Return to nature

With a history of lumber, coal mining, and ironworks, a parcel of land in the heart of the Saginaw River Watershed is the region's newest park.

On the southwest side of the City of Saginaw, where the Shiawassee and Titibawassee rivers meet to create the Saginaw River, sits a piece of land that has seen a number of lives.
From lumber to coal mining to an iron foundry that made parts for the auto and defense industries for roughly 90 years, this property has played a vital role in Michigan’s industrial history.


After General Motors’ Saginaw Malleable Iron Plant shut down in 2007, the abandoned site saw a haphazard return to nature, with herds of deer visiting the property and wood-ducks, beaver, and black-crowned night herons inhabiting the wetlands along the river.


Nature’s takeover will now become permanent. In 2019, the state of Michigan purchased the land from the RACER Trust, a holding company created in 2011 during the General Motors bankruptcy to perform environmental remediation and redevelopment of defunct industrial properties owned by the company.


The Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF) pitched in $590,000 to develop the space. The project has also received support from the Nature Conservancy and $1 million from the Dow settlement, intended to reverse the environmental damage caused by the company’s Midland facilities, which will create an endowment for ongoing maintenance. Saginaw County Parks will manage the riverfront space for the foreseeable future.


“The fact that it could become a natural area on a riverfront and provide access for people, for nature and potentially help downtown Saginaw revitalize an abandoned property, it doesn't get better than that,” says Helen Taylor, state director for the Michigan Chapter of the Nature Conservancy.

Saginaw Riverfront Park


Creating equitable recreation and open space opportunities in economically distressed communities and communities of color like Saginaw is another goal of the fund. Saginaw has struggled with population loss and a decline in the manufacturing sector in recent years.


“Everybody enjoys parkland and green space pretty much equally without regard to income,” says Jon Mayes, program manager for the MNRTF,.


The park pulls together a number of priorities related to protecting wildlife and open space. It secures a wildlife corridor along the river that links it to the nearly 10,000-acre Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge. The project also adds 332 acres of passive recreation for the city of Saginaw that includes walking, biking, and kayaking right next to a densely populated neighborhood.


But perhaps it’s most alluring attribute is the riverfront amenity it will add to the community.


Saginaw’s ‘Riverfront Park’ -- an official name is still pending -- offers visitors nearly a mile of natural shoreline along the Saginaw River, something that has proven to be a big draw in places like the Milliken State Park on the Detroit River.

Saginaw Riverfront Park


“If you're from Michigan, it's all about the water,” Taylor says. “If communities are trying to come back from where they once were, the waterfront is an ingredient to quality of life, attracting residents with access to natural resources.”


Other RACER properties have been transitioned to commercial uses, but ‘Riverfront Park’ sits in a one-hundred-year flood plain, making it a bad candidate for development, especially after this May’s record-breaking high waters and dam breaches just upstream in Midland.


A sum of $5 million from RACER was needed to remediate the property and ready it for development this fall. In some ways, the new park will leverage its industrial past. Example: A 20-acre, 85-foot-high former landfill on the property will be transformed into an observation platform to afford visitors views of the wetlands and downtown Saginaw. Signage will be used to tell the story of the land’s history and its transition back to a natural area.


“It’s a very natural space already,” Saginaw Parks Director Brian Lechel says of the pond, wetlands, and wildlife on the site. Future projects will help restore wetlands and meadows, but right now managers are focused on developing pathways and potentially making connections to regional trails, using funds from the MNRTF and elsewhere.

Brian Lechel, Saginaw Parks Director


Incorporating new land into regional wildlife corridors and trail systems is a key goal of the MNRTF. Mayes says that in addition to the Iron Belle Trail, the MNRTF is working on water trails and snowmobiling trail in the region. He says the MNRTF board strategically leverages the fund’s $500 million dollar endowment -- which generates about $25-$50 million in yearly spending -- to buy properties and think regionally about open space in ways that municipalities often can’t.


While the Saginaw project shows the potential for developing open space as an amenity for residents and habitat for wildlife, it also functions as protection for wetlands that offer critical protection against flooding by slowing the movement of water into waterways and reducing the movement of pollutants. Lechel says that these bottomlands at the confluence of three rivers are “a really critical piece of the Saginaw Bay watershed.”

Going forward, having a regional perspective like the one offered by the MNRTF will be important for protecting wetlands and mitigating the effects of climate change, which scientists expect to create more frequent and intense issues with flooding and drought.
The Saginaw park is significant because it hits on so many of these issues, creating what Taylor calls a “wonderful interface of ecological features and benefits for people.”

“Preserving Michigan” is an ongoing series exploring the history and impact of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund on the people and communities of Michigan. The series is underwritten by the Michigan Environmental Council. Issue Media Group maintains editorial independence for all of our underwritten content. Please review our editorial underwriting policy for more information.