Parks for all: How Michigan communities are making their outdoor spaces safe and accessible

Wheelchair-accessible paths and boardwalks, ADA-compliant restroom facilities, and universally accessible kayak launches are just a few development projects that can bring new visitors to parks.

Wheelchair-accessible paths and boardwalks, ADA-compliant restroom facilities, and universally accessible kayak launches are just a few development projects that can bring new visitors to parks.


Since it was established in 1976, the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF) has distributed more than $1 billion to state agencies and local, county, and regional governments to purchase land for preservation and park development.


Jon Mayes, recreation grant unit manager for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, says, “A number of the projects have funded accessibility initiatives, whereby the project is designed specifically to help people of various abilities, and people with physical challenges who might not otherwise be able to, get out and enjoy the outdoors.”


“From an acquisition and development perspective, these grants are so important to municipalities,” Mindy Milos-Dale, director of Oakland Township Parks and Recreation, says. “There's just no way unless you've got an extraordinary community that communities would be able to afford a lot of these things by themselves.”


Oakland Township has used nearly $8 million in MNRTF grants to purchase land and make its parks more accessible and welcoming. Marsh View Park and Bear Creek Nature Park are two popular township parks that have benefited from the MNRTF.


Bear Creek Nature Park was the Oakland Township Parks and Recreation Commission’s first land acquisition. The 107-acre park contains woodlands, open meadows, marshlands, and wetlands. The township purchased the land for the park in 1977 with park millage funds but has used MNRTF grants to make the park more family-friendly and accessible.


Bear Creek was the first Oakland Township park to use an MNRTF grant to develop recreation facilities. The township received just over $300,000 used for Bear Creek’s trail system, including an ADA-compliant limestone trail, ADA-compliant boardwalks, a playground, and a combination restroom and storage building, a parking lot, and an entry drive.

Marsh View park observation platform. Photo by Doug Coombe.


“Up until that point, we did not have any developed recreation facilities in any of our parks,” Milos-Dale says. “That really got us started on providing accessibility for park users.”


In 2001, the township used a trust fund grant of $2 million to pay 75% of the cost of acquiring the land for Marsh View Park. In 2007, Oakland Township received an MNRTF grant of nearly $300,000 to develop pathways, an Olympic archery range, athletic fields, a basketball court, and other amenities.


Upcoming projects to develop permanent restrooms at Marsh View and Bear Creek, which have relied on portable facilities until now, will use two $50,000 MNRT grants. These ADA-compliant restrooms will make the parks more welcoming to families and people with disabilities.


The Paint Creek Trail runs through Oakland Township and is part of the Iron Belle Trail, a more than 2,000-mile trail from the far western end of the Upper Peninsula to Belle Isle in Detroit. Oakland Township is making the Paint Creek Trail more accessible through a new trailhead project. The MNRTF awarded $225,000 for this project, including a 35-space universally accessible parking lot with horse trailer parking, restrooms, drinking water, and a picnic area.


Milos-Dale says, “This is all in an area of the Paint Creek Trail that did not have any of this support system, which would make the trail even more accessible.”


Oakland Township has received positive feedback about the park improvements at Marsh View and Bear Creek.


“When we first started having public meetings to get input on the proposed improvements for Bear Creek, there were park neighbors that were not that supportive. It was a big change for them. And it was hard for them to envision it at the beginning,” Milos-Dale says. “But after [the improvements] went in, they became our biggest supporters.”

Bear Creek Nature Park. Photo by Doug Coombe.


“I don't think it's a stretch to say this is one of the most popular government programs in the state of Michigan because of all that it does for outdoor recreation,” Mayes says of the MNRTF. “We get tremendously positive feedback from citizens.”


David Rachowicz is the director of Kalamazoo County Parks, and his park system has benefited from MNRTF grants. “We're thankful, and I think Michigan is blessed that they have that program,” he says. “It's done a lot of good across the state of Michigan.”


In 2012, Kalamazoo County received a $300,000 MNRTF grant for a development project at River Oaks Park in Galesburg. The project was completed in 2014 and included a fully accessible splash pad, a new parking lot, sidewalks, a new picnic area, and improvements to the dog park.


Rachowicz says Markin Glen Park in Kalamazoo is one of the premier recreation facilities in the region, and MNRTF grants have played an important role in its development. Markin Glen will be even more accessible and family-friendly due to a recent $192,000 MNRTF grant. The grant, along with $128,000 contributed by the county, will fund new playgrounds, accessible paths, new restrooms, and parking lot upgrades.


“We're able to tap into some local foundations and some donors, and it's a win-win for the community,” Rachowicz says. “We're able to do bigger projects and have more of an impact via these private-public partnerships between the county, the trust fund, and local philanthropy.”


Adding playground equipment and a splash pad at River Oaks has enticed more families and youth to spend time at the park.


“Previously at River Oaks, we had a lot of sports. Soccer, softball, and hiking were the main uses out there,” Rachowicz says. “By opening up these other facilities, we have a ton of birthday parties, school groups, church groups, and daycares that come out there and use that facility throughout the summer.”

Paint Creek Trail Rochester. Photo by Doug Coombe


During the COVID-19 pandemic, Rachowicz and Milos-Dale have seen residents rely on their local parks more than ever.


“This pandemic has really brought out how it's important, both from a psychological as well as a physical standpoint, for people to get out to these natural areas. It's calming. It's refreshing,” Milos-Dale says. “Plus, it's a safe way to recreate during this pandemic period.”


In Kalamazoo County, sports facilities have suffered, but Markin Glen’s campground has had one of its most successful seasons.


“People are looking for stuff to do close to home,” Rachowicz says. “Maybe they used to go camping somewhere farther away. And they're saying, ‘Hey, let's just go to a county park for three, four, or five days.’”


“We're just so fortunate to have the help of the trust fund money,” Milos-Dale says. “You know, it's one of the things I'm proudest of in our state.”

“Preserving Michigan” is an ongoing series exploring the history and impact of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund on Michigan's people and communities. The series is underwritten by the Michigan Environmental Council. Issue Media Group maintains editorial independence for all of our underwritten content. Please review our editorial underwriting policy for more information.