Outdoors recreation

Watkins Lake State Park and County Preserve

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Draft management plan gets public review

 

By John Hummer

Editor

The public has been informed of and has had an opportunity to put its fingerprints on what can and cannot be done at the new Watkins Lake State Park and County Preserve in Norvell Township.

The park is overseen by a partnership between the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission. It is the 103rd state park and the first to be jointly managed.

A draft management plan for the 1,100-acre natural resource mecca of Jackson County was unveiled last week at a public meeting in Brooklyn. The crafting of the management plan began last fall with internal meetings of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources which were followed by public and stakeholder workshops in September.

Those workshops indicated that the public wants to see hiking, birding, biking, fishing, guided nature walks, and a host of other activities available upon a visit to the park. The workshops also revealed that some of the public has “do not wants” issues, including hunting, motorized vehicles, and camping. However, a public online survey conducted by the department indicated that hunting was a somewhat desired activity at the park.

About 30 people attended a public meeting in March to voice their opinions on how they would like to see the park managed. The potential conflict of use between hunting and hiking came up among attendees at the meeting. About 350 acres of the state park is proposed to be open to hunting north of the railroad grade on state land.

“Having active trails used right alongside a hunting area – I’m not against hunting, I’m concerned about safety issues,” said Brooklyn’s Steve Enzer. “If you’re going to have hunting, I think it should be in a more remote area that’s definitely not utilized for hiking and other uses. In other words, a buffer zone.”

“At trailheads, we do post signs if an area will be open to hunting,” said Nikki VanBloem, MDNR’s Southern Michigan trail specialist. “It’s also a hunter’s responsibility to know where trails are in relation to where they are hunting.”

Reed Breight of Manchester Township is a hunter who liked the draft management plan process.

“I liked the idea of having some input into things like this that are close to where we live – things that we’ll use ourselves,” he said. “The management plan looks good to me.”

On hunting and hiking coexisting, he said, “I think it should definitely be separated – an area for hunting and an area for hiking – if they’re going to have hunting areas in there. At least signage, so if someone is out there, they know they’re in a hunting area.”

The draft management plan identifies core values and guiding resources for the park including legal mandates that impact land use, the state park’s purpose and significance, and outlines 10-year action goals as well as specific management zone goals.

“They’ve certainly done all the background work,” said Linda Breight. “The more people that can use it and enjoy it, the better. All of our taxes are going towards it.”

The plan’s draft management zone include: ecologically sensitive, primitive, backcountry, natural resource recreation, developed recreation, a cultural landscape overlay, and a scenic overlay.

The park’s planned action goals include implementation of a Natural Resources Stewardship Plan, evaluation of existing above-ground structures, and an archaeological study.

Recreation and education priorities call for finalizing the trail easement connecting state property across private land; designating the former rail corridor for hiking and biking, establishing a hiking trail system, and developing programming and natural and historical interpretation.

Other action goals include establishing a non-motorized trail connection between the park and surrounding areas, completing property boundary marking, and establishing a Wildlife Conservation Order to open a portion of the land in Jackson County to hunting.

The MDNR’s Stewardship Unit has the lead responsibility for both cultural and natural resources issues within the state park system.

“This park has a bunch of really unique natural resources,” said Stewardship Unit Manager Ray Fahlsing. “In a fairly small area, there is really a lot of high-quality biological diversity.

Evaluating the need for additional parking, removing fencing, public hazards, and other structures, and adding directional signage are also action goals of the plan.

The park is full of rural Michigan history. The Watkins family farmed the land beginning in 1834. It was once home to a part of the Underground Railroad network and has potential to become a historic site and tourist attraction.

“We know that there is Native American presence on the property and on adjacent properties,” Fahlsing said. He said an archaeological study should be done in one to three years.

One of the park’s most well-liked features is its community connectivity. Its former rail corridor provides connectivity within the park as well as a potential for trail connections to Brooklyn and Manchester.

“We would love to have Manchester and Brooklyn connected by a bike trail,” said Linda Breight.

The park is home to many natural features including a large prairie fen, rare and endangered species, and links to a chain of protected lands within the region. It includes beautiful vistas and views that are rare on public land in this region and offers the opportunity for peaceful recreation like hiking, waterfowl viewing, and calm-water paddling and fishing on Watkins Lake.

Sylvia Kay of Norvell Township was at the meeting and loves to hike at Watson Lake State Park and County Preserve.

“I think it’s been a great process giving everyone a chance to be heard,” she said. “I’d like to preserve what’s wonderful about the peace and the quiet there.”

Additional information on the park’s draft management plan can be found at www.michigan.gov/parkmanagementplans and mdnrmanagementplans.org/watkins-lake. The deadline for public comment on the plan is March 20.

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