By Andy Bolander
Here is an annual reminder of the beautiful frailty our community possesses in the Elberta dunes and beach. It will take persistent and vocal presence for us to protect this resource.
Why is it necessary to protect the dune habitat? Well, something you may feel intuitively is actually true: Elberta Dunes are geologically unique in the world.
“Elberta Dunes lie at a latitudinal transition point between perched dunes to the north and lake-plain dunes to the south. Elberta dunes consist of five parabolic dunes perched on a glacial bluff. Characterized by stabilized dunes with overlapping arms which indicate non-concurrent periods of migration. Elberta Dunes have four distinguishable migration periods.” —Dunes in a Transitional Zone: Using Morphology and Stratigraphy to Determine the Relative Ages of Green Point Dune Complex and Elberta Dunes, Emma Fulop, Davidson College 2014
“Very few dunes in Michigan can be classed as truly migratory.” —Geological Sketch of Michigan Sand Dunes, Robert W. Kelly, Mich Dept of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Geological Survey Division, 2001
“[T]he greatest dunes of the entire region occur along the east coast of Lake Michigan because the prevailing Westerlies gather added energy as they fetch across this unbroken expanse of lake.” —Geological Sketch of Michigan Sand Dunes, Robert W. Kelly, Mich Dept of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Geological Survey Division, 2001
Human activity on the beach has the potential to change the shape of the dune. Vehicle tracks and the digging out of vehicles kills and/or displaces grasses, shrubs, and other vegetation that stabilizes the dunes. Removal of plant life exposes the sand to the wind and water erosion.
“Whenever plants on the foredune are injured or destroyed, the wind has access to the raw sand and creates a blowout, a saddle-shaped breach in the ridge, through which the sand commences a march inland. Many blowouts change the foredune into a very irregular feature called a dune ridge.” —Geological Sketch of Michigan Sand Dunes, Robert W. Kelly, Mich Dept of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Geological Survey Division, 2001
Dunes along the Lake Michigan coast have vanished before because of human activity. Pigeon Hill in Muskegon was named for the massive number of passenger pigeons that roosted there up until the end of the 19th century. The hill was sold to Nugent Sand and the Pere Marquette Railroad in 1920. By 1936 Sand Products Corporation (owner of about 180 acres of Elberta sand dunes and bluffs) had erected a conveyor system to load the sand onto waiting boats. Excavation of the sand continued until 1967. The site then sat barren until 1992, when there was a change in ownership and Harbour Towne condominiums were built. (http://www.actorscolony.com/) Dune sand mining also destroyed huge dunes that once surrounded Manistee.
But you don’t have to be a large sand mining corporation or a real estate developer to do a lot of damage to these natural areas and to the birds and other creatures who make Elberta Beach their home. The beach and dunes are subject to the everyday threat of human vehicle traffic.
“People are drawn to shorelines for their beauty and recreational opportunities so the remaining shoreline areas with dune habitat are often also public use areas. Hikers and Off Road Vehicles (ORVs) trample Pitcher’s thistle [a protected species] which harms or destroys the plants. ORV traffic in dunes also causes erosion which creates unstable areas where it’s difficult for plants to take hold. Pitcher’s thistle and its dune habitat are also destroyed for the creation and maintenance of public beaches.” —US Fish & Wildlife Service, Fact Sheet: Pitcher’s Thistle, updated 5/2001
“Off-road vehicles, which ruin habitat, crush nests and eggs, and directly kill birds by running over them are a key threat. Chicks that move across primary vehicle paths on their way to feed are in particular danger — especially when they get stalled alongside tall tire-track edges or stuck inside ruts. To save piping plovers from vehicle mortality, the Center has been working hard to keep off-road vehicles out of precious habitat through our Off-road Vehicles campaign. We’re also gearing up to petition the Secretary of the Interior and the Fish and Wildlife Service to establish rules that prohibit motorized vehicle use in all designated critical habitat and on all federal, state-owned, and state-managed public lands within piping plover habitat.” — http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/birds/piping_plover/
“The Great Lakes population of the piping plover is at a perilously low level. Since 1983, the number of nesting pairs has ranged from 12 to 32. In 2000, all of the Great Lakes pairs nested in Michigan.” —US Fish & Wildlife Service, Fact Sheet: Piping Plover
“Piping plovers are very sensitive to the presence of humans. Too much disturbance causes the parent birds to abandon their nest. People (either on foot or in a vehicle) using the beaches where the birds nest sometimes accidentally crush eggs or young birds. Dogs and cats often harass and kill the birds. Other animals, such as fox, gulls, and crows, prey on the young plovers or eggs.” —US Fish & Wildlife Service, Fact Sheet: Piping Plover
The beach and dunes are arguably the greatest asset that Elberta possesses; the village has a handful of businesses and no industry. Most of us who live here have chosen this place, or have stayed here, because we love the beach and the dunes and the forest around them. Allowing the impact of humans to change our unique natural system to a conventional mess would be a great shame. It’s up to the people who live here and the visitors who come to enjoy the beach to treat it with the respect and care it, and we all, deserve. It’s up to locals to demand that visitors behave responsibly and not destroy this amazing place.
We have been given a great responsibility. There is literally nowhere on earth like this beach and dune environment.
Driving and digging out trucks and cars on the beach and dunes not only crushes the nests of piping plovers, hurts the habitat of the Lake Huron locust, wormwood, horsetail, coreopsis, wood lilies, and other native wildlife, but it also hurts the human community. It upsets people who gently walk the beach and live through hard winters here in order to enjoy summer. It upsets people who pay taxes to keep local services running. We don’t have the manpower within local law enforcement or the DNR to deter the destructive activity that goes on down at the beach. So we need to get together as a community and protect this by demonstrating responsible behavior.
In recent years both the Village of Elberta and private citizens have spent money and time posting signs to try to cut down on off-road traffic on the beach. Vandals have removed these signs and in some cases set fire to them. Dollars have been spent and wasted on these selfish individuals, and to no avail.
I don’t have a solution today, but I hope that sharing and refreshing this knowledge of how truly special this environment is will help us keep talking until we do reach a solution.
In the meantime, if you see vehicles driving on the dunes or beach, call the DNR hotline at 800-292-7800, and/or try to get a photograph of the vehicle and its license plate.