Big land: How large land parcels create significant recreational opportunities for Michiganders

Larger parcels of land can be expensive and complicated, but they also create opportunities to unite communities around unique and impactful recreational amenities.

Since 1976, MNRTF has been an essential resource for communities interested in purchasing land for recreational development. The trust fund receives proposals for all kinds of projects, but the larger parcel requests can be challenging; more land comes with a bigger price tag. And while those projects can be expensive and complicated, they also create opportunities to unite communities around unique and impactful recreational amenities.

Some sites are thousands of acres, like the 20,000 acres purchased from Bethlehem Steel Company in Mackinac County for over $4.5 million, or the 12,000 acres purchased in the Keweenaw Peninsula for $12.5 million. In 2020, the largest grant request was for over $10 million dollars to purchase 400 acres from Nugent Sand in Muskegon County that includes Lake Michigan shoreline, two inland lakes, and dunes.


On the east side of the state in Oakland County, another former sand (and gravel) mining site was acquired recently through the trust fund. The DNR paid $2.9 million to purchase this site, turning it into Holly Oaks ORV Park with over 100 acres of varying terrain for legal off-road vehicle driving.

Holly Oaks ORV Park, Photo by Doug Coombe.

For all MNRTF projects, especially the larger-scale ones, the DNR looks for match partners and community involvement. In purchasing the site for Holly Oaks ORV Park, the community involvement was especially relevant. In July, the site had an open house in which the public came out to give feedback on what specifically they wanted to see done to the site.


Because the public was involved early, instead of transforming the land into a native prairie, for example, the land will stay mostly as it is, with steep walls, sharp turns, and other features that make it an exciting track for off-roading.


“As the state partner, we’re just there to help acquire and then each community does their own process in terms of how they want to see the land used over time,” says Lord.


The park brings a new kind of amenity to Metro Detroit, according to Dan Stencil, Chief Executive Officer of the Oakland County parks and recreation commission.

Holly Oaks ORV Park, Photo by Doug Coombe.


“This is a 50-year dream of having an off-road vehicle facility in southeast Michigan,” he says, adding that before this park, people would have to pack up their things and head north for the weekend to use trails like these. With the new park, they can stay at home, and visit during weekdays as well.


The community has been involved in the development of the site from equipment donations to volunteerism to the formation of a 501(c)(3) group to raise even more funds. Collaboration is key for MNRTF purchases. Groveland Township, Holly Township, the State of Michigan, and Oakland County Stencil says were “all working collaboratively to make this work.”


The park is expected to cut down on illegal trespassing on land conservancy property, state lands, and other natural areas of preservation. “It provides a place that’s already been significantly disturbed,” said Stencil. “You can’t do anything more damaging to a gravel pit,” he says.


Key connections


Another large parcel created a critical link for the Border-to-Border trail in Washtenaw County, part of the Iron Belle Trail project. The nonprofit Huron Waterloo Pathways Initiative worked with Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation to purchase a 7.84-acre parcel along M-52.


“It serves as a critical link,” said Chuck Dennison, park manager of the Pinckney State Recreation Area. Now, with the property in the hands of the DNR, it joins two properties previously unconnected in the park and allows for more construction on the Border-to-Border Trail.

Holly Oaks ORV Park, Photo by Doug Coombe.


The Huron Waterloo Pathways Initiative will continue to develop and operate the property on lease from the state. The Border-to-Border trail has benefited from MNRTF several times now and has had many partners, including Huron-Clinton Metroparks, Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission, Washtenaw County Road Commission, and Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation. In the Southeast Michigan area, the Ralph Wilson, Jr. Foundation is a frequent partner for MNRTF projects. “Community foundations play a really big role,” said Lord.


In addition to foundations, land conservancies are common partners in acquiring large parcels.


“A lot of times conservancies can move quicker than the state can,” Lord says. The Nature Conservancy played an instrumental role in the purchase of Bethlehem Steel Property which is now Simmons Woods.


The state was interested in acquiring the property for almost 15 years before the sale was made. This particular tract of land interested them because of its five miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, nine undeveloped inland lakes, wetlands, and additional unique features. However Bethlehem Steel was resistant, and it was only after years of negotiation by The Nature Conservancy that they agreed. The Nature Conservancy was able to purchase it through the MNRTF, and eventually completely gave the property to the DNR.


Richard Bowman, director of policy at The Nature Conservancy, says having the DNR own the land is often the best solution because it’s expensive to own land and the state and local governments are better land managers “especially for public use.” With DNR owning the land, TNC can better play its role in protecting and preserving land and resources, without getting stuck with managing it and funneling Conservancy resources into maintenance.


The Michigan Natural Resource Trust Fund is one-of-a-kind Bowman explains. “Not only have we gotten all of the benefits that we’ve gotten over the years, but it hasn’t cost taxpayers a penny,” he said. While other states may have similar programs, they rely on taxpayers passing a bond or special state tax, whereas MNRTF utilizes investments that came from royalties of the gas and oil industry.


“We are truly fortunate in Michigan that we had folks who had the foresight to create the trust fund back in the early 80s,” said Bowman. “We’re the only state in the country that has something like this.”


“Preserving Michigan” is a series exploring the history and impact of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund on the people and communities of Michigan. The series is underwritten by the Michigan Environmental Council. Issue Media Group maintains editorial independence for all of our underwritten content. Please review our editorial underwriting guidelines for more information.