New trail makes nature more accessible at the MSU Corey Marsh Ecological Research Center

Generous gifts make ADA-accessible trail possible

When Jen Owen assumed the role of coordinator at the newly established MSU AgBioResearch Corey Marsh Ecological Research Center in November 2018, she had a long wish list for the 400-acre space. Turning what had become an overgrown former Michigan State University vegetable farm into a site for ecological restoration research would be no easy task.

Those efforts continue today, but significant progress has been made. In addition to creating an optimal research environment, one of Owen’s main goals has been to make Corey Marsh an outreach hub and gathering place for those interested in science and nature.Corey Marsh sign

The Laingsburg, Michigan-based center is located roughly 12 miles northeast of the MSU campus, a short drive for the MSU and greater Lansing communities.

“Corey Marsh provides a great opportunity close to the MSU campus for people to see a variety of plants, bird species and other wildlife,” said Owen, who is also an associate professor in the MSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. “One of the things that I, and MSU leaders, have been adamant about is accessibility for anyone who wants to use the center.”

Ensuring that everyone can utilize Corey Marsh is an admirable objective, but in reality it means developing trails and facilities that adhere to the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards. Funding for these types of projects is typically through private donations, and for Owen, the best way to inspire support is showcasing the value of Corey Marsh to all who come.

Starting the process

Corey Marsh is situated on land that used to be the MSU Muck Soil Research Farm, which hosted vegetable trials for 70 years before closing in 2012. University leaders considered selling the property in 2018 but after touring it, Owen offered a different proposal.

“There’s such a wonderful diversity of plants and wildlife, and it looked like the perfect place to do ecological restoration,” Owen said. “On top of the research opportunities, I envisioned a place where outreach initiatives could thrive, getting the community invested in our work and sharing our passion for nature. It seemed too good to be true.”

Once Owen got the go-ahead to rebrand and refurbish the center, she began prioritizing her task list. Cleaning up existing trails seemed like one of the logical first steps. A short while later, Owen met a local man named Jon Ferguson.

A lifelong wildlife enthusiast, Ferguson lives nearby and had explored the area in and around Corey Marsh for years in hopes of snapping photographs of birds and butterflies. He has post-polio syndrome, which requires him to use a wheelchair and makes mobility challenging in many nature settings.

“Corey Marsh is beautiful, and I have enjoyed it, but it’s been very difficult to get around in my wheelchair,” Ferguson said. “So I reached out to the center, and that’s how I got connected with Jen.”

Owen and Ferguson began discussing their mutual desire to make Corey Marsh more wheelchair-friendly, which meant the installation of an ADA-accessible trail. The surface would be a finely crushed limestone, allowing for easier movement with wheelchairs, strollers and other rolling units. Ferguson’s enthusiasm for the project culminated in a $1,000 donation to the center.

“I was thinking about ADA accessibility already, and then I had the fortune of meeting Jon,” Owen said. “He’s been a champion for us and a crucial part of what we’ve been able to do thus far. Once Jon got involved, it seemed to be the start of a wave of support.”

Completing the first phase

Research at Corey Marsh is currently limited to Owen’s program, which focuses on behavioral ecology of migratory birds and the spread of zoonotic diseases. Previously, the bulk of her work — including bird banding — took place at the Burke Lake Banding Station in Bath, Michigan. The station sits just two miles southwest of Corey Marsh.

Now known as the Michigan State Bird Observatory to better reflect the efforts of her team, the program is split between the Burke Lake Banding Station and Corey Marsh, with both locations open to the public.

Rick Neubig, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at MSU, and his wife, Laura Liebler, live close by and are avid nature enthusiasts. During a visit to the Burke Lake Banding Station, the couple talked with Owen about Corey Marsh, a place they hadn’t ventured to yet.

Once they saw the area for themselves, they immediately recognized its potential for ecological restoration research and education.

“Corey Marsh is particularly appealing to us because it involves both our interests: birds for Rick and plants for me,” Liebler said. “The ponds and marshes are good habitat for a variety of birds, including some uncommon ones. The upland area near the old buildings allows space for creating native plant gardens to attract various types of wildlife.”

Liebler and Neubig were so excited about the future of the center that they began brainstorming with Owen about how they could help.

“We asked Jen what her top priority was, and she said building an accessible trail to let more people experience the marsh habitat, birds and other things,” Neubig said. “We love the outdoors and wanted to help more people enjoy it.”

The couple generously pledged $10,000 in support of the trail, which then began construction. In addition to the crushed limestone surface, the trail’s gate was updated to make it easier to open in a wheelchair.

Before and after phase 1 Corey Marsh trail
Before and after the crushed limestone surface was added to the trail.

“I was blown away by Rick and Laura’s commitment,” Owen said. “To hear how thrilled they were to give this gift so that others can appreciate nature was really special.”

Several other donors from the MSU and greater Lansing communities contributed to the project, such as Julia Spalding and Mike Moquin, David and Rebecca Wright, Jane and William Gehring, and Marjorie Taylor, among others who have supported the center’s day-to-day operations.

For frequent visitors such as Ferguson, the trail has dramatically enhanced his time at Corey Marsh. He said few nature centers in the Lansing area have made such an effort with accessibility.

“Since the trail has been completed, it’s been a greatly improved experience,” Ferguson said. “I’m remaining in communication with Jen to discuss ways to continue to improve the trail, but I’ve been really happy with the progress.”

A look toward the future

While the crushed limestone trail is a great start, Owen said, there is more work to be done. The second phase of the accessibility-focused project will give visitors an elevated look at the center.

Where the current path ends, an ADA-accessible boardwalk will be built that leads to a two-story observation platform. This will provide a view of the entire marsh without disturbing the plants and wildlife.

The process of securing funding for the second phase is ongoing, and renderings of the boardwalk and tower are being drafted currently.

“Jen has many interesting and innovative plans to transform Corey Marsh into a natural, functioning ecosystem and a significant center for ecological education,” Liebler said. “The accessible trail was just the beginning of the ambitious project, and we were happy to contribute some of the initial funding for it. We're looking forward to watching the changes as they occur.”

If you would like to support the second phase of the Corey Marsh ADA-accessible trail project, click here.

This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. To view past issues of Futures, visit www.futuresmagazine.msu.edu. For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at whetst11@msu.edu or call 517-355-0123.

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