Michigan just protected thousands of acres in ‘banner day for conservation’

Dec 7, 2020

Trust fund money will help purchase a property on Crystal Lake in Benzie County, in a preserve called Railroad Point Natural Area. The board granted the project over $700,000.
Credit Flickr user jimflix!

The state is poised to award over $40 million to fund public land projects this year. The money will go towards big-ticket properties like thousands of acres next to the Pigeon River Country State Forest, land along the St. Clair River, a multi-million dollar parcel in Muskegon, and dozens of other projects — including a number Up North.

“Christmas came early for northern Michigan, for everyone who loves the outdoors,” said Glen Chown, the executive director of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy.

The money comes from a lucrative program — the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund — funded by the state’s oil and gas revenue.

Each year, the program’s five-member board decides how to spend the earnings of its massive endowment.

They review applications for projects like buying lakefront property for public use or building restrooms at a town park.

Proposals get a score based on a variety of factors like public support, the financial needs of the community, and whether the project protects at-risk habitat, like dunes or rivers. The applications with a higher score have a better shot at receiving funding, but the final call is at the board’s discretion.

“The ranking system is sort of a guide to try to make sense and prioritize. That gets them 70 percent of the way there,” Chown explained.

Discovery Pier, just north of Traverse City, is an old coal dock that still floods whenever there’s a big rain. The town will get $300,000 to renovate the former industrial site.
Credit Discovery Center Great Lakes

“It’s all within their purview to pull those projects that might not score very well [...] above the funding line,” added Matt McDonough, head of the Discovery Center Great Lakes. He’s applied for dozens of trust fund grants over his career.

At a meeting on the first Wednesday of December each year, the board decides how to divvy up the funding.

It’s like an Oprah Winfrey show for local governments, only without any of the network television glitz. Board members sort through spreadsheets of over a hundred projects to make their picks.

Funding headed to northern Michigan

This year, the board awarded millions of dollars to projects in the northern part of the state. That included plans to expand parking at a Torch Lake boat launch, funding for restrooms and renovations at Discovery Pier, support for the FishPass project in Traverse City, the purchase of a former camp property in Green Lake Township, and construction of a boardwalk and fishing platforms in Cheboygan.

Whitefish Township, in the eastern Upper Peninsula, will also receive funding to rebuild a road and outhouses at the town beach that’s been covered by sand.

Sand dunes have taken over much of the roads and bathrooms at Saturn Park in Whitefish Township. The site is named after the wreck of a 19th century barge.
Credit Ellen Benoit

“Right now there’s a lot of sand pits, people get stuck in there, there’s only one-way traffic,” said Edson Forrester, a township trustee. “It’s kind of difficult for people to use that lakeshore.”

And the town of Elberta in Benzie county will get funding for bathrooms, parking spaces and a pavilion at the town beach.

That infrastructure is sorely needed, according to Chown, who helped draft the application. “This beach project is really important to the future of Elberta.”

Next, the board will send their recommendations to the state legislature, which is nearly guaranteed to approve the funding. (“Never in the 44-year history of the program have they not passed the appropriations bill,” Chown said).

Trust fund dollars won’t fund the entirety of a project. Local governments need to raise at least 25 percent of the cost. But the funding makes a public land project viable, McDonough said. “It’s the first big step. It really helps launch a project.”

The funding — over $1.2 billion in the program’s history — has been a boon to communities across the state.

“Michigan is sure fortunate to have a fund like this,” Chown said. “Other states would kill for what we have.”