Birders in Paradise
Western Washtenaw gets a new state park.
by Nathaniel Siddall
Published in October, 2016
Local nature lovers are rejoicing over the new 1,122-acre state park. The Watkins Lake State Park & County Preserve is about thirteen miles south of Chelsea and five miles west of Manchester, straddling Washtenaw and Jackson counties. It offers scenic views and rich habitat, deciduous forests, wetlands, high ridges, an old rail bed, and views of 144-acre Watkins Lake. It's already open to the public, even as plans take shape for trails, signage, and recreation activities.
Created jointly by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission, the park was carved out of land holdings assembled by the late Glynn Trolz. In December 2015 the county paid $1.7 million for 405 acres, and in June the DNR closed on the purchase of the 717 acres in Jackson County for $2.9 million.
Legacy Land Conservancy assembled a coalition of interested groups and assisted with fundraising and negotiations for many years before the deal was finally made. The Trolz family retains substantial property adjacent to the park, including an historic farmhouse.
The park will be managed jointly by the state and county. "We can do more working together than either one of us could do alone," says Jim O'Brien, the park manager for the DNR. His partner from the county is Coy Vaughn, deputy director of WCPARC.
Bird watching is certain to be a major activity at the park, as the area has long been a favorite destination for birders. Gary Siegrist, a former president of the Michigan Audubon Society, calls it the "best spot in south central Michigan to see waterfowl."
The Trolz family maintained Watkins Lake as a waterfowl refuge. With favorable topography, surrounding agricultural land, and no hunting, the lake has become a regular stop for migrating ducks, Siegrist says, including a number of rare species. It is also visited by golden eagles, rarely seen in Michigan. Open upland areas are home to uncommon grassland birds, like bobolinks, dickcissels, and grasshopper sparrows, O'Brien says.
Some of these areas may be maintained as native prairie habitat.
The DNR starts work this fall on a management plan. It will include research by naturalists and public comment sessions, and will take about a year to complete. Along with birding, possible activities include fishing, horseback riding, backcountry camping, and even deer hunting in some areas.
But for now, hunting is not allowed anywhere in the park.
A parking lot is open at Arnold Rd. just north of the lake. From there visitors can take an easy four- to five-mile walk on a mowed path along the old rail bed, or can push through shrubs and brambles and scramble up hills to explore less accessible areas.
Prior to a ribbon-cutting on October 26, O'Brien hopes to organize a "meet and greet" session for volunteers. It could lead to formation of a "friends of the park" group to assist the DNR and WCPARC.
Rich in history, the area was settled in 1834 by Royal Watkins and his wife, Sally Carpenter Watkins. Their great-great-great granddaughter, Laura Watkins-Koelewijn, who still lives nearby, says that when a railroad came through, the family negotiated to have their own station, perhaps the only privately owned railway station in the country. The Watkins family is said to have been associated with the Underground Railroad, and family archives record that at least one escaped slave was sheltered in the Watkins home.
The Watkins house still stands, an elegant brick structure overlooking the south end of the lake, but it is not part of the new park. A flagpole at the parking area marks the spot of the railway station.
Bob Pierce at the Chelsea Area Chamber of Commerce sees the new park as an opportunity to bring more recreational tourism into the area. In Manchester, community leader Ray Berg has been developing a shared-use trail on the same rail bed that runs through the park. His dream is to complete a connection so that park visitors can bike, ski, or walk from the park to downtown Manchester.
To volunteer, provide input, or learn more about the park, contact Jim O'Brien at email@example.com or (517) 467-7401.
[Originally published in October, 2016.]
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