Macomb Parks & Trails: Here's why Macomb County is entering a new era in outdoor recreation

Greg Ezzo, who works as a civil engineer for a small engineering firm in Clinton Township, really enjoys getting on his bike and hitting the local trails when he's not at work. Originally from Armada, he's got experience biking all over the county. These days, though, he does most of his pedaling in the vicinity of Clinton Township where he lives.

"Now I'm mostly cycling through this area on the trails here, like the Dodge Park area, the Clinton River trails," he says. "This area, in particular, is a really good area," he says. "They have wide trails, paved trails that are about 10-feet wide. It's very safe for biking, walking and going about." 

Sometimes on his trips along the river, he sees people paddling around the water on kayaks. It's an activity that's piqued his interest, and he's eager to try it out once the weather gets a little warmer. For residents like Ezzo, who enjoy spending time outdoors, things are really looking up these days.

Kayaking in Macomb CountyOver the past few years, Macomb County has stepped up its efforts to upgrade the infrastructure of the parks, trails and waterways it oversees. One of the cooler new projects it's working on is the North Branch Greenway, a proposed greenway that would follow the North Branch of the Clinton River in southern Clinton Township through Macomb, Ray and Armada Townships and the East Branch of Coon Creek in Lenox Township. Macomb has also been focused on improving access to the Clinton River and Lake St. Clair by working to increase the number of boat and kayak launches, piers, and beaches next to those waterways. Along the Clinton River, for example, there are now 10 canoe and kayak launches connecting six communities along its shores. 

Ezzo, for his part, is really happy to see the county moving in this direction.

"I think it's tremendously important," he says "From my work experience, it's definitely a benefit to make sure you're developing key locations where you have trails and where you have infrastructure for kayaking and boating. It's really important to have those things in place to give people a reason to go there."

Taking Macomb Outdoors

Gerard Santoro, Program Director for Macomb County's Parks and Natural Resources, says his bureau has always been focused on helping people enjoy the region's outdoor attractions. But he agrees there's been an increased focus on it over the last few years. 

"We're seeing a great uptick in our influence in being able to help promote recreation within our community," he says. "It's Gerard Santoroalways been part of our strategy, but I think we've seen where the county board of commissioners and our county executive have both realized that Macomb County really could expand its capabilities to provide greater resources for citizens and visitors."

According to Santoro, this renewed interest in Macomb's outdoor resources first got rolling in the mid-2000s, but really started taking off after County Executive Mark Hackel — who had touted the economic benefits of improving Macomb's waterways during his campaign — took office in 2011. 

Unlike other Southeast Michigan counties, Macomb has neither a dedicated Parks and Recreation Department, nor a countywide parks millage. What's more, it has the lowest per capita operating expenses in the entire region for parks-related projects, spending nearly eight dollars less per resident than St. Clair, the next lowest county. Research also shows that Macomb lags behind on state and federal funding for these types of projects. When it comes to funding for Michigan's Natural Resources Trust Fund, Macomb only managed to pull in $9 per person for projects implemented between 1978 and 2011, compared to $41 for the entire region.

In short, Macomb had been losing out for some time, due to the way it managed its parks and outdoor-related infrastructure. Reacting to this situation in 2012, County Executive Hackel called for the Department of Planning and Economic Development, which oversaw those efforts, and Santoro's agency, which was specifically tasked with handling them, to begin rethinking how they handled that work. 

The shift has been so dramatic that his agency even changed its name from Land and Water Resources to Parks and Natural Resources. And following the recommendations of a 2018 strategic plan, Planning and Development has begun to focus more on acquiring land and developing outdoor infrastructure in the service of both recreation and conservation. It's also been working more closely with other departments in the county to achieve those goals.

Vicky Rowinski, Macomb's Director of Planning and Economic Development, says a good deal of the impetus for the county's new focus on the outdoors has come from residents themselves.  

"We're hearing more and more from the residents, they want walkability. They're saying, 'We need Complete Streets,'" she says. "I think that's where we're seeing where the county has shifted, because there are grant dollars out there."

In addition to helping develop infrastructure for activities like biking and walking, Rowinski also feels it's important to preserve the natural assets the county has right now as quality of life elements for future generations.

"Part of planning and economic development is finding that balance between development and also conservation," she says. "We want to make sure that we are welcoming and ultimately providing those natural features to people who enjoy living, working, and playing in Macomb county."

Sitting On A Goldmine

Speaking of the county's natural assets, there's certainly no shortage of outdoor attractions to check out in Macomb. 

To start with, it's hard to ignore the many waterways the county has to offer. Perhaps the most stunning of these is Lake St. Clair. Geographically, the county is nestled along the northwest coast of the majestic freshwater lake, which is an essential part of the Great Lakes system, connecting Lake Huron to Lake Erie via the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers. It's also home to many smaller lakes like Stony Creek. Taken as a whole, Macomb features 32 miles of lakefront shoreline, as well as numerous rivers and streams including the Clinton River, Belle River, and Coon Creek. 

Lake St. Clair MetroparkAll that water has proved to be a popular source of recreation for residents and visitors alike. With over 60 active marinas and more than 16,000 boat slips in its borders, Macomb is certainly no stranger to boat lovers. And it's not just folks who own big boats who are spending time there. Canoeists and kayakers have 32 miles of paddling trails they can explore along the Clinton River, not to mention hundreds of miles of other options along the county's other tributaries and watercourses. And for those who don't have their own means of getting around on the water, the county has several rental services available, including Clinton River Canoe and Kayak in Sterling Heights and Simple Adventures Watersports, which has numerous locations around Macomb.

Offering an ample variety of fish — including, perch, walleye, bass, muskie, sturgeon and salmon — local waters are a real draw to fishing enthusiasts too. Although Lake St. Clair and its tributaries make up less than a percent of the waters in the Great Lakes, it accounts for 34 percent of the system's fishing effort each year. What's more, the lake has been home to some of the top-ranked events in fishing for eight of the last nine years, and St. Clair Shores is scheduled to host the Major League Fishing Final next year.

Moving landward, Macomb has a robust system of parks, trails, and other attractions as well. Right now there are 215 public parks in the county, many of them municipal parks supported by the county. Among the more notable of these is Freedom Hill, a 100-acre county-owned park that features an outdoor amphitheater, festival space,  outdoor covered pavilions, playground equipment and a nature trail that connects to a nearby beach.

There are also three Huron-Clinton Metroparks in the county: Lake St. Clair Metropark, a 770-acre area in Harrison Township on the coast of Lake St. Clair; Stony Creek Metropark, a 4,461-acre park by Shelby Township that spans both Macomb and Oakland Counties; and Wolcott Mill Park in Ray Township that features a farm and an historic grain and feed mill. All three parks are run by the Huron-Clinton Metroparks Authority (HCMA), a multi-county park system based in Southeast Michigan. 

In addition to parks, Macomb also features 155 miles of constructed bike trails. One of the most prominent of these is Macomb Orchard Trail, a 24-mile linear park with a hiking and biking trail that stretches between Shelby Township and the City of Richmond. Trail-goers can also check out Freedom Trail, Clinton River Park Trail, Stony Creek Metropark Trail and a portion of Michigan's Iron Belle Trail that runs through Warren, Center Line and Sterling Heights. 

Macomb is also home to a number of agricultural institutions that are an important part of the county's culture. These include Youngblood Vineyard in Ray Township, one of the state's largest wineries; Blake's Orchard in Armada (and several other locations);and Miller's Big Red Apple Orchard and Westview Orchard, both located in Washington.

With all these natural assets and the current popular interest in outside activities, Santoro is excited about raising Macomb's outdoor profile in a way that hasn't been done before.

"We've always been a go-to place for recreational boating and fishing. Hiking has taken a huge uptick, as has our trails up and around Macomb County," he says. "We are sitting on this gold mine that probably three-fourths of the Detroit area has no clue about."

A Blue and Green Future 

While Macomb county has been ramping up its focus on parks and the outdoors for some time now, it's really been making a lot of progress over the last year since the release of its newest master plan in January 2020. The master plan marks a new era for the county parks and waterways, prioritizing land acquisition, conservation, as well as the development of existing natural resources. 

Right now, Macomb's Parks and Natural Resources is pursuing two major endeavors. the Blue Economy Initiative, which Potential Route for North Branch Greenwayfocuses on the region's waterways, and Green Macomb, which supports green infrastructure. Both are interdepartmental initiatives that have been in place for a few years now. But for Santoro's agency, they certainly take on a special significance, considering the new stepped up role it's been playing.

Blue economy is a commonly used planning term that refers to money generated by an area's water resources. In Macomb, though it refers to a specific multi-faceted strategy that seeks to increase accessibility to Lake St. Clair and related waterways; enhance water quality; expand water-related entertainment and recreation opportunities; gain greater access to funding; and improve education, advocacy, and awareness about the county's waterways.

There are a number of different endeavors that fall under the Blue Economy umbrella. Some involve efforts to improve waterfronts in communities like St. Clair Shores and Harrison Township, others are more focused on preservation or restoration. For example, The county has received $890,000 Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) funding to restore shoreline habitat and near-shore habitat at Brandenburg Park on Lake St. Clair in Chesterfield Township. It's also been approved for a little over $264,000 in GLRI funding to conduct a feasibility study for the restoration of degraded coast wetland and shoreline habitat in a heavily developed part of Lake St. Clair, known as Ford's Cove.

Working with Chesterfield Township, the county also helped the nonprofit Six Rivers Land Conservancy acquire 33-acres of marshland along the Salt River to help preserve the area's ecological integrity. Not far from there, it has also collaborated with the township to transform  an abandoned marina into a new paddle park, which opened in September. The land for that project was acquired with philanthropic money from the Webber Foundation and the remodeling work was done using grant money, including $265,000 from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund.

In collaboration with HCMA, the county has also been working on a beach restoration project at Lake St. Clair Metropark. Funded by a grant from the Clean Michigan Initiative Nonpoint Source Pollution Program, that effort includes a surface water sediment and groundwater monitoring program as well as native plantings and audio deterrents to keep geese out of the area. HCMA Director Amy McMillian says her organization has been working side-by-side with Macomb County to provide a great experience for park-goers there.

"We work closely together to serve the region better than either of us can do individually," she says. "Both teams bring a strong commitment to the region and we are continually working on an ever-growing list of projects that improve our region of southeast Michigan and the experience that residents and visitors get to have with parks and the outdoors."

As for Green Macomb, it's focused on managing and preserving Macomb's natural resources on the land. More specifically, the initiative is concerned with encouraging urban forestry, managing floodplains through greenway conservation and agricultural development, and conserving open space.

In terms of urban forestry, when the county found out an area south of the main branch of the Clinton River fell short of USDA forestry recommendation levels, it brought together the 12 communities in that area together to form the Green Macomb Urban Forest Partnership. Macomb has also been involved with three large scale forestry restoration projects and sponsors  an annual Arbor Day tree sale that's sold over 80,000 trees since starting up in 2017.

For cyclists and hikers, new greenways are probably the most exciting part of the Green Macomb effort. Still in development, planning for the North Branch Greenway is being funded by a grant from SEMCOG. Plans call for the greenway to follow the North Branch of the Clinton River from Clinton Township to Coon Creek in Lenox Township. If realized, the project would reduce flooding and protect wetlands adjacent to the river, as well as provide a recreational corridor for bicyclists and pedestrians that would link up with Freedom Trail to the south and Macomb Orchard Trail to the north. Similar greenway plans are underway for the Sterling Relief and Red Run Drains in Sterling Heights.

Under Green Macomb, the county is also interested in acquiring and preserving undeveloped land within its borders. A prime example of this is Anchor Bay Woods in New Baltimore, a forested wetlands that's one of the largest areas of wet-mesic flatwoods — a rare type of woodland — in the state. The total area of Anchor Bay Woods is about 320 acres. So far working with the City of New Baltimore, the county has been able to acquire about half that acreage, which it's turned into a preserve with the help of the Six Rivers Land Conservancy.

The county is also interested in acquiring more land for preservation and recreation in the future. It's particularly intrigued by the possibility of creating a space for camping, as Macomb is currently the only county in the SEMCOG region not to have its own campground.

All this new activity is keeping the folks at Macomb Parks and Natural Resources very busy these days. But Santoro is so happy with the direction the county's headed right now that he doesn't seem to mind.

"We're making inroads into areas that the county has never had done before," he says. "And as a result of that we're getting a lot of work done and having a lot of success!"

To access maps and other information about parks and outdoor activities in Macomb County, visit Make Macomb Your Home.

The Macomb Parks & Trails series seeks to capture the story of the outdoor recreation, greenspace, placemaking and emerging outdoor assets that are shaping Macomb County's future. It's made possible with funding from Macomb County.
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Read more articles by David Sands.