National Park” in their names, but one of hundreds of miscellaneous rivers, seashores, battlefields, historic sites, trails – and even roads (Blue Ridge Parkway) – that land acquisition officers coveted for the NPS empire.
The Stocklens came to Michigan totally unaware that 1,600 locals had fought the 1961 bill introduced by Michigan’s Democratic Senator Philip Hart to add Sleeping Bear to America’s national park system, but they asked officials all the right questions before signing on the purchase agreement’s dotted line.
Was their commercial property eligible for “minimum restrictions?” No, but they could get a “Certificate Prohibiting Condemnation per Section 13 of the law.” Tom and Kathy looked up the law, read the incredible Section 13, and requested the Certificate. They got it and completed the Riverside Canoe deal.
The first year, Sleeping Bear officials caused only minor annoyances, but confiscation threats struck fear into the Stocklens. They saw people dispossessed and removed with no recourse beyond fighting over “just compensation,” and some victims got a better deal than others.
Gross unfairness revived the dormant Citizens Council of Sleeping Bear, vociferous protesters from the beginning. In 1978, the Council filed a lawsuit demanding “constitutional rights to equal protection under the law.”
The Council invited Charles S. Cushman, a savvy property rights activist from California, to address their annual meeting, which the Stocklens attended. They were impressed with Chuck Cushman’s sensible political advice – get to know your congressman face to face – and joined his nationwide organization.
The next month, Sleeping Bear’s land acquisition officer barged into the Stocklen business looking grim. “He tried to force me into signing preliminary condemnation paperwork and I refused,” Kathy told The Daily Caller. “This guy said, ‘I am the government. You have to do what I say.’ I was furious and recalled Chuck’s methods. I said, “Look, in this country I am the government. You’re just the hired help. Now get off my property.”
The Stocklens feared that their property was being condemned, so Kathy asked Sleeping Bear’s new superintendent, Don Brown, a university professor and former park ranger. Brown replied, “Absolutely not.”
However, barely a month later, Superintendent Brown, accompanied by a regional official, showed up at the Stocklen home, where they were invited to sit around the dining room table.
Brown said he had misspoken. Kathy described the scene: “He said that our property was in ‘final condemnation, the ball is rolling and can never be stopped,’ so I took out our Certificate Prohibiting Condemnation and simply held it up. Brown told me, ‘That Certificate is not worth the paper it’s written on, just like the treaties we made with the Indians a hundred years ago.’”
She was struck speechless, and then remembered something Cushman said. “I asked Brown if he’d mind me repeating that, and he said I could repeat it to anybody. I called Washington and got hold of Guy Vander Jagt, my congressman. He knew us very well from our river tours. When he picked up, I repeated, verbatim, Brown’s little speech, treaty violations and all. I did this looking right into Brown’s face. Congressman Vander Jagt asked what I wanted. I said, “how about getting them off my back and out of my pocket.” He replied, “Is 5 o’clock OK?”
Brown did not bother them again.
Republican Guy Vander Jagt was the congressman who wrote Section 13 of the Sleeping Bear establishing act and forced the Certificate Prohibiting Condemnation into law. The Stocklens found nobody before or since that stripped a Cabinet officer of the power of eminent domain – “The [Interior] Secretary shall be prohibited from condemning any commercial property.”
But the Park Service was not finished with the Stocklens. In 1990 NPS filed suit to confiscate Riverside Canoes in federal court. Tom and Kathy countersued. After much wrangling, NPS gave up and both sides withdrew their suits. At the Stocklens’ final meeting with NPS Director James Ridenour, Interior’s lawyer wanted the Certificate back. “Why would you need it now?” she asked. Kathy replied, “First, for a souvenir, second, for self defense. You Park Service lawyers will always come after little people like me. I’ll keep it.”
Before he left Congress in 1992, Guy Vander Jagt said that “national park mismanagement illustrates one of the most reprehensible aspects of the land acquisition process.”
The Stocklens retired and sold Riverside Canoes to a pair of longtime employees who love the business and diligently guard the Certificate.
In a press release dated August 10, 2015, Sleeping Bear officials ended four decades of dredging the Platte for safe navigation, urging visitors to “use caution when fishing Platte Bay.” The letterhead ironically advised, “Experience Your America.”