Tour highlights success stories along the Saginaw River for a statewide audience

Parks and recreation projects along the Saginaw River were the star of the show when the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund Board met in Bay City this week.

The Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund uses grants to protect natural resources and help create opportunities for outdoor recreation. The fund’s roots goes back to 1976 and the funds come from royalties on the sale and lease of state-mined minerals, primarily oil and gas. The Trust Fund has awarded more than $1.2 billion in grants in all 83 counties.

Bikers, in-line skaters, and walkers all use the trails that run near the Saginaw River in Bay and Saginaw counties. Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund dollars helped pay for the trails. (Photo Credit: Cathy Washabaugh)According to the 2020 Annual Report, the Trust Fund has funded 33 projects in Bay County, 53 in Saginaw County, and 13 in Midland County.

The Trust Fund Board meets every other month. The Wed., Oct. 19 meeting was held in Bay City. During the meeting, the Board heard from grant applicants around the state. On Tues., Oct. 18, the Bay Area Community Foundation, The Conservation Fund – Great Lakes, Great Lakes Bay Regional Trail, Heart of the Lakes, Land of Outsiders, Saginaw County Parks & Recreation, and Spicer Engineering invited those attending the meeting to take a bus and walking tour of projects the fund has supported along the Saginaw River in Bay and Saginaw counties.

Diane Mahoney, President & CEO of the Bay Area Community Foundation, greeted representatives who came from all over Michigan, at the Bay City State Park, where the tour began. She highlighted the connection between community amenities and economic development.

“Community development is economic development. It has never been more apparent than it is nowadays when people are choosing where to live and not where to work,” Mahoney said.

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, praised the work of the programs represented at the meeting. He said some of his defining memories are from time spent outdoors in Michigan. “I grew up in Flint, but I spent a lot of time on Lake Huron,” he said. As an adult, he continues to enjoy time spent in nature. After the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Kildee said he visited the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge in Saginaw. “I went to the Shiawassee Refuge as self-care after that event. Connections to the outside, to the land and water, cure stress.”

He pointed out Flint is about to get its first-ever state park, the Chevy Commons. For the past several years, the city has been working to transform the former auto manufacturing complex into a county park. In 2021, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced plans to transform the space into Michigan’s 104th state park.

Kildee talked about the importance of investing in older, chronically-distressed communities to enhance their capacity. He said he’s in favor of incentives to encourage these types of investments. However, he said he’s also cautious about development that sacrifices natural spaces. Instead, he said it’s important to preserve the natural beauty of the state and encourage green spaces.

Jonathan Jarosz, Executive Director of Heart of the Lakes, which is a statewide organization of the land conservations in Michigan, said the day’s theme was exploring partnerships between local organizations and the Trust Fund that have improved access along the Saginaw River.

The Rail Trail in Bay County begins near Hotchkiss Road. (Photo courtesy of Cathy Washabaugh)One of the highlighted areas was the Bay City State Park, which opened in 1923.

Dan Eichinger, Director of the state Department of Natural Resources, said he remembers driving past the Bay City State Park as a child with his father and grandfather on Sunday afternoons. Today, he enjoys that his job let him build spaces where other people can create those types of memories. “It is a tremendous honor to be part of that,” he said.

Eichinger also praised the Bay City State Park for introducing the first Electric Vehicle-charging station in a state park in 2014 and one of the first splash pads housed inside one of Michigan’s state parks.

Rich Fenner, the Bay City State Park Manager, said the nearly-100-year-old park is making more improvements. (See a March 21, 2019 Route Bay City article featuring Fenner.)

The park recently added a parking lot that makes the beach more accessible for people with mobility concerns. They’re designing a new, accessible playground and upgrading the interior and exterior of the Saginaw Bay Visitor Center. Water, sewer, and electrical upgrades are planned for the campground. He also hopes to replace several sidewalks to improvement accessible.

After the opening remarks, the group stepped onto a bus and traveled to Saginaw County, On the way, a video telling the story of the Coreyon Reef in the Saginaw Bay played. (Learn more about the reef project in a July 25, 2019 Route Bay City article.)

When the bus entered I-675, Brian Keenan-Lechel, Director of Saginaw County Parks and Recreation, took the microphone and pointed out the William H. Haithco Recreation Area. He explained that the Trust Fund helped make improvements at the park including adding a splash pad. In 2021, about 40,000 people visited Haithco. That rose to 64,000 in 2022.

The story was the same throughout Michigan. Outdoor participation skyrocketed during the 2020 pandemic. The growth continued into 2022, Jarosz said. A graphic distributed to the participants showed numbers rising from about 152 million people participating in outdoor recreation in 2019 to 161 million in 2020 and 165 million in 2021.

Volunteers planted about 1,000 trees throughout Bay and Saginaw counties this spring as part of an initiative to increase the tree canopy in the area. (Photo courtesy of Zachary Branigan)The tour also passed by the Saginaw Riverwalk, Hoyt Park, and Ojibway Island, eventually stopping at the Saginaw River Headwaters Area. The Headwaters is located on the site of the former Saginaw Malleable Iron Factory and a former landfill. The park connects two portions of the Iron Belle Trail. As the bus drove onto the property, a deer ran nearby. The participants hiked to the top of the former landfill and the guides pointed out views of the Saginaw River and the Shiawassee Refuge.

Back on the bus, Zachary Branigan, Executive Director of the Saginaw Basin Land Conservancy, took the microphone and highlighted the Janet Nash Nature Preserve. The preserve is a 3-acre piece of land bordering the Saginaw River near the intersection of Genesee and Niagara streets. It was once a parking lot known as a hotbed for trouble.

The SBLC worked with the city and county to turn it into a wildflower meadow and a rain garden. Even on a chilly, rainy October day, a few flowers still bloomed in the park. Branigan pointed out a small outdoor classroom and a rain garden. He pointed out businesses across the Saginaw River that now overlook a park instead of an asphalt lot. He said the project shows how a trouble spot in an urban area can be transformed to become an attractive park that offers ecological benefits.

Map courtesy of the Saginaw Basin Land ConservancyFrom there, the tour bus returned to Bay County, passing by the Middlegrounds Island, which is being re-vamped into Destination Middlegrounds. The island, once a landfill, is now home to the Michigan Sugar Trails and a newly-planted field of wildflowers. (Learn more about the Michigan Sugar Trails in a July 8, 2021 Route Bay City article.)

“It was already this summer chock full of wildlife, and it’s only going to get better,” Branigan said.

Like the Janet Nash Preserve in Saginaw, the Middlegrounds is an example of how a city can transform a problem into an asset.

 “The Middlegrounds was a location that didn’t have a great reputation 10 years ago,” he said.

Now, it’s home to the walking trails, wildflowers, and canoe and kayak launches. That’s in addition to the Bay City Rowing Club, Boys & Girls Clubs, Bigelow Park, and the crooked bridge that connects the East and West Side for walkers and bikers.

Before the tour wrapped up, the visitors saw Veterans Memorial Park, Liberty Harbor Marina, and Riverbend West Nature Area.

“There’s an unbelievable amount of public space,” Branigan said. “As a city of outdoors events and festivals in the summertime, this is a resource we just can’t live without.”
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Read more articles by Kathy Roberts.

Kathy Roberts, a graduate of Central Michigan University, moved to Bay City in 1987 to start a career in the newspaper industry. She was a reporter and editor at the Bay City Times for 15 years before leaving to work at the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, Covenant HealthCare, and Ohno Design. In 2019, she returned to her storytelling roots as the Managing Editor of Route Bay City. When she’s not editing or writing stories, you can find her reading books, knitting, or visiting the bars of Bay County. You can reach Kathy at