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MEC leads effort to build new scientific knowledge about Michigan’s coastal dunes

Michigan is home to the world’s largest system of freshwater coastal dunes, and one segment—the Sleeping Bear Dunes—has earned a reputation as the most beautiful place in the country.

And yet, important as they are to Michigan’s ecology, recreation economy and unique identity, some fundamental questions remain about the extent and future ecological integrity of our dunes.

That’s why MEC is leading an effort to compile existing information and build new scientific knowledge about the state’s coastal dunes. Funded by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the project aims to give landowners, developers and decision makers a better understanding of dune ecology and geology so they can make wise decisions that protect vital species, habitats and landscapes.

Change in law requires accurate data to guide decisions

For 25 years, Michigan’s sand dune program—under the Critical Dune Areas and High Risk Erosion Areas sections of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act—has provided the policy framework for weighing the benefits of our current use of the dunes against the long-term benefits of preserving them. In 2012, lawmakers substantially overhauled the law. MEC opposed the changes, arguing that they tipped the law’s balance too far in favor of developers to the detriment of environmental protection. But once the changes were approved, MEC became interested in a new provision requiring that “the most comprehensive, accurate, and reliable information and scientific data available” guide government decision-making about the dunes.

“Having watched this issue evolve over the years, it was clear to me at least that the latest science hadn’t really been compiled and applied specifically to the coastal dunes, at least not in any comprehensive way,” said Brad Garmon, MEC director of conservation and emerging issues, who is leading the project. “MEC’s role here was to bring together as many of the state’s leading scientists and academics focused on coastal dunes as we could to try to compile and advance the state of understanding of this iconic Michigan landscape.”

Focusing on dune ecology, GIS mapping and management

The 17 members involved in the research teams and project advisory committee include environmental advocates, state agency employees and academic experts in geology, ecology and outdoor recreation from Calvin College, Hope College, Michigan State University and the University of Michigan.

The researchers work in three subgroups focused on dune ecology and development, GIS mapping and assessing dune management strategies.

The mapping team is building the first-ever comprehensive digital inventory of Michigan’s dunes by using historical aerial photographs, satellite imagery and other existing information to create a unified GIS database. The result will hopefully provide an important tool that can answer fundamental questions about the extent of the dunes, slope and land cover, and the extent to which they’ve been fragmented by development. That information can help decision makers understand the strengths and weaknesses of how dunes are managed.

The ecology workgroup is focused on building a tool that models the ecological impact of proposed development in the dunes. The tool could contribute to a better understanding of how coastal dune ecosystems respond to disturbance—something scientists don’t yet have a firm grasp on, said ecology workgroup leader Suzanne DeVries-Zimmerman, a lecturer in the Geological and Environmental Sciences Department at Hope College.

Few studies on habitat fragmentation in dunes

“Habitat fragmentation is an area of concern to many ecologists,” she said. “However, in the dune system, especially the Great Lakes dune system, there are very few studies or data on how much habitat and how close these habitats should be in order to sustain viable and genetically diverse populations.”

The process and policy assessment project is using surveys, interviews and other tools to learn more about public processes and government practices related to dune management. By talking to local leaders, gathering best practices used in other states and regions and looking at the evolution of our own state programs, the researchers hope to provide a better sense of where Michigan’s dune management program stands in comparison to other states, and learn from innovations elsewhere.

The project period is only about half through, but Garmon said it’s clear the effort will produce some interesting outcomes. For example, the mapping workgroup’s GIS tool will allow users to overlay historical aerial photographs on current satellite imagery, making the past and present visible simultaneously.

“It’s really an eye-opener when you see and understand what incremental change over decades really looks like on this system,” Garmon said. “It’s fascinating really, how much we thought we knew, especially when the original law was written back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and how that knowledge can be improved and new doors opened by accessing the dedicated time and energy of science-minded folks.”

Financial assistance for this project was provided, in part, by the Michigan Coastal Zone Management Program, Office of the Great Lakes, Department of Environmental Quality, under the National Coastal Zone Management Program, through a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. The Michigan Coastal Zone Management Program promotes wise management of the cultural and natural resources of Michigan’s Great Lakes coastal areas by fostering environmental stewardship through the development and application of tools, science-based policies and effective regulation
-Andy McGlashen, MEC
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