Combine beautiful summer weather, the Saugatuck area’s pristine dunelands, and top environmental experts, and you have all the ingredients for the one of the best meetings of the Council of Michigan Foundations’ (CMF) Green & Blue Network (GBN).
The environmentally focused group of foundation leaders from across the state made its way to the southwest Michigan in August to learn more about the ongoing efforts to protect the historic dunes situated along the shores of Lake Michigan in a two-day event entitled “Great Lakes Have Great Coasts: Dune Preservation.”
“This trip has been just an amazing experience…from hiking the dunes to hearing from some of the leading experts in Michigan on environmental issues affecting the state to sharing time and ideas with fellow grantmakers,” said Thomas “Tom” Porter, president of the Porter Family Foundation.
Network co-chairs Porter and Tom Cook, executive director of the Cook Family Foundation, led the attendees through an informative and fun excursion that included a visit to the Saugatuck Center for the Arts for a presentation by The Nature Conservancy’s Shaun Howard and U of M School of Natural Resources professor Dr. David Allan.
Howard, The Nature Conservancy’s Eastern Lake Michigan Project Manager, addressed efforts to control and remove invasive plant species threatening Michigan’s dunelands.
What many people don’t understand is the huge ecological and economic impact of invasive species throughout the state,” shared Howard.
Noting his work with Michigan Dune Alliance partners, Howard provided the findings of the 2001 Lake Michigan Coastal Threat Assessment of 42 sites impacted by invasive species and how that study is still today driving the work of these environmentalists. [See: Speakers feature story].
Dr. Allan shared his ongoing efforts to obtain better data on Michigan’s beaches boating, birding, sports fishing, commercial fishery and more to help determine where the environmental priority sites and regions are and how best to address issues impacting them.
Attendees also heard impassioned stories of efforts to preserve the Lake Michigan area dunes from Saugatuck resident and former State Senator Patty Birkholz, the current director of the West Michigan League of Conservation Voters and a long-time champion of the state’s environmental treasures.
“While we have had success in protecting some of our local dunes from development and making them available to the public, we are still engaged in trying to find ways to further this effort as a large acreage (of dunes) has been purchased by a developer,” said Birkholz.
She shared with the foundation leaders some of the ongoing efforts to try and raise public and private funds to purchase those additional, currently privately held dunelands and briefly discussed ongoing negotiations with the owner, but cautioned that the effort requires engaging state officials – and acquiring more funding – to keep the land from being developed.
Helen Taylor, state director of The Nature Conservancy, also a keynote speaker, welcomed the attendees and shared several stories about the important, arduous, sometimes funny and “always rewarding work” of protecting Michigan’s greatest natural treasures.
Attendees visited Saugatuck’s world famous Oval Beach - the gateway to the pristine area dunes known as the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area - via a morning-long hike.
The weather was perfect…Lake Michigan is beautiful and the hike in the dunes provided just a wonderful opportunity to see nature at its best,” said Marlene “Marty” Fluharty, executive director of the Americana Foundation.
Leading the foundation hikers through the dunes, April Scholtz, The Land Conservancy of West Michigan’s Land Protection Director, provided a running commentary on the indigenous fauna, pointed out various scenic wonders and shared the history of the pristine setting.
“Saugatuck and these dunes holds a special place in our hearts at the Land Conservancy,” said Scholtz, gesturing out at the sweeping expanse of the hundreds of acres.
“It’s just so beautiful…and so important to keep it natural so everyone can continue to enjoy this,” said Katrina Phillips, a young woman raised in Saugatuck who now serves as the Water Policy Affiliate for the Alliance for the Great Lakes in Chicago.
Mike McCuistion, vice president/physical resources of the Edward Lowe Foundation, marveled at what he called the stunning vistas of the dunes. “A beautiful sight…tremendous!”
Following a stroll along the Lake Michigan shoreline back to Oval Beach, the group ended its tour by returning to downtown Saugatuck for lunch and discussions about ways the members could work together and join funding efforts to help local dune reclamation efforts.