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The story behind Michigan's newest state park

We officially have 103 state parks in Michigan now.

The new park is called Watkins Lake State Park and County Preserve. It’s 1,122 acres in Jackson and Washtenaw counties.  

The state just closed on its part of the land last week (717 acres). The Michigan Department of Natural Resources used $2.9 million from the Natural Resources Trust Fund to buy the property. Washtenaw County bought the rest of the land, and the park will be managed by both the DNR and the county.

Ron Olson is chief of parks and recreation for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. He says it’s a unique property for southern Michigan.

“To have woods, and waters and open prairie lands and things like that are fairly unique, that are contiguous with each other, because most lakes, for example, are surrounded by privately owned dwellings,” says Olson.

I got a chance to take a hike on the county side this winter.

Coy Vaughn led the way down the path. He’s deputy director of Washtenaw County Parks.

“What we’re walking on now is an abandoned rail line,” he explains. “As you can see, it’d be pretty easy to convert this to a multi-use trail system.”

This old rail line runs four and a half miles across the property. He says the park will be designed for a lot of different activities. Things like hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, and hunting. But he says most of the county side will be managed as a nature preserve.

“There’s endangered Indiana brown bat, the Massasauga Michigan rattlesnake, and a number of migratory birds. Watkins Lake is a prime birding area,” he says.

A plan years in the making

This land purchase has been in the works on and off for decades. The Legacy Land Conservancy got the ball rolling years ago.

Susan Lackey is the group’s executive director. She says she knew about the property, and one day she drove by and saw a "for sale" sign.

“And I said, oh, we have to do something about this!" she says. "And we contacted the realtor, and then starting contacting our partners and going, is this as important to you as it is to us? And everybody said yes.”

Lackey says it’s unusual to be able to buy parcels this big in southern Michigan these days.

"The price of land in so much of southern Michigan has run up to the point where it's extremely difficult for the state or county or us or any other conservation entity to be able to afford to compete."

“The price of land in so much of southern Michigan has run up to the point where it's extremely difficult for the state or county or us or any other conservation entity to be able to afford to compete," she says. "So when you have an opportunity like this where the price is right, the family’s willing and you have a big chunk of land it’s unspeakably important.”

She says not only is this area beautiful, with rolling hills, a lake, lots of wildlife; there’s history here too. She shows me one spot along the old rail corridor.

“This was one of the few places where the Underground Railroad was an over ground railroad, where escaped slaves would actually get on a train here, and then take the train to Detroit and then connect with Canada where they were able to be freed,” she says.

This park is in its very early stages, so there aren’t trails or parking lots yet.

You can get involved with shaping the park’s future.

The DNR will launch a planning process soon with public meetings. That’s likely to take close to a year, and then it might be a few more years before everything takes shape. If you want to help form a friends group for the park, the DNR says you can call James O’Brien, park supervisor, at 517-467-7401.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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