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HARVEY: Voices given to the Wild Heart of the Saugatuck Dunes

• Jul 21, 2017 at 3:00 PM

Oftentimes, voices of those who are likely to be most affected by the development of wild spaces are drowned out by those of the opposing sides. After all, people weighing in from out of town (or even out of state) won’t have to live with the changes they are opposing (or promoting).

To ensure that the perspective of local residents was given a voice, I reached out to two long-time denizens of the Saugatuck Dunes area for their input on the recently proposed marina and residential development.

New development on the 300-acre land would include a private marina and 23 homesites on the dunes along Lake Michigan and the Kalamazoo River. Although the development will require approval from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, concerned residents and conservationists are worried about what it could mean.

Mary Lou Graham, a photographer and lifetime advocate for the Saugatuck Dunes area, is candid about the importance of the dunes.

“I travel, internationally, a lot, and I do wilderness,” she said. “The basis of what I do is here, in the wilderness, and in the lake. Quite frankly, I didn’t understand the importance of the dunes until I was traveling and met a naturalist in Alaska, who explained to me the importance of the dunes; the fact that they are ecologically unique — not just in Michigan, not just in the United States, but in the world.”

Growing up, Graham spent summers at her grandparents’ house, located about a half-mile south of Oval Beach. Now retired, though still a photographer, Graham has spent the past 16 years living in Saugatuck. She’s a boater, and has been going out from the mouth of Kalamazoo River for the entirety of her retired years.

She says she can’t begin to comprehend what it would look like with the new developments taking hold in the scenery — let alone digging through Singapore, the historical location of the prior city.

“I’m not protecting it as my own personal playground,” she said. “I’ve done a lot of travel in the high latitudes, a fair amount in Africa and a fair amount in South America. I’m always happy to come back here, and that’s because of the wilderness.”

Laura Judge, who has been living a half-mile from the dunes for 24 years, says development would be devastating.

“(The undeveloped state park is) one of the last great places in Michigan,” she said. “The whole area — which they call the Wild Heart of Saugatuck — is very dear to my family’s heart. There’s so much history there … and to just cut a piece of that land out, to me, is unthinkable — sacrilegious, almost.”

Judge spends her free time hiking in the dunes, and says another gated community is not what the area needs.

“To me, it’s the sense of community, the respect for the nature,” she said. “It needs to be maintained for generations to come. I just don’t feel like it should be a playground for the rich and wealthy — it’s too special.”

Judge says she beseeches the current property owner, Jeff Padnos, to sell the property back into the public trust. To her, it’s a matter of legacy.

“He really should not want that as his legacy, of having ruined that property forever,” she said. “Once that property is damaged in that way, developed, it can never go back to the natural way that it was.”

The area has multitudes of concerned residents who feel this way.

The Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance, a group of individuals and local organizations concerned about the dunes, is working to “preserve the natural geography, historical heritage and rural character of the Saugatuck Dunes coastal region in the Kalamazoo River Watershed, beginning with the Saugatuck Dunes.”

For years, the SDCA has fought to protect the region, led by community members and activists just like Judge and Graham.

“It’s easy to destroy an area when you don’t know the value of it,” Graham said. “It’s hard to educate. … It doesn’t resonate with most people. Unless we, as the protectors of our Earth, are really talking about it, nothing’s going to happen.”

— By Tessa Harvey, the ecojournalism intern for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC).

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