Pete DeBoer is telling hike participants about the Flower Creek Dunes preserve.
d of natural treasures here in West Michigan – specifically, the beaches and dunes of Lake Michigan.
I remember the first time this struck me about 20 years ago. Some out of state acquaintances were planning to attend a high profile environmental conference in Traverse City. They contacted me as they were making their travel plans and asked the best place to access Lake Michigan’s “sugar sand beaches.” I honestly didn’t know what they were talking about. Then there was an ancestor of Captain William Robinson, the first lighthouse keeper for the White River Light Station, whom I interviewed for an article a few years ago. The young man was visiting from his home country of Ireland and was in awe at the expanse of Lake Michigan, its sandy beaches, and scenic dune landscape. He told me he never imagined that Michigan (of all places!) was the home of such a world class resource.
I was recalling this as I joined the Land Conservancy of West Michigan’s annual New Year’s Day hike. This year the annual event was at the Conservancy’s new Flower Creek Dunes Nature Preserve, just north of Meinert County Park. I remember thinking that the new preserve is good evidence of how we value our lake and dune resources these days. The property’s owners generously sold the valuable property for just over half of its value, 1.7 million dollars. Funds to purchase the preserve came from two similarly generous anonymous donors and the J.A. Woolam Foundation.
The group of hikers on that cold wintry New Year’s Day was surprisingly large – about 30 to 40 people, including several staff from the Conservancy. I saw many familiar local faces. Dave Fredericks and Hildi Paulson live south of the preserve. They’ve kayaked Flower Creek and walked the beach area, but were curious to know more about the property, so made sure to take the hike. “It’s a beautiful piece of property and we’re very grateful that it’s being preserved,” Hildi told me afterward.
After a brief talk about the new preserve by Pete DeBoer, the land protection coordinator for the Conservancy, we all walked hurriedly along the windswept beach in a long line, grabbing at scarves and hanging onto our hats. Then we turned and headed up the dunes and into the preserve. After hearing a little more about the preserve and its unique characteristics, we hiked up to its highest point, looked out at the Big Lake and quickly headed back downhill again, along the beach and back to our cars. What a way to start the New Year!
The new preserve, the Conservancy’s 14th and the first in Muskegon County, includes almost 1,000 acres of Lake Michigan shoreline. It contains 14 acres of critical dune habitat which is especially significant in these times. In 1989, the state legislature passed a law regulating development in “critical dunes,” the most environmentally sensitive dunes which make up a relatively small portion of the dune system. Last summer, despite protests by Michigan’s environmental and conservation groups, the legislature seriously downgraded protections for critical dunes by loosening restrictions on building driveways and homes.
Another distinct benefit of preserving the Flower Creek property is the protection of the Pitcher’s thistle which is found there. This threatened plant species grows on open sand dunes and low open beach ridges on Great Lakes shorelines. It’s threatened by development, new roads, and recreational activities on the shoreline. According to April Scholtz, land protection director for the Conservancy, “The major reason that Pitcher’s Thistle is listed as a threatened species is because, although it may be relatively common in our area, it grows nowhere else in the world.”
The Flower Creek Dunes Nature Preserve is one small part of one of the most remarkable coastlines in the world. Our dunes are unique because of their size and geographical extent -- there are 275,000 acres of shoreline sand dunes in Michigan. They are also unique because of the tremendous variety of habitats and wildlife they support, and their proximity to massive freshwater lakes, such as Lakes Michigan and Superior. Some endangered and threatened species, such as the Pitcher’s thistle, Houghton’s goldenrod and the Lake Huron tansy are only found in Great Lakes dunes. Although each dune area has its own special history and age, scientists believe our present day dunes developed within the last 5,000 years.
We are especially fortunate to have advocates, contributors, and organizations work to preserve Lake Michigan beaches and dunes for our enjoyment. The New Year’s Day hike reminded me of this and sparked one of my resolutions for this year – to visit the Big Lake and its dunes more often.
Tanya Cabala is a lifelong resident of the White Lake area. A former educator and professional environmental advocate, she is currently the owner of Great Lakes Consulting, which provides project support and grant writing services to environmental and community nonprofit organizations. More information is available at www.tanyacabala.com. Tanya loves her hometown, loves writing, and loves to hear from her readers. Contact her at email@example.com or (231) 981-0016.