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Thumb Land Conservancy Acquires 42-Acre Bidwell Preserve in Burtchville Township As Part of the Proposed Southern Lake Huron Coastal Park

On July 17, the Thumb Land Conservancy acquired its third nature preserve in the Great Lakes coastal forest north of Port Huron. Their latest addition is the 42-acre Bidwell Sanctuary in Burtchville Township on the north side of Metcalf Road, just west of M-25 and the Fort Gratiot County Park on Lake Huron.

The new Bidwell Sanctuary is part of a nearly continuous line of preserves stretching from the Fort Gratiot Nature Park south of Carrigan Road, north almost up to Norman Road in Burtchville Township. Most of these preserves are protected as mitigation for State wetland permits issued to the County and commercial developers. Some properties are held by the Saint Clair County Drain Commissioner to be preserved as mitigation for future projects. Preserve lands includes at least 100 acres of the Fort Gratiot Nature Park, over 160 acres west of Shorewood Forrest, 40 acres west of Presbyterian Villages of Michigan Lake Huron Woods, over 32 acres east of the Great Lakes Water Authority Lake Huron Water Treatment Plant, and about 75 acres adjacent to Indian Trails modular park.

Public access to many of these preserves is difficult and they are generally disconnected from each other, but not by much. The plan is to connect all of them to create the Southern Lake Huron Coastal Park, a nearly 4.5-mile continuous park with a trail connecting Fort Gratiot to Lakeport State Park.

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Bill Collins grew up in Fort Gratiot and is Executive Director of the Thumb Land Conservancy. He says the Southern Lake Huron Coastal Park will let the public experience this fascinating coastal forest from the inside.

“The coastal forest is a big part of what makes the Blue Water Area a beautiful place to visit, yet few understand its character and significance because there is so little public access. It’s like a hidden treasure in plain sight. You catch a glimpse along M-25, but few people get to actually walk through it. What remains of the coastal forest north of Port Huron is like a small wilderness, in some places over a half-mile wide. Imagine walking or biking for 4.5 miles through the forest, hearing the waves on the shore of Lake Huron, feeling the cool lake air, stopping to observe or read about the unique plants and animals, and ending your journey at Lakeport State Park or someday, continuing into Sanilac County and around the Thumb. This is what the Thumb Land Conservancy and its partners want to give the public. You don’t need to drive a few hundred miles away, up North or to West Michigan. We have the makings of a major coastal park right here on the scale of other State and National parks along the Great Lakes shoreline.”

The Southern Lake Huron Coastal Park will protect most of the remaining beach ridge and swale forest along the eastern shoreline of the Thumb; a series of parallel sand ridges and muck wetlands deposited as a much higher lake level began receding about 5,000 years ago. This unique Great Lakes landscape is very limited in Michigan. The remaining formation north of Port Huron is the only significant occurrence from Ohio to the Saginaw Bay.

The Bidwell Sanctuary is one of the best examples with very prominent ridges and swale wetlands that really stand out on aerial photographs. The beach ridge and swale forest supports uncommon species found in few other regions, such as Purple-flowering Raspberry, the Lower Peninsula’s equivalent of the Upper Peninsula’s Thimbleberry, Yellow and Pink Lady-slipper orchids, Eastern Hog-nosed snakes, Blue-spotted Salamanders, and a great abundance of migratory birds that move and nest along Lake Huron.

The Bidwell Sanctuary in Burtchville Township contains some of the best remaining ridge and swale forest in eastern Michigan with large sand ridges, wide wetland swales, and a diverse forest community of both northern and southern plant species. Collins says that once established, the Southern Lake Huron Coastal Park is likely to become a regional destination for birders and other naturalists, enhancing local tourism and increasing sustainable recreation business in the area.

The total project cost for the Bidwell Preserve was just over $300,000, which includes the land purchase, a 14-month option for fundraising, closing costs, and a $20,000 endowment to partially fund initial park development and long-term maintenance of the preserve. Collins says that he is encouraged by the financial support for the project and hopes to build on that for future acquisitions, especially local support. Collins has long considered it his calling to protect God’s creation and introduce more people to the fascinating natural world in our region. From the time he was employed by The Nature Conservancy in East Lansing in the mid-1980s, he noted that preservation was happening all over the State, especially west Michigan. Other than the Saint Clair River delta, Algonac State Park, and Saginaw Bay, there seemed to be nothing happening in the Thumb. The Michigan Nature Association established several small preserves here in their early years, but then moved on to other parts of the State. From his youth, Collins was determined to protect natural areas back in his home region. He says support for the new Bidwell Sanctuary and Southern Lake Huron Coastal Park seems to be indication of the potential here in the Thumb.

Collins says the Bidwell Sanctuary acquisition was not likely to have been successful without a $150,000 match grant from The Carls Foundation of Bloomfield Hills (CarlsFdn.org). Their director visited the property with the conservancy in April of last year and advocated for funding. The Carls Foundation of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, has funded land preservation in our region where few other foundations have. Funded projects include the Sharon Rose Leonatti Memorial Nature Sanctuary in Kimball Township with one of Michigan’s largest populations of State Endangered Painted Trillium, and large parts of Anchor Bay Woods in New Baltimore adjacent to the Thumb Land Conservancy’s Gerrits Sanctuary in Ira Township. William and Marie Carls established the Carls Foundation in 1961 to fund children’s welfare and preservation of natural areas. Bill Carls immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1924 at the age of 21. With his training and experience in European apprentice programs, he was readily employed with major industrial companies in Detroit. In 1945, Bill Carls started Numatics, Inc. in his garage. The company is headquartered in Highland, Michigan and remains a leading worldwide manufacturer of industrial air valves.

The Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan (CFSEM.org) awarded the conservancy a grant of $50,000 through the Wilson Legacy Design and Access Fund. The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation (RalphCWilsonJrFoundation.org) supports physically active lifestyles through trails, parks, and green design.

The Consumers Energy Foundation (ConsumersEnergy.com/Foundation) awarded the conservancy a grant of $30,000 for the project. The Consumers Energy Foundation is the charitable arm of Consumers Energy, Michigan’s largest energy provider. The foundation enables communities to thrive and grow by investing in what’s most important to Michigan – its people, Michigan’s prosperity, and our planet.

On a personal note, Collins says it is particularly gratifying to have the support of Consumers Energy. His father is a machinist and retired from their gas refinery in Marysville. Collins even worked there in the summer of 1981, scraping and painting pipes. Back when they were Consumers Power, the CP symbol was very familiar in the Collins house, as was the occasional metal chip in the back door rug.

Cargill, Inc. and Cargill Salt of Saint Clair (Cargill.com) made a combined grant of $20,000 to the project. Cargill Salt has long supported environmental efforts in the Blue Water Area, including the annual Saint Clair County Earth Fair and Saint Clair County Sturgeon Festival. They are very enthusiastic about the Southern Lake Huron Coastal Park.

The Community Foundation of St. Clair County (StClairFoundation.org) awarded the project a grant of $20,000. The Community Foundation is the oldest and largest in Michigan’s Thumb Coast. They strive to address the region’s opportunities and challenges through like-minded donors and partners with a goal of increasing regional vibrancy and prosperity.

The Franklin H. and Nancy S. Moore Donor Advised Fund of the Community Foundation of Saint Clair County provided $20,000 to the project. The fund effectively matched the Community Foundation grant. The Moore family of Saint Clair has a long history of philanthropy in the area.

SEMCO Energy Gas Company, headquartered in Port Huron, (SEMCOEnergyGas.com) made a donation of $2,000. SEMCO delivers natural gas to residential, commercial, and industrial customers in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula, including in and around the cities of Albion, Battle Creek, Holland, Niles, Port Huron, and Three Rivers, and the central, eastern, and western parts of the Upper Peninsula.

Several individual donors also supported the Bidwell Sanctuary acquisition and the Thumb Land Conservancy is grateful for their support.

After the Bidwell property closing, the Thumb Land Conservancy held a small dedication ceremony on the new Bidwell Sanctuary, led by long-time conservancy members and expert birders Tom and Laurie Dennis of Fort Gratiot. At the top of the largest beach ridge near two large Eastern Hemlock trees, the long history of the Bidwell property was recounted, followed by a presentation of Biblical passages by Tom Dennis who then led a prayer of blessing.

The conservancy is planning to hold a public dedication ceremony on the Bidwell Sanctuary on October 3 along with the Blue Water Indigenous Alliance of Port Huron (BWIAPH.org) during which the preserve will be given an Anishinaabe name to honor the original Native American inhabitants of our region. The conservancy is planning to partner with Blue Water Indigenous Alliance on other projects in the area.


The conservancy is seeking further assistance through volunteer labor and donation of materials to develop the park entrance and trail on the Bidwell Sanctuary. They also need individuals to help with long-term upkeep and planning. If you are interested, please contact them at 810-346-2584 or mail@ThumbLand.org.

The Thumb Land Conservancy, based near Brown City and Marlette, was founded in 2008 and owns six nature preserves in Saint Clair County. They also own the historic North Street rail station and post office which they are working with the Clyde Historical Society to restore. All preserves are open to the public. For more information, visit their web site at ThumbLand.org.

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