WMEAC: Treasuring the Fresh Coast, by land and sea

Despite the cold December, it’s not hard to remember the hot summer days on Lake Michigan beaches. Sunsets and the evening breeze as you stroll the pier, the cool sand of a shaded Hoffmaster dune.
Dec 20, 2013

These are unique West Michigan moments — and, for many of us, cherished memories. 

Many of these great experiences happen without a motor — on foot, bike, kayak, canoe, kiteboard, and many other ways. It is these nonmotorized recreational experiences that communities like Grand Haven and organizations like the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and Grand Valley State University are looking to enhance, through the West Michigan Water Trails Initiative.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources defines water trails as recreational routes on waterways with a network of public access points, providing conservation and recreation opportunities, and supported by broad-based community partnerships. 

Water trails designate and enhances routes on rivers, lakes and canals in a way that fosters recreation and an appreciation for place. They will follow Michigan’s Great Lakes coastlines and enable Michiganders to experience our social, cultural and ecological heritage in new and unique ways. 

As an avid kiteboarder, I have rigged up in Ferrysburg and kited north to Hoffmaster. I have ridden the wind from Kirk Park to Grand Haven City Beach, and south from Oval Beach to West County Park. The experience is an absolute joy.

Heading south from Grand Haven City Beach to Kirk Park in West Olive is roughly eight miles — a little shorter by canoe and somewhat longer by kite. However, after Rosy Mound Natural Area, I couldn’t tell you where to portage a canoe or pack up your kite and access a public road, but that does not necessarily mean those places do not exist.  

Water trails provide public access points and tools to find them. They create connections and destinations.

Water trails are for kiteboarders, canoeists, paddleboarders, windsurfers, kayakers, bicyclists, cross-country skiers, sailors, snow-shoers, birders, scuba-divers and a whole world of recreational enthusiasts. 

Blazing your own water trail can be fun from time to time, and West Michigan is already blessed with incredible public parks and other points of access. Yet, well-defined coastal water trails and better supporting infrastructure could enhance the experience while making it more broadly available. 

More access points that are more accessible; more changing stations and restrooms, safety features, informational e-tools, and defined trails with directional and educational signage are a few examples of water trail infrastructure. 

WMEAC will engage the public in conversations about the economic, cultural, and environmental opportunities and impacts of a water trail stretching from St. Joseph to Ludington. In 2014, WMEAC will partner with local governments to host a series of community meetings to gather information in seven coastal population centers: St. Joseph/Benton Harbor, South Haven, Saugatuck/Douglas, Holland, Grand Haven, Muskegon and Pentwater/Ludington. 

Happily, the State of Michigan and Gov. Rick Snyder support the provision of “Quality Outdoor Public Recreation Opportunities.” In fact, this is the first goal of the Department of Natural Resources’ new Public Land Management Strategy.  

To achieve the governor’s goal, the DNR has identified “access to water” as a policy driving metric, with plans to provide “100 new access sites” and “public access every five miles on the Great Lakes.” The Michigan Comprehensive Trails Plan seeks to designate signage, amenities and promotion on 30 percent of Michigan’s navigable waters, five connected lake systems, and 75 percent of the Great Lakes and connecting channels shoreline. 

The West Michigan Water Trail initiative will complement a series of similar state-funded projects in where regional planning organizations are documenting inland and lakeshore assets, and recommending enhancements to local governments for the Lake Michigan Water Trail. For instance, the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission is surveying potential Lake Michigan access points and amenities on inland lakes and streams throughout Muskegon, Oceana, Mason and northern Ottawa counties.

Lake Michigan’s coastline is rare and wonderful, and instills a sense of reverence for nature, a fierce loyalty to West Michigan and a sense of place. Lake Michigan is my lake. Lake Michigan is our lake. We have all inherited this great treasure. We all have the right to access our great ecological heritage, and with that right comes the privilege and duty to protect it for all time. 

— By Nick Occhipinti, policy director for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council

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