By Emma Ogutu
LANSING— A multi million dollar project designed to boost wildlife tourism in Michigan is expected to open this spring.
Officials and planners with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say a 7.5-mile auto trail through Saginaw County’s Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge will open in May, in time for visitors to view thousands of birds as they stop to refuel at the refuge.
The $2 million project, funded by the service and the Federal Highway Administration, is part of a 2001 comprehensive federal conservation plan requiring all national wildlife refuges to develop programs to preserve their ecological values and maintain their wilderness characteristics.
But a wilderness uncertainty means no definite opening date is set yet, said Ed DeVries, assistant manager of the refuge.
“Everything will depend on a pair of eagles which built a nest just 50 feet off the road. It all depends if they start nesting early or late— it’s critical that we do not disturb them,” DeVries said.
The gravel trail, which was completed in November, will be the second of its kind in the state, after one in the Upper Peninsula’s Seney National Wildlife Refuge.
Along the trail are two new observation decks with spotting scopes to assist visitors in viewing more birds, DeVries said. The refuge has also constructed a parking area to accommodate the anticipated larger amount of traffic and a new fishing and canoe access site along the Spaulding Drain.
“Previously we had only one day in September where tourists were allowed to drive in the refuge,” DeVries said. “With the new trail, it’s going to be possible for more people to view a wider variety of birds and other wildlife throughout spring and summer seasons.”
The Shiawassee refuge was established in 1953 to protect and increase the breeding of migratory birds and other wildlife. The refuge includes marsh areas, swamps, bogs, grasslands and forests and has one of largest and most productive wetland ecosystems in the state, according to the service.
The U-shaped trail winds through forests, grasslands, marshes, open water pools and the Shiawassee River, with automatic gates at both openings.
Today, it provides habitat for threatened and endangered bird species like bald eagles, peregrine falcons and long- and short-eared owls and is home to nearly 280 species of birds, DeVries said.
The more than 9,500 acre refuge attracts about 50,000 visitors each year, but with the auto trail, officials project that number will increase by 60 percent.
Responding to recent media reports about the increasing mortality of certain bird species in Michigan due to vehicular and human disturbance, Ken Rosenberg, director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., said that an auto trail is least likely to disturb bird populations. He urged nature lovers to visit the refuge often without fear of disturbing wildlife.
“It is very unlikely that an auto trail is going to disrupt the lives of the birds in the wildlife refuge,” he said. “Birds are very adaptable and become easily conditioned to cars and people around them unless there is an aggressive attack on them like shooting or throwing stones.”
The speed limit along the auto trail is 15 miles per hour to keep disturbances at minimum. That speed limit should keep drivers from hitting turtles and snakes that frequently cross the trail to get to the wetlands, according to Devries.
Officials at Michigan Travel, the state’s tourism promotion agency, are upbeat that the new developments at the refuge will boost tourism in the entire state.
“When you make nature more accessible to travel, you will most likely have more people touring the areas,” said Dave Lorenz, manager of industry and public relations at the agency. “As long as we build that access and make people aware of it, they will want to visit the refuge.”
Lorenz said that although Michigan has millions of acres of land for outdoor recreation, much of it has been accessible mostly to hikers and skiers. He said he’s confident that the trail will open doors for less physically active people who have an interest in nature and sightseeing.
Lorenz also said that it was imperative to have information about the auto trail and the opportunities it opens to tourists on Michigan.org, the state’s official travel and tourism site.
“Michigan.org has been the most visited site in the country in the last three years,” Lorenz said. “Just last year, we had more than 13 million visitors on the site and we’re working on ways to increase these numbers.”
Once the trail is open for public use, Michigan Travel intends to work closely with the local convention and visitors bureau on promotion efforts to market the refuge, Lorenzo said.
The director of tourism at the Saginaw Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau, Lori Amo, said that the auto trail will promote handicap accessibility and lure visitors who previously visited the refuge only during the once-a-year special openings for auto trailing.
She said that the bureau will work closely with its other partners to promote the refuge as a tourist destination.
And Lorenzo said that he is hopeful that the expected increase in visitors to the refuge will promote regional economic growth.
“The thing about tourism is that people spend even without intending to, especially if they enjoy the experience,” said Lorenz. “People have to use gas stations, restaurants, hotels for overnight stays and other tourism-related services. It’s called the cycle of tourism.”