Trail Tales: Protecting Kalamazoo's Asylum Lake, an urban oasis

Asylum Nature Preserve is an oasis of wildlife in a desert of industrial parks, blacktops, and shops. Nestled just off the US 131 and Stadium Drive exit in Kalamazoo, Asylum Nature Preserve is one of the city’s last great natural areas. 

Inhabiting 274 acres, Asylum, as it is colloquially known, is uniquely diverse in its habitats. It’s owned by Western Michigan University (WMU), managed by the Asylum Lake Policy and Management Council (ALPMC), and protected by the Asylum Lake Preservation Association (ALPA). With the cooperation of these three bodies, land that has endured years of human disturbance is being restored to its natural state. 
According to WMU, Asylum sustains an array of habitats including, “oak savanna, prairie, forest, wet meadow, emergent marsh, shrub carr, and two lakes.” Numerous trails twist and turn through the landscape, providing one with a multiplicity of scenes. In one visit, you could come across beavers gnawing down trees, gray herons fishing in the shallows, woodpeckers drilling for their next meal or even a herd of deer rifling through the leaf-covered ground. Plants such as goldenrod and milkweed, along with other native grasses, are found just steps from commanding oaks and thick bunches of reeds. Being only minutes from Kalamazoo’s center, accessibility to such a wondrous environment is unparalleled. 
While this property has now returned to some semblance of its natural state, the site at which it sits has occupied a vast array of peoples. According to the ALPA-published magazine, the preserve has had human activity “for at least 11,000 years,” and “by 100 BCE, members of the Hopewell culture,” could have lived in the area. By 1500 CE, southwest Michigan contained several Anishinaabe tribes. 
A section of open prairie nudges the forest.With the arrival of colonial settlers and their subsequent expansion west, the indigenous peoples of the area left their ancestral homes, either by coercion, forcible removal, or due to the cessation of land as a result of a treaty (often strongly favoring the settlers at the expense of the native peoples). 
According to WMU, by 1831, the area in which the preserve sits was first purchased by a man named Phineus Hunt and was then sold to Neil Hindes in 1835 who cleared the land for orchards and buildings. As a result of his death in 1874, the property was transferred to his eight children who then eventually sold it in the summer of 1887 to the Michigan Asylum for the Insane. 
The Michigan Asylum for the Insane (also known as the Kalamazoo State Hospital) acquired the tract “as part of a ‘Colony Farm’ and recreation experiment,” to provide treatment to the patients. It is at this point that the lake on the property, which had been named McMartin Lake for another nearby settler, gained its current title, Asylum. According to the ALPA’s magazine, the new farm was not only used to sustain the hospital but also provided “therapeutic value for the patients who are given meaningful work and fresh air,” supplying a form of pre-psychotropic medication.
Large “cottages,” along with other infrastructure, were constructed on the property to provide housing for patients, doctors, and administrators. While beautifully ornate in appearance, the cottages were often overcrowded, according to the APLA’s magazine, leading to “influenza epidemics, tensions in relationships, and other difficulties,” as a result.
In 1910, a series of tunnels were constructed between the cottages and the then-newly built dining hall. An article published at the time by the Kalamazoo Gazette notes that the new tunnels were constructed so that “during the stormy days of winter or of inclement weather in the summer” the patients would not have to endure the wrath of nature. After the new dining hall and sleeping quarters were completed, there was a dance for the employees, and “special cars took the crowd from the main building to the end of the street car tracks.” 
Evidence of beavers is widespread along the edges of Asylum Lake.With the growth of psychiatric medication during the early, and especially middle, part of the 20th century, the use of farm labor for medical purposes diminished. In 1955, the head of the hospital, Dr. Clarence Schreier, commented that “the majority of our patients now are city-bred… and look with great distaste on this form of activity” and that because “now tractors and machines do the work” the cost to farm had risen substantially. ALPA’s magazine notes that by 1957 the state legislature ended such farming operations at state hospitals, concluding the longstanding practice. 
According to WMU, by 1969, the facility was all but abandoned, with the demolition of cottages in 1971 and the sealing of the tunnel entrances in 1977 ending the land's occupation. ALPA’s magazine adds that the underground tunnels were used for SWAT training but were eventually “blown up and filled in.” In 1975 the property was transferred to WMU under Public Act No. 316, which restricted the use of the property for public recreation or as an open space. 
It was during this period, the latter half of the 20th century, that most of the land was left to fallow with just a small section leased to local farmers. Now reverting to its original state, thoughts on what to do with the property ranged from a housing development to an armory to a golf course, according to ALPA’s magazine. Debate within the community raged on if and how to develop the property. The ALPA was formed in 1990 to prevent the proposed construction of an industrial park, which would have gone against the original intent of the space when it was surrendered to WMU.
A deer slips out to follow the trail.By 1998, “an endowment for the preservation and conservation of Asylum Lake Preserve” was established jointly by the city of Kalamazoo and WMU and a fund was set up to ensure its protection. According to WMU, in the early 2000s, opposition to WMU’s plans for expansion in the area led to an agreement in which land south of Parkview Avenue was slated to be a research and development park, while the land to the north would be safeguarded. A Declaration of Conservation Restrictions was adopted to set straight that the properties function “as promoting ecosystem integrity and natural aesthetics; ensuring passive recreation; and supporting research and education,” and to establish the Asylum Lake Policy and Management Council, including University members, those in the community, and the ALPA. 
ALPA has fervently protected Asylum Lake during its 30-year existence. In 1999, they protested the suggested zoning change that would have allowed manufacturing businesses to operate just south of Parkview Avenue, in what was then known as Lee Baker Farm. While the land was eventually developed, becoming WMU’s Parkview Campus, it did not succumb to the heavy industry that was feared. 

Asylum Lake may face some challenges, however, remedies have been and continue to be implemented to safeguard the property. A new stormwater treatment facility is currently being installed that uses two systems to improve the water quality of the lake. According to WMU, the first is a technological device “that uses technology and natural processes to prevent phosphorus, sediment, and other pollutants from being released into the lake from untreated urban stormwater,” while the second is a new method “designed to safeguard the lake from contamination caused by road salt runoff.” 
However, fighting zoning regulations has once again come to the forefront for ALPA. This past spring, the proposed construction of a car wash at a site just north of the preserve near the corner of Stadium Drive and Drake Road caused ALPA, and the community as a whole, to jump into action to once again protect Asylum Lake. 
Sitting down with ALPA member Lauri Holmes, the significant role of the organization in protecting Asylum Lake becomes all the more clear. 
A honeybee collects nectar from goldenrod flowers.Holmes clarifies that the property is a preserve, not a park, and that the main focus is on preservation, not recreation so that “much of the original vegetation and animals” are protected. When it comes to the current zoning issue, Holmes says she recalls that there had been plans to “write out” the requirement that car washes receive a special permit. The main concern with putting a carwash so close to the preserve is fear that run-off from the business would pollute Asylum Lake. In early spring, there was a proposal that the property north of the preserve would be rezoned commercial which would “open the gate to having a carwash there,” says Holmes, but the outrage was so large that the provision was removed. 
“It's been community input that’s kept this carwash from happening,” says Holmes. Whereas other natural spaces in Kalamazoo are surrounded by neighborhoods that look out for them, Asylum Lake Preserve is bordered by two busy, commercial roads. It’s the community at large that supports the preserve and those throughout the county to help protect the space. While WMU owns Asylum Lake, they did not vocally oppose the construction of the car wash as many residents hoped, leaving the community to do the fighting. 
At the city planning commission on September 7th, members voted to require car washes to have a special use permit after the community’s input. When asked about the current zoning of the lots north of the preserve, Kalamazoo City Planner Christina Anderson affirmed that it is now zoned residential. 

However, according to an MLive article, the current zoning will once again be challenged in December. The owner of the property and the Drive & Shine car wash company has again requested the zoning be changed to commercial, which if approved would pave the way for construction. The public planning commission meeting to hear the proposal will take place at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 7 at City Hall. 

During the Pandemic, Asylum became very popular as people sought natural places to visit to escape the confines of their homes. That popularity has continued.

When speaking about the conundrum with the carwash, Holmes notes, “It’s a confluence of all the issues that environmentalists are trying to work with — developers, government, and the community.” 

However, there is somewhat of a silver lining. Holmes says “that public awareness is increasing very fast,” and that many used to think that those who are environmentally conscious were “just a bunch of tree-huggers.” 

That perception, in the wake of climate issues and other factors, has changed dramatically as more and more people seek to protect wild spaces, especially ones so close to home.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Sam Kapp.

Sam Kapp is an independent historian with a passion for the environment. Sam graduated from Northern Michigan University in 2021. He has also served on the Board of Directors of the Upper Peninsula Land Conservancy since 2018. New to Southwest Michigan, Sam is eager to immerse himself in his new community and its natural wonders.