Flowing for over 90 miles, the Chippewa River touches a wide variety of communities, and there are many people and organizations interested and invested in its future – from students at Central Michigan University to residents who live along the river, from the City of Mt. Pleasant Parks to Midland County Parks and Recreation, from downtown businesses to outfitters.
“I think one of the defining characteristics of our Great Lakes Bay Region are the rivers,” says Dennis Pilaske, Executive Director of the Chippewa Nature Center. “They uniquely tie all of our communities together. There's lines on the map that define different municipalities in different townships and counties, but the rivers go through those municipalities and those different boundaries; and, it's a way for us to all get closer together as a region - by using and enhancing those resources.”
A wide variety of stakeholders have come together to collaborate on a strategic plan to develop the Chippewa River Water Trail. Photo Courtesy of City of Mt. Pleasant Parks and Recreation.
As a demonstration of one way rivers connect communities, a wide variety of stakeholders have come together to collaborate on a strategic plan to develop the Chippewa River Water Trail – a project that many hope will promote regional and statewide awareness of the opportunities the river has to offer, as well as inspire enhanced sustainability efforts along the river corridor.
Why is a strategic plan for the Chippewa River Water Trail being created?
Creating a strategic plan for the Chippewa River Water Trail is a large undertaking that will involve establishing a coordinated identity around the river, uniform signage, clear access points, a plan that establishes what entities are responsible for implementing certain aspects of the plan, and more.
Zach Vega, Community Planner with the Land Information Asset Association. Courtesy Photo.Zach Vega, Community Planner with the Land Information Asset Association is a consultant working with steering committee on this project.
“The real goal with each of these projects is to help the community become more coordinated in its planning for the river,” he says. “A lot of people, when I present on water trails, will say, ‘Isn't the presence of a river a water trail, by definition?’ And I'm like, ‘No, technically the way that we define water trails is that they are recreational routes on waterways. They have a network of public access points. They're supported by broad-based community partnerships, and they have opportunities for conservation and recreation.’”
With the popularity of paddle sports increasing over recent years, water trails are becoming more important across the state. Vega says there are over 40 existing water trails in Michigan already, including 2,800 miles of coastal water trails and about 1,400 miles of inland water trails.
Kayakers enjoy the Chippewa River. Photo Courtesy of City of Mt. Pleasant Parks and Recreation.
“This is just another opportunity for this community to do something that a lot of communities are already taking advantage of and I think they've done a good job of recognizing that need and working quickly to get a steering committee together to get this done,” he says.
What’s involved in this process, and who is involved?
The project really kicked off in May, when the project received a 2% grant from the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan; however, it has been discussed over a year and a half, says Ryan Longoria, Director of Recreation and Sports for the City of Mt. Pleasant Parks and Recreation.
Ryan Longoria, Director of Recreation and Sports for the City of Mt. Pleasant Parks and Recreation. Courtesy Photo.“The impetus behind the whole thing was really a DNR/Pure Michigan Water Trail designation that we were going to go for,” he says. “That is a designation that as we continue to move forward with potential funding, capital improvements, and those types of things, having that water trail designation can go a long way.”
Funding a project focused on the environmental stewardship is something the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan is passionate about, says Carey Pauquette, Environmental Manager for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan
“The tribe is extremely supportive of environmental programs and projects and definitely has influenced environmental sustainability in this area,” Pauquette says. “This is just one of many projects that the tribe has supported over the years that's related to environmental sustainability, and stewardship, and especially water quality - water quality is extremely important.”
Vega says the steering committee is currently in the inventory and assessment stage of looking at what’s on the river, where access points could be, and gathering community input. They are going over a wide variety of questions that include: Do we need picnic tables here? Is gravel parking okay for this type of launch, or is pavement needed? Is an ADA compliant launch needed here? Who will be responsible for implementing or maintaining this? What signage should go where? Should this have a natural look with nothing built except some seating, or do we want a restroom here?
The Chippewa River offers a variety of recreational opportunities – from kayaking to canoeing to fishing. Photo Courtesy of the Chippewa Nature Center.
In order to address all of those questions and many, many others it has been critical to get input from as many stakeholders along the Chippewa River as possible – something that will be critical once efforts begin to implement the strategic plan as well. A full list of steering committee members is available online.
Carey Pauquette, Environmental Manager for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan. Courtesy Photo.“To be able to plan and manage a body of water, you have to have multiple perspectives. You have to have a multiple-agency approach to taking responsibility for and implementing a plan,” says Pauquette. “So it's essential to have that collaborative group all working toward the best interest of the system because water does not follow jurisdictional boundaries; and so, one entity can't do it by themselves.”
Vega says the steering committee is also looking for public input right now, which they are collecting online through the project’s website. In the coming weeks, the steering committee will start drafting goals for the water trail, he adds, and the public is also encouraged to reach out if they would like to be involved in that process.
“The end-deliverable will be a strategic plan that the community can use to guide its implementation, and say who's responsible for what,” Vega says.
How will the community benefit from this?
There are three key points the steering committee is carefully considering as it works to successfully create the strategic plan developing the Chippewa River Water Trail: conservation, economic sustainability, and social sustainability, says Vega; and, various stakeholders will benefit from each of those differently.
The Chippewa River flows for over 90 miles. Photo Courtesy of the Chippewa Nature Center.
At the Chippewa Nature Center, Pilaske says they use various opportunities to connect people to the outdoors – from educational opportunities to cultural opportunities to recreational opportunities.
Dennis Pilaske, Executive Director of the Chippewa Nature Center. Courtesy Photo.“A defined, more enhanced, Chippewa River Water Trail helps from a recreational standpoint in that it provides access to the resource for people to enjoy at different seasons, and to experience the river and to experience the wildlife that are along the river,” he says. “Hopefully, what that does over time is it builds people's connection to the natural world so they seek out other educational opportunities and, in the end, hopefully we all work then collectively to take care of that resource.”
Downtown businesses and outfitters might benefit from an increased number of people paddleboarding, kayaking, canoeing, and tubing along the river. After all, people need to eat and might enjoy taking time to do some shopping before heading home.
“The idea is to bring folks to the areas along the river and generate some eco tourism and revenue and get folks in these communities and patronizing local businesses,” says Longoria.
The Chippewa River displays its winter beauty. Photo Courtesy of City of Mt. Pleasant Parks and Recreation.
As far as the social aspect goes, Vega says the steering committee is working diligently to ensure the river trail will be for everyone and that all stakeholders are considered – from people who want to take a group kayaking down to river to those who want a quiet trail experience.
Pilakse adds that, at the end of the day, the success of this project will have many faces.
“I think it comes in sustained use along the length of the river by paddlers, kayakers and stand up paddleboard folks. I think success also means there's opportunities for stewardship to build, maintain, and take care of the river. I think of that success also is community support and buy-in and business support and buy-in, but also the opportunity for businesses and communities to see it as a real asset and that perhaps there's an increase in patrons or additional business growth opportunities,” he says. “I think there's a lot of ways to define success, which is exciting that it's not just a single user group that benefits but it's hopefully something that you can get behind supporting.”