The 300-acre Ott Biological Preserve, located in Calhoun County, Michigan, is at risk of being turned into a heavy-equipment construction zone. This Preserve is owned by Calhoun County and is public property, but the Calhoun County Trailway Alliance (a private group) wants to eliminate its peaceful, meandering nature trails. Instead, they want to construct a 14-foot wide (10 foot-wide with 2 ft of clearance on each side) bituminous (concrete, asphalt per their grant application #TF10-031) or other “smooth” surfaced “trail.” But this is not about trail surface. Rather, this is about changing the entire dynamic of our last naturally developed County-owned Preserve. To put this in perspective, you could fit two cars side-by-side on their proposed “trail.” Engineering proposals have been solicited so they can bring in heavy machinery and start development in 2012. The decision to approve or deny this project rests in the hands of our elected Calhoun County Commissioners. They will decide the fate of the Preserve April 19, 2012.
Ott has been a Biological wilderness Preserve since 1911. It is the most diverse and pristine natural area that Calhoun County owns with vast public accessibility due to numerous trails. The Calhoun County Trailway Alliance hatched their trail development plans at a series of mostly closed-door meetings, with a majority of the members composed of local government entities, not private citizens. One of the Alliance’s construction plans runs atop a fragile mile-long glacial esker, formed 10,000 years ago, and within 20 feet of rare, spring-fed, and globally threatened wetland prairie fen habitat.
Ott provides habitat to many animals and plants, some of which are state designated as threatened. The proposed trail-widening and establishment will create drainage issues, erosion and loss of habitat, all unavoidable, reported side-effects in similar construction projects. The heavy equipment and digging will bring in and spread invasive plants which can quickly outcompete and crowd out the native wildflowers and plant-life of Ott.
Turning this peaceful Preserve into an urban park with a 14 foot wide “road-trail,” would change Ott into what every other County park is: road-like, loud, and with very limited nature experience. The Preserve already has extensive natural trails throughout, and is used on a regular basis for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, bird-watching, nature photography, hiking, wildlife watching, running and education opportunities for local schools and colleges. All of the so-called “enhancements” that the Trailway Alliance say they will create, already exist there. These activities represent viable “outdoor recreation” pursuits!
UPDATE March 2012: The decision to approve or deny this project rests in the hands of the Calhoun County Commissioners. These elected officials voted on April 7, 2011 (one year ago!) to allow a compromised route in Ott Preserve property, closely following the Western boundary Consumer Energy lines that are already cleared. The Calhoun County Trailway Alliance was unwilling to invest in developing this trail entirely using Consumer’s Energy right-of-way passage. They secured Consumer’s Energy permission and DEQ approval for this trail route. Instead they opted to jog outside of this route onto private properties bordering the Preserve in a few areas. Private property owners did not agree to their (County/Trailway) proposal resulting in collapse of the agreement. No one wants this 14-ft “road-trail” in their backyard, yet the Alliance claims “everyone” wants it.
The Calhoun County Trailway Alliance, Calhoun County Parks/Road Commission and a handful of vocal pro-trail development followers are meeting with engineers and officials privately to get their original 14-foot wide “road-trail” back into the Preserve without public input. Ott Biological Preserve still lacks base-line studies, a management plan from a conservation biologist, and any “real” protections that could be gained through putting the land into a conservation easement with a qualified land conservancy. County Commissioners will vote on April 19, 2012 and need to hear from you today!
Compromise trail routes still exist:
The Alliance has refused to consider running their trail straight down the already-cleared Consumers Energy power line right-of-way, along the West boundary of the Preserve, and straight to East Michigan Avenue. Instead of considering this more sensible alternative, the Alliance wants to cut through the most beautiful parts of Ott at nature’s expense.
Another alternative is to omit the Preserve from the trailway proposal and instead market it as an “off-road” exploration, encouraging people to park their bikes and hike in for a refreshing wilderness escape. Nominal improvements like bike racks, and signage could be developed. This would be the most economical choice clearly!
Do not let history repeat itself 17 years later. In 1994, the County logged over 300 old-growth trees. One of these was 278 years old, dating to before our country’s founding. The County practically gave the trees away for approximately $120 each. A second phase of logging was stopped only after the community expressed outrage.
Make your voice heard by signing the petition and sending a letter. Although Ott Biological Preserve is owned by Calhoun County, it is public land, and you are a stakeholder in the management of our local natural resources. If we do not maintain the Ott Biological wilderness as a true "preserve,” we will not have the land to share with our families and children for generations.
Attend the Calhoun County Commission meeting on April 19, 2012 at 7pm, located at 315 W. Green St, Marshall, MI. A personally drafted letter from local residents to the Calhoun County Commissioners is fundamental; please take the time to also express your dissatisfaction for further development in Ott by writing to them. The decision to allow trail development, or not, is expected to be made April 19, 2012!
Commissioner contact info can be found at: http://www.calhouncountymi.gov/government/board_of_commissioners
If we are to avoid future "use" conflicts, and want to save our local tax-payers money, we should at the same time consider giving this Preserve to a land trust organization, or at the very least put the land in a trust. Land conservancies are in the business of preserving properties and have the financial support to manage and steward our Preserve to the benefit of our community. The Trailway Alliance, on the other hand, does not have community support, secured funding or long-term plans for even basics, like maintenance. One year later and they still need to fundraise $600,000, at minimum according to their "fact" sheet.
How many times should stakeholders have to compromise when viable trail routes continue to be ignored? One straightforward alternative that fails to be considered is to utilize the NORTH boundary edge of the Preserve, directly to Wattles Road where there are already established bike lanes. Encourage people to park their bikes and escape for a refreshing visit into wilderness. Lastly, placing bike racks at Preserve parking lots may be the cheapest way to accommodate bicyclists that want to hike into the property since it is a bike-free zone.
These alternatives keep the Preserve’s sensitive natural features-- including the 10,000 year old glacial eskers, and sensitive wetlands, free of negative impacts. However I would still want to see an environmental assessment for alternative routes to ensure that no damage to the Preserve's edge is done. There have been no environmental assessments by unbiased sources to date for any trail proposals!
Ott’s trails are currently used by many; hiking, nature photography, bird-watching, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and quiet reflection are some of the common activities that occur there. In contrast, a smooth surface would draw increased traffic from bicycles, rollerblades and skateboards, which would severely diminish the quality of the nature experience. Any asphalt, gravel, or other “smooth” development of the trails will also eliminate winter cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing and hiking in the Preserve. This effectively takes the Preserve out of use for the cold months, a time when many are more active in Ott.
Ott Biological Preserve is the most diverse and pristine natural area that Calhoun County has. It is a public wilderness full of rare and threatened plants, animals, unique 10,000 year-old eskers and globally threatened and rare wetlands, all of which reflect Michigan’s rich geologic history. Transforming this peaceful nature preserve into an urban park with a 14 foot-wide trail, would make Ott just like every other county park: road-like, loud and with very limited nature experience.
This is not a matter of “stuff” growing back after construction. The environmental impact will be permanent. We ask that you please keep the rich, 100-year history of protecting Ott Biological Preserve a priority, by denying the Calhoun County Trailway Alliance permission to develop there unless it is through one of the above mentioned routes, pending environmental review. Otherwise, let's settle to allow the Trailway to proceed on the other 20 or more miles planned, and simply omit this controversial piece of property.
Future generations deserve to experience the natural beauty that has been maintained ever since renowned naturalist Edward Brigham and friend Jay R. D. Snyder bought the first 105 acres in 1911.