Sean Mulligan says Mt. Pisgah, the 157-foot-tall dune on the eastern edge of Holland State Park, used to be "basically an attractive nuisance."
The dune offers commanding views of Lake Michigan, Lake Macatawa, and the Holland Harbor Lighthouse, commonly known as "Big Red." But Mulligan, current manager and former ranger at the state park, says visitors would frequently scramble up the dune despite the lack of a staircase. That created erosion problems and sometimes resulted in visitors accidentally stumbling into the park's administration area on the back side of the dune.
"They were abusing it," says Jerry Hunsburger, supervisor of Park Township, where the park and dune are located. He recalls climbing the dune himself with his grandchildren. "I'm almost embarrassed to put my name among those that did that."
But a 2007 grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF) helped create a win-win solution: a staircase with observation decks, going up both sides of the dune. The project has sparked increased public usage of the dune while also preserving it, and it's prompted a number of other public recreation improvements in the area. Here's how the 2007 grant, and the 2008 restoration project that followed, have revitalized Mt. Pisgah and the natural splendor that surrounds it.
Mt. Pisgah. Photo by Doug Coombe.
Restoring Mt. Pisgah
Ottawa County Parks and Recreation took control of "Park 12," a group of 12 parcels of parkland including Mt. Pisgah, in 2005 after decades of an ownership dispute. Curt TerHaar, the coordinator of park planning and development for the county, says the county immediately identified Mt. Pisgah as "a bit of a problem."
"It was just kind of being run over," he says. "People were using it indiscriminately, and that was causing problems with the neighbors as well. People would climb up the dune and go down it a different way and go through people's yards and all kinds of things. It just was not a good situation."
The county immediately looked to MNRTF as a source for the funds it needed to remedy the solution. MNRTF uses the proceeds from Michigan oil, gas, and mineral lease and royalty payments to acquire and develop public recreational lands, and TerHaar says the county has frequently worked with the trust fund to achieve its natural resource management goals.
"We want nice natural areas," he says. "We want to conserve them and we want people to enjoy them. So the Trust Fund fits right into that."
MNRTF provided just over half of the total project cost of $408,000, with Ottawa County Parks and Recreation paying the remaining cost. The grant allowed for some natural stabilization work on the dune, including native grass plantings. But most noticeably for visitors, it resulted in the construction of 850 feet of stairs and boardwalks, as well as over 800 feet of new trails on Holland State Park property that connect existing trails to the dune. Mulligan says the project, in general, was a "catalyst" for a fruitful new collaboration between Ottawa County and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which runs the state park.
Since the project was completed in 2008, Hunsberger says visitation at the dune has increased "substantially."
"It's been unbelievable, the use that it gets," he says.
Mt. Pisgah. Photo by Doug Coombe.
"It's a great workout platform," he says. "Even in the winter we've got a lot of people who will come out here and basically use the stair climb as their workout. ... They do pushups and sit-ups and all those kinds of things in between their walk up and down the stairs. ... That's definitely something we didn't see when it was just a sand dune."
TerHaar notes that the dune has also become popular with birdwatchers and others who wouldn't have attempted the steep and sandy climb sans boardwalk.
"The new group of users who can actually get up to the top and enjoy it is just exponentially higher," he says.
Other projects catalyzed
Over the past 12 years, local stakeholders agree that the Mt. Pisgah restoration project has been successful in catalyzing additional improvements – some also funded by MNRTF – to other natural attractions in the Park 12 properties, now known as the Historic Ottawa Beach Parks. TerHaar says the county "gained a lot of credibility" with the Mt. Pisgah project.
"I think it was a good start and made other people feel like we could continue to make improvements and steward the property well," he says.
In 2012 MNRTF provided a $300,000 grant, matched by the county, for the construction of a new boardwalk along Lake Macatawa, southeast of Mt. Pisgah. That project, completed in 2014, represented the final segment of the Black Lake Boardwalk project the county initiated in 2006, shortly after it took control of Park 12. Mulligan says the completed boardwalk has drawn "a lot more" fishing activity. TerHaar compares the effort to the Mt. Pisgah project in the sense that the public had already been using it informally.
Mt. Pisgah. Photo by Doug Coombe.
"These park parcels were kind of not suitable for public use, and yet that's where people wanted to get," he says. "So the Trust Fund has helped us provide appropriate access that saves the resource, but allows people to enjoy it."
More improvements followed. In 2015, Ottawa County Parks and Recreation and the Historic Ottawa Beach Society renovated the historic pump house just off the Black Lake Boardwalk and then turned it into a museum.
The most recent development, which the county has described as the "final piece of the puzzle" for the Historic Ottawa Beach Parks, is the renovation of the recently renamed Ottawa Beach Marina. Formerly known as Parkside Marina, the county had leased the property to a private owner for over 30 years. However, the county sought to both improve the facility and to improve public access to it. In 2018, it began a project that reduced the number of overall slips at the marina, increased the number of transient slips, and integrated a waterfront park and kayak launch into the property.
The county and Park Township both contributed to the project's $2.4 million price tag, and MNRTF also awarded the county a $291,000 grant for the effort. 2020 was the new facility's first full year of operation and Mulligan says the change has driven further traffic to Holland State Park, Mt. Pisgah, and other local attractions.
"In the slips that were there before, most of those people were interested in being out on the water and going out from Holland visiting other places, whereas this is more of a draw to bring people from other places into Holland," he says.
It's taken years, millions of dollars, and collaboration among numerous local entities and individuals. But stakeholders project a sense of pride about the way the former Park 12 has transformed into a more visitor-friendly natural destination in just 15 years.
"I think Mt. Pisgah really helped push the fact that there's gems that need to be polished," Hunsburger says.
“Preserving Michigan” is an ongoing 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 policy for more information.