Michigan’s dunes: ‘If we don’t steward them, we lose them’

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Capital News Service

LANSING – New maps of Michigan’s sand dunes made with advanced technology can help local policymakers protect and understand them. 

“First and foremost, some of these places are just incredibly beautiful,” said Conan Smith, president and CEO of the Michigan Environmental Council.  “They have an innate value to us as Michiganders. If we don’t steward them, we lose them.”

Smith’s organization coordinated a project called “Valuing Michigan’s Coastal Dunes: GIS Information and Economic Data to Support Management Partnerships.” It began mapping the sand dunes along the coast of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula in 2016. The finished project was  presented in a webinar last spring. 

“The ultimate goal is to get local governments to use the mapping to inform their decisions,” said Beau Brockett, the communications coordinator for the environmental council. 

The critical dunes in Michigan are well documented and mapped already, said Elizabeth Brockwell-Tillman, a sand dune interpreter at Hoffmaster State Park near Muskegon, but looking at dunes from a “comprehensive standpoint” will benefit both people and animals.

Monarch butterflies became endangered because of the lack of knowledge people had of the habitat they live in, Brockwell-Tillman said. Mapping of sand dunes can provide more information about the habitats of current species that live there and potentially save more species.

“We knew about where the critical dunes are, but what about all the others?” Brockwell-Tillman said. “And are there keystone species on dunes that are vital to more common species that we don’t want to lose?”

Areas in Michigan that may benefit the most from sand dune mapping include Empire Township, where Sleeping Bear Dunes are located, Holland, Saugatuck and Berrien County, Smith said. 

“I think local communities are starting to realize how critically important these coastal areas are to the economy, to recreation and to the quality of life in those communities,” Brockwell-Tillman said. “We need a better sense of how to preserve those corridors.”

How the mapping will help local policymakers is not cut and dried. 

“One thing that the maps can provide municipalities is an awareness that there may be more of a dune landscape than what they previously thought,” said Alan Arbogast, a Michigan State University geology professor who worked on the sand dune map. 

Some people may not even realize they live within a dune landscape, Arbogast said.

“We’ve allowed a lot of development on the dunes over the years,” Brockwell-Tillman said. “Some local communities are trying to preserve those areas now so they don’t lose that endemic character of their community.”

Before the entire coastline was mapped, a smaller project focused on specific areas of it.

“We went and found photographs of the dunes from back in the day,” Smith said. “And then had people go and take the same photograph from that same spot in modern times so that you could see how the dunes had shifted and how that ecology was playing out.”

Arbogast used laser imaging, detection and ranging technology, or LiDAR, to map the dunes in the Lower Peninsula. The hope is to do the Upper Peninsula someday, but state laws regarding critical dunes focus more on the Lower Peninsula, he said.

The high-resolution technology used to map the coast by airplane provides detail of the landscape in an “incredible way,” Arbogast said. 

“Michigan’s sand dunes are a world-class landscape,” Arbogast said. “There are millions of people that go to them each year in state and national parks.”

Dune mapping provides multiple benefits. Conserving the dunes keeps tourists coming back and  protects homes and businesses from being taken over by them.

Michigan has a history of sand dunes becoming too much for a town to handle.

Deforestation around the Saugatuck area in the 1800s caused sand dunes to move and swallow the nearby city of Singapore.

“An increase of vegetation in dunes is linked to the stability of dunes,” said Tom Zimnicki, a former agriculture and source water program and policy manager at the Michigan Environmental Council. 

Critical dunes are defined as “the tallest and most spectacular dunes” by the Sand Dune Protection and Management Act in 1976. Of the 225,000 acres of dunes in Michigan, 74,000 are classified as “critical dune areas.” These areas require permits for activities that may alter the landscape.

“Now with our mapping process, we have a much better idea of what the true distribution is,” Arbogast said. 

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