Last December, Northern Michigan conservation nonprofit Huron Pines, headquartered in Gaylord, became the new owners of a 145-acre parcel of Lake Huron property that is slated to become an Alabaster Township park in the coming years.

Huron Pines purchased the property from USG, a construction materials manufacturer, with the help of a short-term loan from The Conservation Fund. The goal is for Alabaster Township to assume ownership of the preserve in 2022 and for Huron Pines and other regional partners to support the care and stewardship of the land in perpetuity.

“The conservation of this site provides a unique opportunity to protect both shoreline and upland areas while also providing future alternatives for public use and lake access,” says Mike Kelly, director of The Conservation Fund’s Great Lakes Office. “There are very few large, intact pieces of property like this remaining along the Michigan shoreline of Lake Huron, so we are thrilled to work with organizations that recognize the significance of protecting places like this for their natural resource values and importance to the communities along the coast.”

The property, just south of Tawas City, includes nearly a mile of Lake Huron frontage. The natural shoreline, mature hardwood forest and wetland ecosystem work together as a filter to help protect the water quality of Lake Huron and support diverse plant and wildlife species. The property also promotes economic and recreational interests. The trailhead and parking area for the Alabaster Township Bike Path and Arboretum are located on the property’s south side and there is potential for future walking trails and public access to Lake Huron.

Alabaster Township Supervisor Stephanie Wentworth said the region’s outdoor recreation industry supports a multitude of jobs and contributes to state and local tax revenues.

“It’s an extremely rare event when a small community is presented with such a remarkable opportunity,” Wentworth says of the acquisition.

The urgency to secure permanent protection and ensure public access to the lake and forest increased as the demand for waterfront real estate has grown across the region. Huron Pines worked with Alabaster Township to purchase the property before it had a chance to be developed.

“If we want to ensure a future with healthy water, protected places and vibrant communities we need to work in collaboration with communities to build trust, identify shared goals and develop solutions that everyone can support and sustain,” says Huron Pines Executive Director Brad Jensen. “This opportunity, to protect precious shoreline in the heart of a residential and commercial area, is a way to engage the community and its visitors in conservation for decades to come.”

By selling the property below appraised value, USG gave Huron Pines and Alabaster Township a jump-start on raising community matching funds. The price difference counts as local-match dollars when applying for grants and supported early fundraising efforts that helped secure The Conservation Fund loan.

“As a large landowner in Iosco County, USG takes tremendous pride in its land management and stewardship efforts,” says USG Plant Manager Matt Craig. “We protect public access to parcels we don’t need for gypsum production, and whenever possible, we work with local government to release parcels we’re no longer using for the benefit of the community.”

In total, the Lake Huron Coastal Preserve is a $2.5 million project that includes funding to cover the purchase, care and future maintenance of the property. Alabaster Township has committed to apply for funding from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund to purchase the property from Huron Pines and create their first park. The Trust Fund uses royalties from oil and natural gas leases on public lands to support land protection and outdoor recreation efforts. Huron Pines will help Alabaster Township submit the Trust Fund grant proposal this April to cover the cost of the initial loan.

The next step in the Trust Fund process is to collect public comments on the proposal for acquisition, which will be facilitated through an Alabaster Township Public Hearing held online on March 8, 2021, at 5 p.m.

Even with full Trust Fund support and early investment from foundations and individual donors, Huron Pines is seeking $280,000 in additional funding to guarantee permanent protection and maintenance of the property. With full fundraising support, Huron Pines can transfer the property to Alabaster Township with a guarantee that it will be well taken care of, protected and enjoyed by the public forever.

In the meantime, Huron Pines will assess the property so that it can be open for public use this spring. Public use outside of the bike trail will be restricted to foot traffic to ensure visitor safety and protect sensitive habitat. Huron Pines plans to host a birding hike to experience the spring migration along Tawas Bay and introduce the public to this special place.