Summer Road Trip 2019: Park Partnerships in District 7

On the ninth stop of his road trip to visit all Extension districts in a single summer, Jeff speaks with our Ottawa County Parks and Recreation Department partners about working together around education, restoration and recreation.

December 2, 2019

Map of Michigan

Summer Road Trip 2019: Park Partnerships in District 7

Jeff Dwyer: Today, I'm at Connor Bayou Park, sitting in a woodland cabin overlooking the beautiful Grand River. This park offers trails, a fishing dock, a boat launch, and many places for a picnic. This is just one of many parks in Ottawa County, home to one of the largest park departments in southwest Michigan. MSU Extension works with partners in tourism and community development, and today I have a chance to meet with one of those partners, the Ottawa County Parks and Recreation Department. I'm Jeff Dwyer, Director of Michigan State University Extension, and this is Partnerships and Peninsulas.

Intro: This is Partnerships and Peninsulas, and just like the state of Michigan, this podcast is filled with stories of amazing people who are doing wonderful work from Marquette to Monroe. Sit back and discover everything you didn't know about Michigan State University Extension. Here's your host, Jeff Dwyer.

Jeff Dwyer: Today I have the pleasure of talking with Kristen Hintz, Coordinator of Interpretive Services in the Ottawa County Parks and Recreation Department, Jason Shamblin, the new Director for the Ottawa County Parks and Recreation Department, and our very own Dr. Dan O'Keefe, MSU Extension Michigan Sea Grant educator. Thank you all for joining me on the show today.

Kristen Hintz: Thank you. It's good to be here.

Jeff Dwyer: So Kristen, tell me a little bit of what Ottawa County Parks and Recreation is all about.

Kristen Hintz: Well, Ottawa County Parks is a system of parks and open spaces that's made possible by the voter support of Ottawa County Parks and our open space millage. It provides an opportunity for people to get out and enjoy natural resource based recreation as well as educational opportunities. There are 40 parks in the Ottawa County Parks system. 13 of those parks are actually found right along the Grand River and we have over 7,000 acres of natural resource based parks.

Jeff Dwyer: I must say, that's quite amazing just the number of parks and the number in the Grand River. As we look out here, I spent a lot of time in Florida for example. I've certainly been to Louisiana and if you didn't know, you could be there. It really is a bayou sort of context here even as a homegrown Michigander and spending much of my life here. I had no idea it was here. It's really quite remarkable.

Kristen Hintz: And that's what's so unique about Ottawa County and the Parks of Ottawa County, because there are a diversity of different natural communities and ecosystems. A lot of people think about Ottawa County parks and they're just lake shore parks, beach parks, but actually there's far more than just beach parks. We have, like I said, parks around the Grand River and we call that the Grand River Greenway. The Greenway connects those natural areas and provides opportunities for people to recreate, but also, as a corridor for wildlife and conservation. Then there are also parks along the Pigeon River and the Upper Macatawa River as well. So you have everything from an upland forest to floodplain forests to prairies, grasslands, wetlands. So there's a lot that Ottawa County parks has to offer.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, it's quite incredible. So Jason, as I understand it, you've been in your role as Director for one month, so welcome.

Jason Shamblin: Just a little less. Thank you. I started June 24th. I moved here from Ohio, so we're excited to be here in Western Michigan.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, we're excited to have the chance to get to know you in the context of this partnership that we're so grateful for. So could you talk a little bit about the millage in particular that supports the organization and other aspects as a newcomer? What attracted you to this opportunity?

Jason Shamblin: Certainly, in 1996, Ottawa County passed the first ever millage and it is a 0.33 mills. The first time it passed, it passed by 53.5%. There's a 10 year levee. It renewed in 2006 by 67% and then most recently, it renewed in 2016 by an overwhelming 72.3% and that, as Kristen said earlier, helps support then all of the operations of the over 7,000 acres across the county that the parks agency manages.

Jeff Dwyer: So I would imagine that as you were considering this opportunity, that level of community support had to have a lot to do with what made it attractive.

Jason Shamblin: Yes. That, as well as looking at the parks, the infrastructure that's been built, the diverse quality of the natural resources here. But the acquisition of the property, but also just the upkeep, design and maintenance of the facility show the care that the staff, but also the community supports in Ottawa County.

Jeff Dwyer: That's terrific. So Dan, we're fortunate that you're one of us. We appreciate having you as a colleague for many, many reasons. Tell me a little bit about what MSU Extension has done in partnership with Ottawa County Parks and Recreation over the years.

Dan O'Keefe: It's such a long list that I'm sure I'll forget a lot of really cool things that I want to talk about, but it ranges from helping out with kids' camps where I might show up for one day of the camp and teach kids how to fish and get them out on the river to developing signage for, you said some of the public access sites or even providing input on how to design public access sites like the fishing platform down in Lake Macatawa at Black Lake Boardwalk West and we've done some fishing programs there that have been really popular and get people out fishing for things that they might not have thought about before and get out recreating on a river that a lot of people perceive as being dirty still.

The Grand River is a large river. It's brown, you notice it's kind of swampy, which we think is really cool, but a lot of people have a negative perception of that. So over the years, I've also been a regular speaker on the Grand Lady Greenway cruise where we get out on an old fashioned paddle wheel boat, run up and down the river and talk about the parks along the river, the new developments and also tie that into how important it is to maintain the connection between the land and the water so that we have diverse habitats, healthy areas to recreate in and also diverse fish and wildlife communities.

Jeff Dwyer: So just purely curious, I know you're going to have an audience of community members here tonight. What are some of the sort of facts and figures about the Grand River? Is it a shallow river? Is it a deep river? What are some of the characteristics that you think about as you've worked around the river?

Dan O'Keefe: Well, it's 252 miles long I believe. I hope that's right off the top of my head, and the longest river in the state. Although, it's not the biggest in terms of discharge. That would go to the Saginaw. It's about 42 miles from Lake Michigan up to the first dam, which is in Grand Rapids. So it's a fairly long stretch of undammed lower river. There's lots of issues with dams and fish passage, both good and bad. But it strikes me as a river that has a lot of connections, again, between the floodplains and the river, between creeks in the river and between Lake Michigan and the lower river because it doesn't have many dams in the lower area.

This all means that we have a pretty intact large river ecosystem, which is pretty rare. We've lost around 90% of our large river forest floodplain ecosystems due to damming and levy building and channelization. So it strikes me as a great resource, something that people probably don't appreciate enough. What Ottawa County Parks has done to get the land around the river into a park system and connected with trails and kayak launches is just phenomenal, so always happy to work with them and help highlight what they've done and the great thing we have here with our river.

Jeff Dwyer: It is rather amazing. So Kristen, as coordinator of interpretive services. You're an educator.

Kristen Hintz: Yes.

Jeff Dwyer: Can you talk to us a little bit about the nature center in West Olive and some of the other work that you do?

Kristen Hintz: Absolutely. So part of being a program coordinator is providing opportunities for people to engage with, to develop an emotional connection to the park system and to the natural areas that make up our park system. That's the beginning part of programming is just getting people out, feeling comfortable with walking the trails or kayaking the river, but then after that you develop that emotional connection. Then there's this, "Well, I want to know more about what types of fish are found in the Grand River. Is there more than bass? What types of birds can I hear in the flood plain forest? What wildflowers, spring and summer wildflowers, can I find out along the Grand River?" So that's the next type of program that we provide is answering questions and helping people develop exploration skills.

Then the next step to that is, "Wow, I love the parks. I love these natural areas. I know more about them. I want to help protect them. I want to take care of them." Our end goal for programming is for people to develop a sense of personal connection and stewardship, wanting to be a part of being a caretaker and taking care of. So then we have other programs of public work days and removing invasive species. So it's been really great to partner with Dan and a lot of the programs because my background's not riparian ecosystems and I don't really have a connection with fishing with my family. Dan has, not only a passion, but an expertise in fisheries and biology. So he's able to answer those questions and connect people in all of those ways. It's really a great partnership.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, listening to you provide that description and the passion with which you do it, are you sure you don't work for MSU Extension?

Kristen Hintz: I am happy to partner with MSU Extension.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, and you know I'm kidding. That's one of the things that we certainly enjoy in this partnership, but we really do enjoy across the state is our partners are so passionate about what they do and have such expertise that we're really quite fortunate to be able to work with you and we're certainly looking forward to continuing to do much more.

So, Jason, I imagine again, in you considering this opportunity, there must be some already underway initiatives that you're stepping into, but you must have some new initiatives that folks are talking about. Could you talk a little bit about either initiatives underway or those that might be on the horizon?

Jason Shamblin: Well, I think the big initiative right now that we have underway is the Grand River Greenway, securing the natural resources along the Grand River. Currently there's over 2,600 acres of public land between Grand Haven and Grand Rapids that's already been secured. Then along with that, we are in the process of building a 28 mile trail that will be in the entire length of that Greenway. We're in the last cusp of that project and we have about $1.2 million to raise to get to our goals. We've already raised $7.3 million of private funding to help construct that project.

Jeff Dwyer: If people wanted to help with that last $1.2 million, they could contact the Ottawa County Parks and Recreation Department?

Jason Shamblin: Definitely.

Jeff Dwyer: Just want to do everything we can to get the word out here. So Dan, I know that every year the Ottawa County Parks and Recreation Department hosts a kids camp and that you've been a part of that. Can you tell me about some of the fishing or ecology programs you've done here?

Dan O'Keefe: Well, those are always fun for sure. Another one that strikes me as a great example of how we take it to the next level is the master naturalists, which we haven't run for a couple of years, but every few years for awhile there we were training up potential volunteers for the park system and other natural resources based types of entities. I would chime in with a freshwater ecology, aquatic invasive species and fish end of things, but that was nice because we really trained people at a kind of a high level that already had that general interest and then they turned around and part of the program was putting in those volunteer hours. We're working on a few different things that kind of tie in with that as well.

Hopefully, moving forward we have a Ottawa Sands property, which is a recent acquisition of an old sand mine with a beautiful lake on. It. Turns out it has some invasive species in it, so we're going to try to arrange some volunteer divers to do underwater invasive species pull, which should kind of be a neat first in Ottawa County I think. Another thing we've worked on is a threatened species of fish here called the River Red Horse and we partnered up with GVSU and found a very few of these rare fish. We radio tracked them from Grand Rapids all the way into Ottawa County waters right near here at Connor Bayou Parks, so we've done a little research, a little education, a little volunteer training, a little bit everything.

Jeff Dwyer: That's really fantastic. It occurs to me to ask too Dan, I know you're involved in a variety of research projects. Is there a particular research project or thing that you've worked on over the years here, maybe in this particular region that you think was particularly impactful or really helped to understand what's going on in this ecosystem?

Dan O'Keefe: Yeah, that would definitely be... The Red Horse is a very interesting fish. It's one of six different red horse species. It's very hard to tell the difference between them, but they have teeth in their throat that allow them to crush mollusks. The other ones that look almost identical to them don't. So there's one very rare fish that might be 3% or 4% of all the red horse out there has this ability to crush up shells and it'll eat things like our native mussels, which are rare and declining in areas that have suffered from pollution and siltation and channelization. There's this neat connection between muscles which have their own fascinating biology and we've done some programming on that too, in this rare fish and the health of the river. The research with that is all tied together and I believe the project we did last year was the first radio telemetry effort with that species anywhere. It was pretty neat to be part of that.

Jeff Dwyer: That's fascinating, and just for us who are sort of a weekend angler, how big does a red horse get and is it something that people are catching out here even though it is rare?

Dan O'Keefe: Yeah. Again, if you didn't know how to ID it, you probably wouldn't know it because the other species are very common. I actually caught one from shore right here at Connor Bayou that was the first one caught in Ottawa County since about 1976 I think, memory serves. So they're around, but they're very rare. Probably wouldn't know if you caught them, but some of the ID workshops we do and the research presentations help people to identify them as well. Maybe we can put some signs up some day, show people how to tell the difference. They get big, they get huge. They're the biggest of all the red horse. They get to be over 10 pounds, over 30 inches long and they're actually beautiful fish even though they're a sucker, they're bright gold or silver color with bright red fins. So very striking fish.

Jeff Dwyer: Oh, that's so interesting. Dan, I know you live this every day, but I think it's exciting to be a part of a land grant university like Michigan State University that really takes so seriously and acknowledges every day that our job is to take expertise like yours and get it out where it's really needed. So it's really cool that it's happening right here out in Ottawa County. So Kristen, as we wrap up here, we've had a long and really productive partnership in a lot of different ways. As you think about the future, is there maybe an area that you'd like to see us partner that you think is a possibility and we should be thinking about?

Kristen Hintz: Absolutely. I think that one of the things that I really enjoy about partnering with Dan and MSU Extension is that you're working with researchers and very knowledgeable and expertise in an area. Dan has that ability to bring that to a level that is understandable to people. It's sometimes difficult to communicate research at different levels of understanding. So to continue to develop more programs that combine current research in the area and bringing that to our population of residents of Ottawa County as well as visitors just to help share how important this ecosystem is and the unique relationships in that and having good science and research to back that up is great. Then also partnerships and restoration of some of the natural areas along the Grand River and some of our parks. That's really important. Melanie Mannion, who is not here, is our Natural Resource Management Supervisor and she and Dan work a lot in those restoration projects. I could see those areas as well as MSU helping out with that.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, those are two fantastic suggestions and we'll look forward to working with you on those. This is Partnerships and Peninsulas. My name is Jeff Dwyer and I have the privilege of being the Director of Michigan State University Extension. Thank you Kristen, and Jason, and Dan very much for being with me today. 

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