Project Gives Identity to Michigan Coastal Dunes and their Users

Beau Brocket Jr.
West Michigan Environmental Action Council
September 11, 2018
muskegon dunes

A two-year project seeking to advance understanding and awareness of the world’s largest collection of freshwater coastal sand dunes is wrapping up.

The Michigan Environmental Council coordinated a team of academic experts, environmental organizations, citizens and dune stakeholders to create the first complete map of Michigan’s 230,423 acres (93,249 hectares) of coastal sand dunes, giving identity to the dunes and their users.

The Valuing Michigan’s Coastal Dunes project stemmed from a 2015 Michigan Environmental Council report outlining the history of Michigan’s dune management. Both projects were funded by Michigan’s Office of the Great Lakes’ Coastal Zone Management Program via the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

muskegon dunes
Dunes at Muskegon State Park. Credit: E.S. Isely


Two teams worked simultaneously throughout the project. The first created a new GIS (Geographic Information System) map of Michigan’s coastal dunes to establish the true spatial extent of the dunes. Before the map was created under Michigan State University leadership, discussion about the dunes was limited because an accurate representation of the full extent of the coastal dune feature had never been completed.

The map allows a more accurate understanding and future study of the dunes, such as what percentage of the dunes is in public ownership, and how much of the dune system is regulated by other state or local laws. For example, about one third of the newly mapped coastal dunes are designated as “critical,” meaning that development is allowed but limited by state regulation.

Michigan coastal dunes
Michigan’s coastal dunes. Credit: A. Arbogast and C. Queen, Michigan State University

The map also included several coastal dune fields on Michigan’s east coast that were previously not included on maps such as the State’s Atlas of Critical Dunes - Township Maps of Critical Dunes, though many local people suspected they were coastal dunes.

The map will be available on Michigan Environmental Council website once final approval for the project is received from the Coastal Zone Management Program, Michigan Office of the Great Lakes and Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Dune resolutions
Examples of various resolutions. Credit: A. Arbogast and C. Queen, Michigan State

At the same time, team members also worked on building understanding of the social, cultural and economic importance of the dunes. To identify how people interacted with and valued the natural resource, a #HowYouDune campaign was launched.

The campaign’s core was an online survey, modeled on previous work done by the Surfrider Foundation and built by Ducks Unlimited, another project partner. Survey participants could locate which coastal dune sites they visited using a mapping feature. Then, they could share activities they did during their visits, trip expenditures and beliefs in the value of Michigan’s dunes.

From the campaign’s Freshwater Dunes Summit kickoff in May to its end in October 2017, more than 3,600 individuals recorded more than 7,000 dune visits from 2016 onward. Nearly 90 percent reported visiting a dune site with others, bringing an average 2.4 people with them and spending an average of US$392, much of it in the local area.

More than 90 percent of survey respondents found the dunes’ scenic beauty and their protection for future generations to be very or extremely important to them. Beachgoing and scenic enjoyment were top reasons for visiting dunes. Camping ranked third.

The Michigan Environmental Council, West Michigan Environmental Action Council and Heart of the Lakes led the campaign’s outreach. Social media posts, postcards and posters left at lakeshore businesses, and email lists informed people of the survey and the importance of dunes to the environment.

Team members provided campaign literature and presented to at numerous lakeshore events and businesses. Case study interviews with businesses who benefited from dune-related experiences were conducted.

The full project team presented its results at the International Association of Great Lakes Research Conference earlier this summer in Toronto.

“Michigan’s coastal sand dunes are truly a world-class natural resource, providing the backdrop for the Pure Michigan brand and attracting more and more visitors and residents to our Great Lakes shorelines,” said Brad Garmon, project lead at the Michigan Environmental Council, who coordinated the presentations. “We want to build the base of knowledge and understanding of these resources, and begin to measure their impact on people and the economy, so that as a state we can be smart about how we protect, use and enjoy them.”

SIDEBAR: From the Michigan Environmental Council:

As noted in a 2015 Michigan Environmental Council report: “In the Great Lakes region, by far, the majority of coastal sand dunes are located in Michigan, with 275,000 acres on the Lake Michigan and Lake Superior shorelines …

“There are relatively small areas of dunes (both privately and publicly held) in Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Dunes in Wisconsin are encompassed in the 865-acre Whitefish Dunes State Park and 1,000-acre Kohler-Andrae State Park, which contains two and a half miles of beach. Dunes in Illinois are located in the Illinois Beach State Park. Its dune area is situated on about six and a half miles on Lake Michigan in the 4,000-acre park. In Indiana, the majority of the coastal dunes are located in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. The 15,000-acre national park has 15 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. There are no state regulations for coastal dunes in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana.

“One of the largest stretches of dunes in the Great Lakes outside of Michigan is a 17-mile stretch on eastern Lake Ontario, owned and managed by the State of New York. An important program to note is the Eastern Lake Ontario Dunes Coalition, a public-private partnership focused on education, stewardship and overall management of the dune area. There are 35 partners in the coalition, including local, county, state, and federal entities. The coalition has issued a number of status reports, and has established a Dune Steward program to flag issues on the shoreline and to provide education to area residents and visitors.”

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Beau Brocket Jr.
West Michigan Environmental Action Council

Beau Brocket Jr. is an eco-journalism and blogging intern for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), located in Grand Rapids, Michigan.