Any time I get a chance to be in dunes and talk about them, I look forward to it! I was very glad to be the guide for this hike, in White River Township’s Dune Sanctuary, to focus on the area’s environmental quality, and the effort to raise funds to purchase a final parcel, which will permanently protect the preserve from an access road that has been proposed to access the parcel and develop it.
We had a hardy group of attendees, as the day was quite cool and windy, especially close to Lake Michigan. I was happy to have two trustees from the White River Township Board, Laura Anderson and Deb Harris. Patti Sargent and Dan Parker, who led a committee that helped to raise funds for the effort were also on hand, in addition to April Schultz, from the Land Conservancy of West Michigan, which is leading the preserve fundraising campaign.
We walked into the preserve to the “shelter tree,” which provided us some protection from the wind and cold, and learned how the uniquely shaped tree might have been made that way by Native Americans. The thought is that the tree’s branches were pinned down when they were when young and supple, which eventually provided a structure on which to hang blankets or other coverings, creating a shelter for area Native Americans.
We talked about the fundraising efforts and the decades-long effort aimed at protecting the township’s dune area. Efforts to purchase the shoreline area by local leaders date back to the 1940s, according to newspaper articles provided to the fundraising effort by one of the sanctuary’s neighbors, Fred Webber. Unfortunately, that early effort was not successful. It was not until the late 1980s, that the preserve was purchased by White River Township with a grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, plus local match funds. The township was not able to purchase one lot, as its price was too high for the funds available. This lot is now owned by Bro G Land Co.
Three attempts were made to develop the property. Each time the township and community swung into action, and fought off construction of a road through the preserve. One attempt was made by the developer to access the parcel from the south. It was not successful. In 2008, the township tried once again to purchase the property with Trust Fund dollars, but the asking price was too high – about $850,000.
In 2012, groups such as the Michigan Association of Realtors and the Michigan Homebuilders Association persuaded state lawmakers to amend Michigan’s critical dune act, in particular, making it easier for developers to construct driveways in critical dunes. (The township preserve is in a “critical dune” area, 70,000 acres of the total dune acreage in Michigan of 225,000 acres. Development in critical dunes is regulated by a 1989 law.)
In 2013, the Bro G Land Co. applied for a permit for a residence, garage, and access road through the preserve, which they termed a driveway in their application. The township, a local citizens group, and many in the community opposed the application and in May, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) denied the application, citing among other things:
- The access road was not a driveway per definitions in the statute.
- Lack of permission from the township to cross the property.
- The dune slopes the road would cross were too steep for development and would require a variance under the law, which had not been applied for by the developer.
- The road would significantly damage the ecology of the dunes preserve and harm the
public interest in the dunes preserve. (The road would have damaged the “open dune system” of the preserve, which supports biologically distinctive flora and fauna. This type of ecological system is ranked “vulnerable” by the DEQ.)
Some thought that the DEQ’s emphatic denial would be the end of the saga, but not so. In 2014, the developers sued the township, but fortunately, a subsequent court settlement is allowing the township to finally purchase the parcel. The total cost is $970,000. The township has applied to the Trust Fund, and local match funds of over $500,000 have been raised to date, but donations are still needed.
About Lake Michigan Dunes
I explained how the preserve is part of an extensive duneland ecosystem along Lake Michigan and Lake Superior in Michigan – 225,000 acres. It is the largest collection of dunes on a freshwater resource in the world. There are dunes all over the world and small stretches in other Great Lakes states, but ours are definitely world class – for their expanse, environmental settings, proximity to Lake Michigan, unique species, and beauty and history! There are numerous stories of our connection to the shoreline dunes in our local histories. The loss of Pigeon Hill, once one of the tallest dunes on the lakeshore, is one such unfortunate story.
Lake Michigan’s dunes were formed as a result of the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago. They have distinct natural settings – the beach, the foredunes, interdunal wetlands or troughs, and barrier dunes.
They are the birthplace of ecology. In the late 1800s, Professor Henry Chandler Cowles of the University of Chicago explored in the Indiana dunes and came up with the concept of succession – where one natural setting laid the foundation for the next. This led to the creation of the field of ecology. The dunes are the home of some unique plant and animal species that live only in Great Lakes dunes, such as Pitcher’s thistle, Houghton’s goldenrod, and Lake Huron tansy.
Dune laws in Michigan
Dune sand has been used for industrial purposes since the early 1900s, for making glass, and especially in foundries, to make engines for the rapidly expanding automotive industry. Dunes were not generally valued as ecologically and aesthetically important natural features as they are these days.
In Michigan, a law regulating sand dune mining was enacted in 1976, requiring permits and reclamation of mined areas. In 1989, the legislative focus turned to development from increased home building on the lakeshore and fragmentation of the dune system. The regulations were placed on critical dunes, a 70,000 acre subset of the total acreage, both public and private properties. They include the most fragile and sensitive dune areas. The intent of the law was not to stop development, but instead to situate construction on the least harmful area on a parcel, and to encourage protective measures, during and after building. It was based on avoiding steep slopes, and has been very challenging to regulate. Many critical dune property owners dislike the law, and subsequent changes to the law have downgraded the protective measures in the law. A stronger public constituency for dunes protection, and more knowledgeable state legislators could help change this direction.
Thanks to all who donated at the walk! Check out the Land Conservancy of West Michigan’s website for updates, and to make additional contributions. See more nature walk photos at Jerry Grady’s WatershedWildlife site. Make sure to view page three of the October walk photos!