In June 2001, with the help of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, the Berrien County Parks and Recreation Commission acquired 86 acres in New Buffalo Township along the Galien River to establish Galien River County Park. The property is a mix of upland forest and wetlands, which includes approximately 69 acres of a Great Lakes marsh habitat. This marshland is particularly significant in that it is part of the larger “New Buffalo Marsh” that is formed along the Galien River just upstream from the river’s mouth at Lake Michigan. With the acquisition and development of this property, Galien River County Park will provide the only public access to this unique ecosystem.
There has been overwhelming support for this project during both the acquisition phase and Phase 1 improvements. Residents, schools, and business owners, along with residents from outside the greater New Buffalo area, have been very encouraging. Several individuals, business organizations, and local governments, including Chikaming Township, Three Oaks Township, The Disability Network, Harbor Country Convention and Visitors Bureau, all sent letters of support encouraging Berrien County to acquire and develop the park for public use.
In January 2008, the Pokagon Fund, a local revenue-sharing entity, approved a $15,000 grant to Berrien County Parks for the preparation of a master plan for the park, which was the first step toward improving the property for public utilization.
In mid-2008, a steering committee consisting of local governmental officials, business representatives, educational members, and members of local planning committees was formed to develop the master plan.
Grants were secured from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust fund and the Pokagon Fund to supply $800,000 of the $1.1-million project. Berrien County provided the balance of the project costs.
Construction was planned to begin in 2012; however, it was delayed when the Army Corps of Engineers requested the completion of an exploratory archeological dig before issuing a permit to initiate excavation. Once it was confirmed that no ancient Native American artifacts or remains would be disturbed by the construction, the permit was issued, but it was too late to begin work in 2012.
So, in 2013, with all required permits in hand, construction began. The project was designed with assistance from the M.C. Smith and Associates architectural firm, along with the guidance of park staff and the steering committee.
Special features for the project include upland trails, a 600-foot marsh boardwalk, a river-viewing and fishing platform, and a spectacular 300-foot-long elevated walkway that begins on a ridge at ground level and terminates at a 60-foot-high marsh-overlook tower, providing dramatic views of the forest canopy, the Great Lakes marsh, and the river.
And the improvements had minimal impact on the park’s natural environment. Upland trails are constructed of a hard surface material that allows for universal access and diminishes or eliminates soil compaction and erosion on the site. The river platform and marsh boardwalks are designed and built with recycled/sustainable materials that “float” above the marsh. Boardwalks were built by using the “top-down” method of construction wherever possible to minimize impact on surrounding plant and animal habitats. This means all large equipment stays on top of the new structure during the entire building process.
Phase 1 offers educational and passive recreation opportunities while providing protection for this unique natural resource. Upland trails, marsh boardwalks, and observation decks in wetland areas of the park make this an ideal location for enjoying low-impact activities such as hiking, bird watching, fishing, and photography. These improvements also make this property an excellent location for full-time naturalist staff members to conduct regular interpretive programs.
The project service area for the park includes all of Berrien County, the southwestern-most county in Michigan, as well as areas of northwest Indiana and northeastern Illinois. Because of its geographic location, the park meets the definition of a regional park and provides recreational and educational opportunities for people in the three-state region.
Phase 1 improvements do not require full-time staff on site. This was an important consideration during design because the budget currently does not permit full-time staff at this park. Instead, scheduled events by naturalists are posted in the quarterly brochure, while other programs—such as with school groups—can be scheduled in advance. Other park-maintenance personnel are on site regularly to mow, remove trash, and perform park inspections.
Once construction was underway, the winter of 2013-2014 provided the primary challenge, as snow and the frozen ground caused delays to work during the winter; above-average rainfall in the spring caused additional delays in the completion of the hard-packed trail system.
Now that the park is operational, the real challenge is related only to success! Phase 1 included a minimal public-parking area, as it was decided to put most of the available resources into the construction of the walkways, platforms, and boardwalks. Public use—even during fall and early winter—was higher than expected, and the need to improve and expand the parking area is the obvious next step.
Brian Bailey is the director for the Berrien County Parks Commission in New Buffalo Township, Mich. Reach him at 269-983-7111, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kip Miller is a naturalist for the Berrien County Parks. Reach him at email@example.com.