Alison Swan is the award-winning co-founder of Concerned Citizens for Saugatuck Dunes State Park. Her book Fresh Water: Women Writing on the Great Lakes was a 2007 Library of Michigan Notable Book. Her poems and prose have appeared in many publications, most recently, TriQuarterly, The Dunes Review, and the books, The Saugatuck Dunes and Michigan: Our Land, Our Water, Our Heritage. She teaches in the environmental studies program at Western Michigan University.
Introduction by Alison Swan
Twenty-some years ago, I lived in South Florida, where I-95 was already twice as wide as any interstate anywhere in Michigan and the sun beat down hard most of the time. Raised in Michigan, shooed outside often to play in the leafy shade of my neighborhood, I was uneasy everywhere in Fort Lauderdale except at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. As long as I kept my back turned to the high-rises along the shore and my eyes on the water and sky, I could imagine myself back to a Lake Michigan beach.
I could find nothing, however, comparable to the magnificent trees of my childhood, and certainly not the Great Lakes woods. It wasn’t long until I’d moved my home back to Michigan. Now I live an easy bike ride from woods full of wild trees, many stories tall and in all stages of their life cycles: the Saugatuck Dunes Natural Area. (A significant portion of our dunes are forested, something many people wouldn’t immediately assume about sand dunes.)
These woods are damp, cool, and singing with life. In summer, I’ve taken to walking them midday, reveling in that cool hum and mingling with billions of little oxygen factories called leaves. All around, towering native trees like beeches, maples, and oaks shade hemlocks, songbirds, squirrels, chipmunks, red fox, coyote, and white-tailed deer. Once a large fur ball, with ears, tucked just out of reach in one tree, turned out to be a sleeping groundhog. Apparently they’ll climb trees to escape predators or survey the territory. Pileated woodpeckers shoot through the canopy like red, white, and black winged-footballs. The lake spreads wide and wild to the west.
I’ve been thinking about the luxury of living where woodpecker-drilled trees and moss-covered logs are commonplace, as they are all over these dunes. Luxurious because these are markers of mature forests, the kind that covered most of Michigan until logging and wildfires destroyed the trees and sterilized the soil. Even a half century ago we didn’t have much in the way of such forests and most of what we do have now lies inside the boundaries of natural areas and other preserved places. In other words, we didn’t re-grow healthy forests by chance, and they won’t continue to grow by chance either.
Around 2000, the City of Holland and Laketown Township each began promoting the center of Saugatuck Dunes State Park as a good location for a water intake and treatment facility. Their plan located the pumping station just inland from the beach on a large expanse of grassy dunes, an access road and pipeline through a half-mile of forested dunes, and the treatment facility at the entrance to the park. Concerned Citizens for Saugatuck Dunes State Park quickly formed and mobilized to raise public awareness of what was at stake. We asked our public officials many questions, such as, “How will the plan affect the ecology of the park?” One of their most memorable answers was, “This will look like a war zone.”
After several years of public meetings and many letters to the editor, the plans for the water treatment facility were shelved. The park remains whole. The motto of Concerned Citizens for Saugatuck Dunes State Park endures: “Keep it wild. Keep it whole. Make it grow.”
Often, however, it seems that the spread of asphalt, infrastructure, etc., across Michigan—the biggest threat to our woods, according to scientists—did mostly happen by accident, as if no one here had ever been to South Florida or somewhere like it. Many of Michigan’s interstates have doubled or tripled in width since my days in Fort Lauderdale.
When building proceeds apace across the landscape as it did in Florida, without any kind of overall plan, the overall results don’t work, by any measure, as they haven’t there. As a fellow Michigander/Great Lakes lover asked me recently, “When do we have enough golf courses, resorts, and condos?” To which I’d add, “And how many more acres of forest do we need to meet the needs of everyone who wants to—and will one day want to—use them?”
This importance of healthy forests cannot be overestimated at a time when we are competing for businesses, residents, and tourists, with places like Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle, where many hundreds of thousands of acres of forest (and water) lie very nearby.