Travel with a Heart for Conservation
You’ve heard of eco-tourism. Why not take environmentally conscious travel one step further by getting involved with the organizations protecting our region’s most precious natural resource—the Great Lakes? Michigan alone has 3,200 miles of coastline, the largest freshwater sand dunes on the planet, and a wealth of hiking trails through forests and wetlands teeming with wildlife. Discover the historical and current conservation efforts underway to preserve these natural treasures and learn how you can help.
In the 1870s, Saugatuck was known as the lumber town of Singapore. This bustling shipping center supplied major Great Lakes cities for years. Over time, the townspeople depleted the forest, a protective barrier between Singapore and Lake Michigan. Left exposed to the brutal lake winds, the town was completely buried in sand from the dunes.
Learning from the mistakes of early Saugatuck settlers, Saugatuck/Douglas residents began efforts to conserve and restore the deforested dunes. Wealthy Chicago businessman Dorr E. Felt purchased over 900 acres along the Lake Michigan shore and called the estate Shore Acres Farm. His interest in agriculture prompted him to experiment with conservation, planting over three thousand trees on his property.
Felt’s conservation work prompted the city of Saugatuck to plant trees throughout Mt. Baldhead, a massive dune with spectacular views of the Lake Michigan shoreline. Then, when the state of Michigan acquired Felt’s Shore Acres estate in the 1970s, they turned most of the land into Saugatuck Dunes State Park.
Several organizations are building on Saugatuck’s conservation legacy to ensure the stability and beauty of the area’s natural wonders. For example, the Michigan chapter of the Nature Conservancy works with residents to protect the rivers, lakes, and land, ensuring the vitality of the state’s natural ecosystem for future generations.
Says Shaun Howard of the Nature Conservancy, “The freshwater dune systems in West Michigan and throughout the Great Lakes are globally unique and home to unique, threatened, and endangered plants. They are also incredibly important to people as places to enjoy the natural wonders of the region through recreation and ecotourism. The Nature Conservancy is proud to have worked with partners for decades to protect, restore, and manage these astounding dunes to benefit both people and nature.”
The Nature Conservancy partnered with the Land Conservancy of West Michigan on the protection of the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area. This nonprofit group works with private landowners and government bodies to protect and care for the land surrounding Lake Michigan. They’ve helped establish sanctuaries up and down the lakeshore, including Saugatuck State Park and the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area.
Established in 2007, the Saugatuck Coastal Alliance is a non-profit that protects the world's most extensive freshwater dune system, focusing on the significant portion to which the Saugatuck area contributes. They work with local officials to ensure the environmental responsibility of development projects and sponsor initiatives to protect the many rare species in the dunes and wetlands.
In addition to the efforts to stabilize the dunes, there are initiatives to keep dangerous flora and fauna out of the area. One organization leading the charge is the West Michigan Conservation Network. As the region’s cooperative invasive species network, the group plans, coordinates, and implements invasive species management throughout the lakeshore.
One of the best ways to understand the conservation value of the Lake Michigan coastline is to get out and experience it for yourself.
Saugatuck Dunes State Park
This sprawling park includes 2.5 miles of undeveloped shoreline and a 300-acre natural area with a coastal dune system, three endangered plant species, forests, and wetlands. If you’re up for a lengthy hike with some elevation, explore the park’s 13 miles of trails that lead you through pine forests, along dune ridges, and out to sandy beaches with spectacular views of the rugged shoreline.
Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area
Here, you can enjoy 2.5 miles of hiking trails through dunes and wetlands with views of Oxbow Lagoon, the Kalamazoo River Channel, and the Lake Michigan shoreline. With an impressive conservation value, this land is home to at least six rare plant and animal species, including the prairie warbler and Blanchard’s cricket frog. You’ll also traverse natural jack pine and hardwood pine forests.
The Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area’s interdunal wetlands are also a delicate ecosystem that you can observe. Coastal development endangers these wetlands, which makes protecting them so important. Given the vulnerability of the dunes and wetlands, the Land Conservancy of West Michigan partnered with the City of Saugatuck to transform this natural area into a city park—safe from development and open for all to enjoy.
This 122-acre conservation easement offers a 1.6-mile loop that starts and ends at the Ox-Bow School of Art and Artists’ Residency. You’ll traverse dune ridges and enjoy spectacular views of the Kalamazoo River, Lake Michigan, and Ox-Box Lagoon. Be on the lookout for rare species the Saugatuck Coastal Alliance aims to preserve, including bald eagles, prairie warblers, and, depending on the time of year, an array of wildflowers and plants.
If you’re in town, you can enjoy these parks while helping keep them beautiful. On the second Saturday of every month, volunteers can help the Land Conservancy of West Michigan with invasive species removal, seed collecting, and native plant installation. You can also volunteer through the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to assist with trail maintenance, forest cleanup, and improve wildlife habitats.
*Special thanks to Shaun Howard of the Nature Conservancy for his expertise and assistance with this article.
Photo Credit: Saugatuck-Douglas History Center