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New park preserves pristine property

Brittany Bird, natural resources planner, points out features of the Upper Bushman Lake. Photo by Phil Custodio (click for larger version)
October 20, 2010 - Tour guide Daniel Stencil had a warning for those following.

"It's a bit wet out here," said Stencil, executive officer for Oakland County Parks, splashing through four inches of water at the edge of Upper Bushman Lake in Independence Township.

For members of the press on an advance tour, Oct. 15, "wetlands" lived up to its title.

"It's a very significant site it's basically a wetland complex containing rare natural communities such as southern wet meadow, wet-mesic prairie, prairie fen, and hardwood-conifer swamp," said Brittany Bird, natural resources planner.

When the new, 186-acre Independence Oaks County Park - North opens mext spring, visitors won't need waders. A set of low-impact, cantilevered boardwalks will keep them dry.

The expansion to Independence Oaks features rare natural communities, four miles of headwater streams, state-threatened, legally protected bog bluegrass, and two species of special concern in Michigan the Tamarack Tree Cricket and Purple Twayblade Orchid.

"It's pretty exciting there's so much opportunity here," Stencil said. "It's literally an upnorth experience right in our backyard in Oakland County."

With the addition, the total acreage at Independence Oaks County Park expanded to 1,274 acres, making it the largest of the 13 Oakland County Parks. The system now totals 6,705 acres.

Both the Upper Bushman property and Independence Oaks County Park lie within an area that was once a 1,200-acre contiguous mixed conifer swamp, according to pre-settlement vegetation maps, Bird said.

Dan Stencil, Oakland County Parks executive officer, points out a deer rubbing on a tree in the new Independence Oaks - North. Photo by Phil Custodio (click for larger version)
"With the acquisition, 572 of those original 1,200 acres are now protected," she said.

"I've been with the parks for 33 years, and this has been an acquisition target that whole time," Stencil said. "It's been a long and winding road to get where we are today, one well worth the effort."

The new property includes more than four miles of headwater streams in the Upper Clinton Subwaterhead. The streams feed the 31-acre Upper Bushman Lake and 68-acre Crooked Lake in Independence Oaks.

"It will provide floodwater retention, maintain water quality and quantity, foster soil development and stabilization, as well as provide critical wildlife habitat and travel corridors, stopover sites for migratory birds, and sources of genetic diversity," Bird said.

The new property is northeast of Independence Oaks County Park, bordered by Sashabaw and Oak Hill roads. The corners of the two properties connect tip-to-tip through wetlands. Future goals include a boardwalk connector trail.

The Upper Bushman property already has several established trails, and others will be developed, Stencil said.

"There are also potential connections using the high tension power line corridor owned by ITC Transmission as a critical north/south connector for Oak Routes, the county-wide trail network," he said.

Long-term plans include fishing, non-motorized boating, cross-country skiing and hunting on the property.

"There is a lot of interest from the public in outdoor adventure programs and heritage sports such as fishing and hunting, backcountry camping, a high ropes course and archery, canoeing and kayaking," he said. "We will welcome public input in our master planning process."

(click for larger version)
The property cost $2.836 million. Oakland County Parks pays $1.74 million, along with $945,000 from a Michigan Department of Natural Resources Trust Fund grant, $16,000 contribution from North Oakland Headwaters Land Conservancy, rental income from three houses on the site for the next six months, and potentially a Carls Foundation grant through a partnership with Ducks Unlimited. The NOHLC donation comes from individual donations from Independence Township residents. Three houses on the property will be repurposed, such as into an educational center, or removed, Stencil said.

"Maybe someone can move it (a farm house) off the property and restore it," he said.

Phase One, open to the public in April, includes fencing, 30-space gravel parking lot on Sashabaw Road, trail and boardwalk from the parking lot to the 31-acre Upper Bushman Lake, dock for fishing in 4-10 foot depths, and deer archery hunting, starting fall 2011.

Phase 2-3 projects include more trails and boardwalk, possible connected to the Independence Township safety path system.

For more information about Oakland County Parks, visit DestinationOakland.com.

Phil is editor for The Clarkston News. He is a veteran of the first Iraq war, having served in the U.S. Army.
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