As Michigan’s coastal communities know, Lake Michigan’s coast and sand dunes are an incredible natural resource that fuel economies.

Earlier this month, scientists and conservationists met to discuss Michigan’s dunes, their economic and social benefits, and best practices for making management decisions for an ever-changing landscape. In everything that can be said about Michigan’s dunes, one thing is clear: they’re important.

In 2018, more than 1,643,600 people visited Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, according to the National Park Service. That’s good for over half the visitors to all of Michigan’s national park units and one of the top 50 most visited National Park units in the country. If we remove parks and memorials most valued for their historical significance – leaving those parks which appeal most on the merits of their natural beauty – Sleeping Bear ranks near the top 25. Indiana Dunes National Park beat out Sleeping Bear with 1,756,079 visitors in 2018.

For not being the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park or Yellowstone, dunes are popular.

A 2018 report about the #HowYouDune Coastal Dune Survey from the Michigan Environmental Council and its partners showed the economic importance of these popular dune visits.

Eighty-eight percent of survey respondents said they had visited Michigan’s dunes in the past year. On average, each visitor spent $133 per trip. That’s money spent on restaurants, lodging, equipment rentals, fuel purchases and visits to museums or galleries. Absent strong visitation numbers for dunes up and down Michigan’s coast, it’s difficult to say just how much money is spent by people visiting dunes each year, but it’s safe to say it’s a lot.

But dunes provide for communities in ways beyond economics.

The survey also asked people what they do when they visit Michigan’s dunes. The answers ranged widely.

Some answers might have been expected. Top responses included visiting dunes to go hiking or dune climbing, enjoying the beach and scenery, and going camping. Beyond that, people visit to practice photography, go swimming, or watch birds and wildlife. Dunes hold something for most people, if not everyone.

Dunes mean something deeper to a lot of people, too.

Ninety-six percent of survey respondents said beautiful scenery was extremely or very important to them. Ninety-two percent said the same about protecting dunes for future generations. More than 80 percent said protecting the dunes’ unique ecosystem was very or extremely important, and a similar number said being able to access dunes and outdoor recreation were key parts to their quality of life. Perhaps most telling is that “fewer than 1 percent rated access to coastal dunes as ‘not at all important.’”

There’s a lot of talk about societal divisions these days, so it might be refreshing to hear that 99 percent of survey respondents said they care about dunes, at least in some way. Dunes might provide an opportunity for Michiganders to band together for a common cause.

If one thing is clear from Michigan Environmental Council and their partners’ work in the #HowYouDune survey, it’s that dunes are important to Michiganders’ quality of life and coastal cities’ economies. Dunes are important to Michigan.

So, shore up your support by educating yourself. You can explore the findings of this survey and lots of other research at the Michigan Environmental Council’s website. You can learn more about Ottawa County dune preservation efforts at www.ottawacd.org/critical_dune.html, where you can discover how to sustainably enjoy the rich beauty of some of Michigan’s dunes and the threats facing them. You can then go out and enjoy one of Michigan’s richest, most beautiful landscapes.

One survey respondent summed it up nicely when they said, “Coastal dunes are Michigan’s greatest natural treasure and must be protected to the greatest extent possible.”

About the writer: Andrew Blok is the new ecojournalism intern for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.

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