Sunday, March 8, 2015

Peltier Beach Ridge Sanctuary

Bill Collins, Executive Director, Thumb Land Conservancy

On June 28, 2010, the Thumb Land Conservancy received ownership of its third nature preserve, the 11.5-acre Peltier Beach Ridge Sanctuary in Fort Gratiot Township, Saint Clair County. The parcel was given to the TLC by Ray and Nancy Peltier to satisfy State of Michigan requirements, then briefly administered through the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment, for the long-term protection of wetland on the property. As with our first preserve, the Dead End Woods Sanctuary in Fort Gratiot, the Peltier Beach Ridge Sanctuary is preserved under a State conservation easement. With my help, the Peltier’s worked out a deal with Dr. Syed Hamzavi to preserve the wetland and adjoining upland on their property as mitigation for wetland to be impacted by an expansion of the Hamzavi Dermatology office in Fort Gratiot. In accepting ownership of the mitigation property from the Peltier’s, the TLC agreed to be responsible for submitting annual monitoring reports to the MDNRE, now the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality again.

Until about 2005, preservation of existing natural wetland was rarely used in Saint Clair County as mitigation, or replacement, for permitted wetland impacts. Most mitigation was attempted through artificial wetland constructed in upland. It’s an expensive and risky way to go, and has nothing to do with the natural history of the area. Construction seems especially senseless when we have all this great natural wetland already here, just setting around getting filled in without permits. Sometimes drained wetlands are restored as mitigation, but usually if a wetland is drained, the owner wants to keep it that way. Preservation of existing wetland as mitigation through the DEQ can be difficult, because it must be considered high quality, or must have exceptional functions, and must be preserved at a 10 to 1 replacement ratio. That means, for every acre of wetland filled or otherwise eliminated, 10 acres of wetland must be preserved. That made preservation hard to compete with constructed or restored wetland, until about 2008 when development and land prices dropped significantly. Then, some landowners actually welcomed the idea of selling their land for preservation. It was a real twist, one that I never expected to see. Since then, preservation has been the way to go for wetland mitigation.       

The Peltier Beach Ridge Sanctuary is located a few hundred feet south of the end of West Montevista Drive, south of Metcalf Road, and along the east side of the Detroit Water Board property. The intake pipes from Lake Huron for the Detroit Water facility are very near the north property line. Also just north is the Galbraith Plant Preserve owned by the Michigan Nature Association, and four small lots north of the MNA preserve, owned by the Saint Clair County Drain Commissioner to be preserved as wetland mitigation for a future project. Although some people use the Detroit Water line property to enter the sanctuary from East Montevista Drive, the actual entrance is from North Shoreview Drive, just east of the intersection with San Juan Drive.  

Location of the Peltier Beach Ridge Sanctuary. 2010 aerial photograph.

The Peltier Beach Ridge Sanctuary and other land in this area is part of a much larger and ecologically unique beach ridge and swale landscape formed thousands of years ago along portions of the early Great Lakes shoreline as water levels dropped, rose again, and then dropped to modern levels after the last glacial period. The beach ridge and swale landscape in this part of the Thumb is a long, narrow formation within about 1 mile of the Lake Huron shoreline, extending from Port Huron into Sanilac County. The landscape began forming about 11,500 years ago, as the last stages of the Wisconsinan glacier melted back, and early Lake Huron was about 30 feet higher than today. About 1,500 years later, the melting glacier uncovered a new outlet from the Georgian Bay and the water dropped over 400 feet. The massive weight of glacial ice depressed the earth’s crust for thousands of years, but as it melted, the crust slowly rose and continues today. By 4,500 years ago, the drainage outlet from Georgian Bay raised such that early Lake Huron filled to the Lake Nipissing stage and back to the old shoreline of 7,000 years previous. Great Lakes drainage was gradually limited to the Mississippi River through the old Chicago outlet, and then to the Saint Clair River which rapidly down-cut and lowered the Great Lakes to modern levels, leaving a series of beach ridges as the water dropped.

Beach ridge and swale landscape in Fort Gratiot and Burtchville Townships. 1995 aerial photograph.

The plant community and landscape is often referred to as “wooded dune and swale complex”. But unlike the dunes of west Michigan, the western shoreline of Lake Huron was not shaped so much by wind as it was by water. “Beach ridge” is probably a more appropriate descriptive phrase than “dune” for the landscape in the Thumb. As with all of the ridges around the Great Lakes, the sands were first deposited as beaches that gradually rose above the lake influence. Wind was a secondary influence, the non-forested shoreward ridges becoming dunes. The ridges along the southwestern shore of Lake Huron were probably less dune-like as prevailing winds are from the west and diminished by adjoining forest to the west.

The Michigan Natural Features Inventory
considers Great Lakes wooded dune (beach ridge) and swale complex a distinct natural community both statewide and globally because of the unique assemblage of physiographic, soil, and vegetative components that provide high quality habitat for numerous shoreline species. While there are landscapes of similar geologic origin along oceans and seas, the species of the Great Lakes habitat are unique. The MNFI community abstract for wooded dune and swale complex can be found here:

In the southern Thumb, the beach ridge and swale landscape is restricted to a narrow strip along Lake Huron in Saint Clair County, in Fort Gratiot and Burtchville Townships, and some small patchy occurrences in Sanilac County. The landscape is much more extensive in Huron and Tuscola Counties along the Saginaw Bay, especially near Port Crescent State Park. In Saint Clair County, it originally covered less than 1% of the total land area, and has since been significantly reduced by commercial and residential development. The landscape consists of a series of upland sand ridges and mucky wetland troughs or swales between. In Saint Clair County, the sand ridges average about 40 to 50 feet wide and 3 to 4 feet above the adjoining swales. The swales are usually about as wide as the ridges, but some are a few hundred feet wide. The largest and oldest beach ridge runs continuously along the western limit of the landscape, furthest inland from Lake Huron. This ridge was over 500 feet wide across most of its extent and may have been over 30 feet high in some areas. Although much of it has been mined out, this big sand ridge is still largely intact through Lakeside Cemetery and into Port Huron near the Blue Water Bridges where it is about 15 feet higher than adjoining land. Centuries ago, this ridge served as a burial ground for Native American inhabitants whose burial mounds have been found near Port Huron. The beach ridge and swale landscape provides not only unique habitat, but also a record of Michigan’s post-glacial past.

Most of the Peltier Beach Ridge Sanctuary is forested, except a large trail that runs through the western part of the site, and portions of the sand ridges in the east of the preserve. Like most of the landscape, the wetland swales are covered by Green Ash, Black Ash, and Silver Maple. Of course, all of the large ash trees are now dead and falling over because of the Emerald Ash Borer. The upland beach ridges are covered largely by Black Cherry, Big-toothed Aspen, and American Basswood, with scattered Black Oak and a few Northern White-cedar. The lower ridge bases are lined with Paper Birch and covered by an unusual concentration of Alternate-leaved Dogwood. Just across Metcalf Road, north into Burtchville Township, Black Ash, Northern White-cedar, Eastern Hemlock, and Yellow Birch increase in cover where Lake Huron is a stronger cooling influence during the growing season.

Much of the beach ridge and swale landscape in Saint Clair County was impacted years ago by logging, clearing, draining, livestock grazing, and sand mining. Because the surrounding forest as a whole has either been degraded or eliminated, subsequent forest species recruitment has been severely diminished, which has limited the return of many forest plants and therefore, the recovery of a mature forest community. The dominance of invasive shrubs like Tartarian Honeysuckle, Common Privet, and Garlic Mustard has further displaced mature forest species.

Despite so many impacts, the landscape still contains high quality habitat with several unique species. Like other parts of the landscape in Saint Clair County, a few sand ridges on the Peltier Beach Ridge Sanctuary contain small patches of Purple-flowering Raspberry - Rubus odoratus, the Lower Peninsula’s equivalent of the Upper Peninsula’s Thimbleberry, with large flowers and large raspberry fruits that can actually fit over a finger like a thimble. Purple-flowering Raspberry is thought to be native to only 7 shoreline counties in Michigan. The species is so restricted to this habitat in Saint Clair County that it’s symbolic of it.

Purple-flowering Raspberry on the nearby Lake Huron Woods Presbyterian Villages of Michigan property.

Yellow Lady’s-slipper orchid - Cypripedium calceolus grows in a variety of habitats, but in Saint Clair County is largely restricted to the moist ridge bases and mucky swales of this landscape. Several Yellow Lady’s-slipper orchids have been found on the Peltier Beach Ridge Sanctuary. Sometimes Pink Lady’s-slipper orchids - Cypripedium acaule are found on the upper sand ridges.

Yellow Lady’s-slipper orchid on land near the Peltier Beach Ridge Sanctuary.

The Eastern Hog-nosed Snake - Heterodon platirhinos is a special reptilian inhabitant that has been found just a few hundred feet south of the Peltier Beach Ridge Sanctuary. They prefer the more open sand of dunes and disturbed ground. They put on quite a show when aggravated, by flattening their necks like a cobra, and then sometimes rolling over and playing dead with their mouths hanging open. They can look imposing, but are harmless. The Eastern Hog-nosed Snake is more common in the southern plains and southeastern US, but is considered to be at some risk of extirpation in the Great Lakes region, Ontario, and New England. The only places I’ve seen them are on back dunes and beach ridges along the Great Lakes.

Eastern Hog-nosed Snake found just south of the Peltier Beach Ridge Sanctuary.

While considered fairly common statewide, the Blue-spotted Salamander - Ambystoma laterale is typically found in this habitat and is either infrequent or elusive in other areas. One of the most critical functions of this coastal forest habitat is the supports it provides to an abundance of migratory birds as they move north and south along the Lake Huron shoreline. The spring and summer breeding bird population is very abundant and diverse in this area, especially the forest warblers which are otherwise hard to come by.

The Peltier Beach Ridge Sanctuary is a high quality wetland and upland complex with a unique geologic history, unique plant and animal community, significant Great Lakes coastal habitat, good restoration potential, and a great addition to the TLC holdings. The beach ridge and swale landscape is a high priority area for the TLC and we continue working to promote preservation of this area.