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Critical Dunes Area Program

Sleeping Bear Dunes
Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy

Critical Dunes Area Program

Michigan's sand dunes are a unique natural resource of global significance. Collectively, they represent the largest assemblage of fresh water dunes in the world and support numerous threatened and endangered plant and animal species. The combination of topographic relief, vegetation and climatic conditions are a phenomenon unique to Michigan. The dunes support a wide diversity of habitats from temperate forests of maple and hemlock, to the harsh environment of the open dunes, to quiet interdunal ponds teeming with life.  These dune fact sheets were created by The Nature conservancy for the Michigan Dune Alliance, with funding provided in part through a Coastal Zone Management Grant.

Michigan’s sand dune program began in 1976 when concern for the impacts of sand mining on the dunes led to the passage of the Sand Dune Protection and Management Act. This statute regulated the sand mining industry in Michigan's designated critical dune areas, by requiring plans for sand removal and re-stabilization after the mining operation was complete. Later, it became apparent that other development pressures had potential to impact the future of Michigan's dunes, as the dunes became increasingly popular sites for recreation and residential development.

In Michigan there are approximately 225,000 acres of dunes, of which approximately 74,000 acres were designated as Critical Dune Areas (CDAs) in 1989.  Critical dune areas represent the tallest and most spectacular dunes along Lake Michigan's shoreline in the lower and upper peninsulas, and the shores of Lake Superior.  CDAs include public lands and private properties where developmental, silvicultural and recreational activities are currently regulated by Part 353, Sand Dunes Protection and Management, of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act (NREPA), 1994 PA 451 as amended. The statute was amended on August 7, 2012.  The purpose of the statute is to balance for present and future generations the benefits of protecting, preserving, restoring, and enhancing the diversity, quality, functions, and values of the state's critical dunes with the benefits of economic development and multiple human uses of the critical dunes, and the benefits of public access to and enjoyment of the critical dunes.

Presently the act requires a permit for those activities which significantly alter the physical characteristics of a CDA or for a contour change in a CDA.  A few examples of activities where permit applications are typically required are the construction of a house or garage, building a road or driveway, installing a septic system, installing retaining walls, and sand removal to name a few.  The application for a permit requires a fee of between $150 and $4000.

Permits are typically sought from the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) although there are several communities who administer the program through their local ordinances.  The local ordinance must provide the same level of protection for critical dune areas as the state regulations but may not be more restrictive. 

Some CDAs are also in High Risk Erosion Areas where the shoreline is receding at a rate of one foot or greater per year.  Construction projects in those areas will have additional review, under Part 323, Shorelands Protection and Management, of NREPA.  A property owner may choose to meet with their local staff person during a pre-application meeting to discuss their proposed project.  This is an optional service offered to the property owner, prior to their completing and submitting a permit application.  The Joint Permit Application is available at EGLE/USACE Joint Permit Application Page.  Once a permit application is received, EGLE staff visit the project site to review the proposed impacts to the CDA before making a decision on the permit application.  The status of all permit applications may be tracked online.

The most fragile areas of Michigan's dunes can be protected while balancing the benefits of economic development, multiple human uses and benefits of public access and enjoyment through the protection of steep, erosive slopes, using alternative construction techniques to reduce the impacts of development on dunes, and protecting dune vegetation essential to dune preservation and stability.