The Michigan Department of Natural Resources announced a $2.9 million purchase of 717 acres of land in Norvell Township, Jackson County. Combined with 405 acres of contiguous land owned by the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission in Manchester Township, the property will become the 1,122-acre Watkins Lake State Park and County Preserve.
“Because this property represents one of the final opportunities to add significant public land holdings in eastern Jackson and western Washtenaw counties, Legacy Land Conservancy and our conservation partners have been working for more than a decade to help this project come to fruition,” said Susan Lackey, executive director of Legacy Land Conservancy.
The DNR property will become Michigan’s 103rd state park and will be the first state park in Michigan to be jointly managed with a county recreation agency. Adoption of a formal management plan to guide the development of the park will take place following a series of yet to be scheduled public input meetings. The park’s planned recreational offerings include hiking, bird watching, upland hunting, mountain biking and other activities.
“It is very rare that there’s an opportunity to increase the public land portfolio in southern Michigan,” said DNR Parks and Recreation Chief Ron Olson. “The DNR places a priority on providing additional opportunities for outdoor and history-based recreation and protecting valuable natural resources and wildlife habitat, especially in this part of the state. We believe that Watkins Lake State Park and County Preserve will be popular with outdoor enthusiasts and an excellent waterfowl refuge and birding destination.”
The park is now open to the public but with limited parking. The DNR and Washtenaw County will collaborate to create multiple public access points this summer and fall.
The property features beautiful rolling land covered in a mixture of open meadow, mixed hardwoods, low wetland areas and open water. Watkins Lake is the park’s most prominent natural feature. As a popular watchable wildlife destination, Watkins Lake holds large numbers of waterfowl during the spring and fall migration.
“It is one of the best inland lakes to observe canvasback ducks. Pending the adoption of a management plan, Watkins Lake will become a seasonal waterfowl refuge,” said Olson. “The remainder of the park has diverse habitat that attracts white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, pheasants, cottontail rabbits and songbirds.”
The property includes a 4.5-mile former rail corridor that traverses the property from east to west. The trail will link state and county parcels and has the potential to be developed into a non-motorized multi-use trail, well-suited for hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians. There also is the strong possibility of expanding the trail to connect the villages of Manchester and Brooklyn.
The park is rich in history, too. Royal and Sally Carpenter Watkins, who first farmed the land, played a key role in the Underground Railroad. Their well-documented history provides an interesting opportunity for historical interpretation at the site as well.
Funding for the $2.9 million DNR purchase came from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, which helps acquire and develop public recreation lands. The Trust Fund was created with revenue from the development of state-owned minerals, primarily oil and gas.
“The purchase of the county land was made possible through the Washtenaw County Natural Areas Preservation Program, which facilitates the acquisition of land featuring multiple conservation values,” said Coy Vaughn, deputy director of the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission. “The Commission is pleased to work hand-in-hand with the DNR to create Michigan’s 103rd state park. Throughout the coming months, we will work together to engage the public in a planning process to help determine the appropriate uses and physical improvements for this exciting new state park.”
A grant from the Enbridge Mitigation Fund helped with Washtenaw County’s acquisition. In partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Enbridge Mitigation Fund provides technical assistance and funding for mitigation of impacts caused by the construction and maintenance of the Enbridge 6B Pipeline.
According to Olson, both parcels of property were purchased from G.T. Ranch, LLC, and Legacy Land Conservancy played an important role in the coordination of the land purchase.
“The purchase of these properties helps create a nearly contiguous swath of publicly accessible lands from Hayes State Park to northern Oakland County,” Legacy’s executive director, Susan Lackey, said. “This ‘Emerald Arc’ of land provides varied and extensive recreational land easily accessible to the nearly 5 million Michigan residents living within 90 minutes of the location. It bolsters our ability to promote southern Michigan as the world-class recreation destination that it is.”
The DNR is encouraging people who are enthused about this new state park to contact James O’Brien, park supervisor, at 517-467-7401 to assist in forming a friends group for the park.