Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Study highlights fragility of Lake Michigan dunes

By SARA QAMAR
Capital News Service

LANSING – New information about sand dunes along Lake Michigan is expected to improve protection of archeological sites, researchers and planners say.

The fragile dunes in Southwest Michigan are a coveted natural resource and rival other great dunes across the globe, said Alan Arbogast, a Michigan State University geographer.

“I’ve seen dunes along Australia and New Zealand, and the ones you find on Lake Michigan are just as nice as those places,” he said.

The Department of Natural Resources and Environment calls the Michigan dunes the largest assemblage of freshwater dunes in the world.

The first archeological report on Michigan dunes found that coastal ones were highly active in two time periods in the last 5,000 years, which was when they became dunes, said MSU anthropology Professor William Lovis.

He said he hopes the report will make people aware of the fragility of the dunes.

The study, funded by the Federal Highway Administration, was done to give road planners a better knowledge about where archeological sites are located within sand dunes so they won’t be disturbed.

The project manager for the report, James Robertson, said, “The important thing in my perspective is to look at environmental impacts that our projects might have. And in this case, one of the many things we study is archeological sites. It’s good to know where they are early on.”

Robertson, a Michigan Department of Transportation archeologist, said projects must meet federal guidelines during the planning stages. One of the first things considered is archeological sites.

One location where researchers worked was a 19-mile section of US-31 between Torch Lake and Charlevoix.

The study found traces of human occupation in the form of specialized campsites dating as far back as 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. That find may advance studies about previous cultures, Robertson said.

Arbogast, who co-authored the report, has studied the evolutionary aspects of the Lake Michigan dunes.

There is a tension, he said, between the human desire to build and the natural behavior of a sand dune, which is to be mobile. “There are a lot of examples on the lakeshore where sand dunes are active and moving, and in the process of burying parking lots and campgrounds.”

Dunes are sensitive to landscapes and are prone to move, a fact that people tend to overlook, said Arbogast. “If they fill the landscape up with houses and buildings, sooner or later someone is going to have a problem.”

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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