In Northern Michigan, a restored marsh provides many benefits

People walk along the Arcadia Dunes on a long, elevated boardwalk at the Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve that offers visitors a unique way to explore a Great Lakes coastal marsh.
A long, elevated boardwalk at the Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve offers visitors a unique way to explore a Great Lakes coastal marsh. Photo: Jacqueline Southby, courtesy of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy

To the untrained eye, a large marsh along M-22 in Northwest Lower Michigan could be construed as interesting but unremarkable. That would be a mistake. The subtle beauty of the Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve belies its importance to the Lake Michigan ecosystem, the local economy and scores of nature lovers who visit the site.

The preserve also features an elevated boardwalk that is 3/4 of a mile long and spans the marsh. It affords visitors a unique, bird’s-eye view of this 313-acre Great Lakes coastal marsh. Such marshes are critical to the health of the Great Lakes, but scientists estimate that about 80% of all coastal marshes in the basin have been destroyed by human activities.

Arcadia Marsh was in a death spiral before a local couple, Brad and Jan Hopwood, purchased 160 acres of the site in the 1990s to prevent it from becoming a private hunting preserve. They sold their parcels to the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, which acquired additional land at the marsh and began restoring all of it.

This aerial photo shows the proximity of Arcadia Marsh to Lake Michigan, in the background.
Photo: Mike Naddeo

The restoration project has exceeded expectations. Fish, bird and insect populations in the marsh are recovering faster than expected, and the boardwalk is more popular with humans than anyone anticipated.

“I’m not aware of any other place in Michigan where you can have this kind of immersive experience in a coastal marsh,” said Brad Hopwood, a longtime Arcadia resident who chairs the township’s planning commission.

Great Lakes coastal marshes are tremendously productive ecosystems. In terms of biomass per acre, they are nearly as productive as tropical rainforests.”
A man in wearing a baseball cap and hiking clothes stands in the woods with a bag slug across his torso, smiles as he looks to the camera. Chris Sullivan, director of land protection at Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy

“Our dream was to preserve the marsh and provide limited, appropriate access to the public,” he added. “I never imagined a walkway across the marsh. It’s an incredible feature that gives everyone a chance to experience the marsh, even if they’re in a wheelchair or pushing their kid in a stroller.”

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation provided funding to support construction of the boardwalk at Arcadia Marsh and a similar, universally accessible trail at nearby Arcadia Dunes: The C.S. Mott Nature Preserve. Sam Passmore, director of Mott’s Environment program, said the Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve provides benefits that go beyond bolstering the health of Lake Michigan.

“Access to nature is so important,” Passmore said. “Directly experiencing the natural world is key to building an environmental ethic in people young and old. The fact that this boardwalk gives all people the chance to immerse themselves in a landscape of such beauty and importance makes this project doubly attractive.”

Trumpeter swans are among the 250 species of birds observed at the Arcadia Marsh.
Photo: Mike Naddeo

Coastal marshes provide critical habitat for hundreds of species of plants, animals and insects. They also protect the Great Lakes by filtering pollutants from water that drains off the landscape and into the lakes.

“Great Lakes coastal marshes are tremendously productive ecosystems,” said Chris Sullivan, director of land protection at the Conservancy. “In terms of biomass per acre, they are nearly as productive as tropical rainforests.”

Arcadia Marsh was in rough shape when the Hopwoods acquired a portion of the site. Over the previous century, it had been altered by a variety of transportation, agricultural and recreational projects that served people at the expense of the marsh. Invasive plants also had colonized part of the property.

Over the past decade, the Conservancy has removed acres of phragmites and other invasive plants throughout the marsh. One of the group’s biggest accomplishments at the site was restoring the natural, winding channel of a 3,700-foot section of Bowens Creek and installing submerged wooden structures that provide habitat for fish and other aquatic species. The creek flows into Lake Arcadia, which feeds into Lake Michigan.

A sign at the entrance to the boardwalk that goes across Arcadia Marsh that indicate the flora and fauna that may be seen as visitors walk along the boardwalk.
Arcadia Marsh is home to about 200 species of plants.
Photo: Mike Naddeo

The work restored the natural flow of the creek, which lowered the water temperature, increased the populations of fish and macroinvertebrates, and attracted more ducks and other waterfowl to the marsh, said Steve Lagerquist, a land steward specialist at the Conservancy. Wild rice, a threatened species, also is making a comeback in the marsh, and more than 230 species of birds have been spotted at the site.

The preserve is open to the public most of the year, and seasonal hunting and fishing are permitted. A portion of the boardwalk is closed from April 15 to July 15 to protect nesting birds.

Hopwood said the parking lot at the preserve is full most summer days. He added that the presence of vehicles from across the country speaks to the popularity of the marsh and boardwalk.

The boardwalk also plays a role in Arcadia’s annual Minnehaha Brewhaha Festival, which is held Labor Day weekend. The routes for the festival’s 5K and 15K races take runners over the marsh.

“Runners come from a long way away to do these races,” Hopwood said, “because it’s fun to run across the boardwalk.”