Paradise for all: Nature preserve a model for ecosystem restoration and public access

Arcadia, Michigan — Chip May has traveled widely and explored many beautiful places, but one of his favorites is a nature preserve located in his backyard. It’s a long stretch of pristine Lake Michigan shoreline that is backstopped by a wall of sand dunes, including one that towers 356 feet above the water.

Known as Old Baldy, it is one of the tallest coastal dunes along the Great Lakes. It is also the centerpiece of Arcadia Dunes: The C.S. Mott Nature Preserve. With 3,600 acres of natural habitat, including two miles of unspoiled beach and nearly six square miles of hardwood forest, the preserve is a haven for wildlife, wildflowers and wilderness enthusiasts.

Pitcher’s Thistle, a threatened plant species in Michigan, thrives at Arcadia Dunes.

Pitcher’s Thistle, a threatened plant species in Michigan, thrives at Arcadia Dunes.
Photo: Rick Smith

“When you look out from the top of Old Baldy, and all you see is Lake Michigan, it’s like you discovered the place,” May said. “It’s a majestic landscape, like Monterey [California] without all the people.”

Were it not for a group of determined conservationists and generous donors, Arcadia Dunes would be an 18-hole golf course surrounded by more than 100 luxury houses. Instead, it is one of the largest privately owned nature preserves along the Great Lakes.

The Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy acquired the property in 2003 for $18 million. Since then, the Conservancy’s work has made Arcadia Dunes a prototype for protecting a delicate ecosystem while making the preserve accessible to virtually everyone.

“Managing Arcadia Dunes has been transformative. It’s made us leaders in ecological restoration and the development of well-designed trails for people with physical challenges, as well as mountain bikers,” said Glen Chown, executive director of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy. “I could not have imagined this when we acquired the property 15 years ago.”

Buying the site was a feat unto itself. Arcadia Dunes was the Conservancy’s largest land acquisition project at the time, and the group had to raise $18 million in just four months to prevent CMS Energy, the utility that owned the land, from selling it to a golf course developer.

The Mott Foundation stepped in to help, providing a $7.5 million grant and a no-interest loan of $6.15 million to jump-start the Conservancy’s fundraising.

Mott Foundation Chairman Bill White said he was moved to help preserve Arcadia Dunes by his late wife Claire, a granddaughter of C.S. Mott. They walked the pristine beach at the base of Old Baldy in 2001, along the way discussing the possibility of the Foundation supporting the Conservancy’s effort to acquire the property.

“Here was this gorgeous beach, untouched, with not a lot of footprints on it and no one there. It made quite an impression, particularly with the dunes behind it,” White said recently in an interview for a book commemorating the Conservancy’s 25th anniversary.

“I remember Claire and I talking about it, as the Foundation seemed to be a little over-committed at the time in terms of spending,” White added. “But she said, ‘Well, you can always fund this or that, but rarely do you have an opportunity to save something like this for all time. This is a major legacy.’”

 Baldy Trailhead at Arcadia Dunes sign

The Old Baldy trail winds through dense woods and sand dunes before reaching a precipice overlooking Lake Michigan.
Photo: Rick Smith

The Conservancy met the fundraising deadline, purchased the property and renamed it Arcadia Dunes: The C.S. Mott Nature Preserve. “We pulled this off only because of the Mott Foundation’s leadership, which helped to inspire thousands of donations,” Chown said.

While the core of Arcadia Dunes is the 3,600-acre nature preserve that borders Lake Michigan, the property encompasses another 2,800 acres of protected land to the east. That land includes more than 2,000 acres of working farmland, 310 acres of restored grassland, and more than 10 miles of mountain bike trails.

Arcadia Dunes was the linchpin of the Conservancy’s $35 million campaign to acquire more than 6,000 acres of premium dune, farm and forest land along the Lake Michigan coast, in northwest lower Michigan. Money from that 2003 campaign was used to acquire and preserve a total of 3.25 miles of shoreline and coastal dunes.

Chown said lessons learned during that campaign — about balancing preservation with development in a fast-growing region like Grand Traverse — will benefit land trusts across the United States.

The Overlook Trail gives people with disabilities a chance to enjoy a stunning, bird’s eye view of Lake Michigan.

The Overlook Trail gives people with disabilities a chance to enjoy a stunning, bird’s eye view of Lake Michigan.
Photo: Courtesy of Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy

Arcadia Dunes also figures in the Conservancy’s latest initiative, a $71.4 million campaign to protect more of northern Michigan’s natural treasures and farmland threatened by rapid development in the Grand Traverse area. A portion of those funds would be dedicated to the perpetual care of natural areas the Conservancy owns.

As part of that campaign, Mott Foundation provided a $4.5 million grant for a stewardship endowment at Arcadia Dunes. It will help ensure the preserve is managed properly in the years ahead. The Foundation provided another $500,000 for universally accessible trails at Arcadia Dunes and the nearby Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve.

Lessons learned at Arcadia Dunes also have informed work at the Conservancy’s other nature preserves, Chown said. Among the most revealing lessons: mountain bike trails can co-exist with a nature preserve if properly designed and managed; and there is a demand for universal access trails that give people with disabilities the opportunity to enjoy nature without having to slog through sand or navigate fallen trees and other obstacles.

Arcadia resident Kim DeBruin, who has muscular dystrophy and is confined to a wheelchair, said she was brought to tears the first time she used the Overlook Trail at Arcadia Dunes. A boardwalk on a portion of the trail, which zig-zags through a wooded area of the dunes, enabled her to reach an observation deck that offers a bird’s eye view of Lake Michigan.

Before Arcadia Dunes was preserved, a developer planned to turn this dune into a bunker on a private golf course.

Before Arcadia Dunes was preserved, a developer planned to turn this dune into a bunker on a private golf course.
Photo: Rick Smith

“I wish I could paint a picture of what that was like the first time and what it meant to me,” DeBruin said in one of the Conservancy’s campaign publications. “I just cried and cried. It took my breath away.”

Designers of the Overlook Trail tried to accommodate people with a variety of physical and cognitive impairments. Large trees were left next to the boardwalk so that the blind could feel the bark of yellow birch and black cherry trees. Rocking benches were installed on the observation deck because the motion can have a calming effect on people with autism or other cognitive issues.

For some, the biggest thrill at Arcadia Dunes is running down the rolling dunes or scaling the nearly vertical face of Old Baldy. That was evident on a summer day in 2018, when two young girls raced down the face of a blowout dune nestled in the rolling hills atop Old Baldy.

Exploring that bowl-shaped dune likely would have been forbidden if Arcadia Dunes hadn’t been preserved for the benefit of all. A developer wanted to make it a bunker on the seventh hole of a private golf course.

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