Thursday, March 30, 2017

Long-Awaited Matthaei Botanical Gardens Trail Project Begins

A paved trail will soon connect Matthaei Botanical Gardens to the Washtenaw County Border-to-Border Trail system and beyond. Karen Sikkenga, Associate Director of Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum, tells the story of how the trail moved from dream to reality.

At last, it’s really happening, that gorgeous hiking-biking trail paralleling Dixboro Road and providing a safe and beautiful non-motorized connection between Matthaei Botanical Gardens and the UM campus, downtown Ypsilanti, Gallup Park and - almost - the Arb!

I confess, there have been many moments over the past four years when I doubted we’d pull it off, even though the project is a top priority for us and for Washtenaw County, enjoying widespread support from organizations and individuals throughout the area.  Here’s the story of how the trail went from an idea to a reality, thanks to the collaboration, dedication and support of many key individuals and organizations.

A draft of a sign that will appear
on the trail. The map shows the
trail route between Matthaei
Botanical Gardens and Parker
Mill County Park at Dixboro
and Geddes roads. When complete
later this year, the trail will connect
Matthaei with the Washtenaw County
Border-to-Border Trail system.
I’m an avid bike rider. For almost a decade, I’ve ridden to the Gardens along the riverside trail in Gallup Park, scared to death for the last two miles along Dixboro Road for the sake of those glorious Huron River views. Trusting – hoping - I wouldn’t end up a statistic.

Then, in the summer of 2013, Dixboro Road closed for resurfacing. I started detouring down Radrick Golf Course’s long, pastoral driveway, tiptoeing my bike across the fairway to Matthaei Botanical Garden’s two-track and hoping no one on our staff or theirs would catch the Associate Director with a bicycle at the eleventh hole. It was a long sight safer – and more beautiful – than harrowing, shoulderless Dixboro Road.

And I thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could turn this route into an official bike path?

I had just wrapped up another project and was looking for something to sink my teeth into, something that would add value to our organization and help us accomplish our strategic planning goals. I approached our director, Bob Grese, to ask for his thoughts on whether the Dixboro Trail would be a good use of my time. Bob threw his support behind the idea.

The idea wasn’t new. Dixboro Road between Geddes and Plymouth, once a sleepy rural area, has gotten progressively busier over the past two or three decades. More businesses and housing developments have been built here, and more people are using our stretch of road to flow from north to south. An old road with no shoulders and long stretches with no Road Commission right-of-way, Dixboro Road has a pressing need for a sidewalk – one of society’s oldest and most basic forms of public infrastructure – but no place to put it. A project of this nature is very complex, requiring collaboration from the community, neighboring organizations and all levels of government. In this case, the University of Michigan is more than just a neighboring organization: UM owns much of the less developed land along Dixboro Road, making UM a key stakeholder. Bob shared with me that a Dixboro Road trail project had been fully funded and designed prior to 2005, but did not move forward because the necessary parties could not come to agreement on the details. He warned that it would be a long and complex journey, one that might never arrive at its destination. But if I wanted to try, he would support me.

Author Karen Sikkenga stands to one side of what will be the trail.
When this picture was taken in late March, the construction company
had already driven heavy machinery over the path route to remove
woody plants.  

In late March 2017 work had begun on the path, as evidenced by the ruts made
by heavy machinery on this section. Hard to believe this will be a real, paved
path in a few months!
I had recently begun meeting with my fellow University land managers to increase our collaboration and effectiveness. The Adventure Leadership Program (then known as the Challenge Program), Radrick Golf Course and Matthaei Botanical Gardens all occupy land originally donated by Frederick Matthaei Senior to the University of Michigan, beginning to the north of the botanical gardens entrance all the way to Geddes Road. If the three of us agreed that a hiking-biking trail was a good thing, then land acquisition for most of the trail length would not be an issue; the University would be the only land owner. For Matthaei-Nichols, non-motorized and public transportation options had already been identified in our strategic plan as a top priority for bringing more students, faculty and community members to our facility. Adventure Leadership (John Swerdlow) and Radrick Golf Course (Paul Scott) had not specifically identified transportation as a top priority, but the two managers felt that with their emphasis on sports and wellness, student and community engagement, a trail would be an appropriate use of their properties. As long as I did the work, they were willing – even eager – to allow the land under their management to be used for this purpose, if we could get permission from above.

The next step was to engage higher-level leadership at the University, starting with the Campus Planner, Sue Gott. Sue arranged a plenary meeting of University stakeholders from Athletics (Golf Course manager), Student Life (Adventure Leadership), Department of Public Safety and Security, Government Relations, the Office of General Counsel, Provost’s Office, Architecture and Engineering, Parking and Transportation, Real Estate and more. The group considered all the possible ramifications of a hiking-biking trail - a trail that would be used not just by the University community but by the broader community as well. Who would maintain it? Who would patrol it? Who would respond if trail users needed help? What would be the impact on parking? What if a future competing purpose for the land arises? Would the trail make it easier for trespassers to get into delicate environmental research areas? Despite the risks, the stakeholders agreed that the benefits were clear and the risks manageable. I had the go-ahead to begin looking for funding.

Then came the first big hurdle. Virtually all the funding sources for this significant public infrastructure project were available only to local government entities, not to universities. I found three great possibilities for Federal, state and local grants, but Matthaei-Nichols was unable to apply for any of them. I needed a local government partner.

Enter Mike Moran, the elected Supervisor of Ann Arbor Township. Matthaei Botanical Gardens is located within both Ann Arbor Township and Superior Township, but the proposed trail route was contained entirely within Ann Arbor Township. I cold-called Mike and explained my big idea over the phone – I’d do all the work, and Ann Arbor Township would sign on the dotted line and hit the “submit” button. I wonder now if he thought I was crazy. He didn’t say so at the time, but he did tell me that the AAT Board of Trustees needed to approve all grant applications, and that at least one member of the board lived in a condominium adjacent to the trail route, and that she – like a lot of Laurel Gardens neighbors - might or might not take kindly to the idea of bicyclists whizzing past their previously bucolic back doors. My response? “Well, they should!”

He put me in touch with his board member, allowing me to make my argument directly to her. The argument? Undeveloped land is always waiting to be developed, right up until the plan is made and implemented. A hiking-biking trail would create a relatively benign plan and use, reducing the likelihood of a less desirable development in the future. I guess my argument won the day, because the next thing I knew, Jim Kosteva (the University’s Government Relations liaison), Sue Gott and I were presenting the project proposal at an Ann Arbor Township public meeting. The Board fully supported the project and continues to do so. We were off and running.
That was in October of 2013, and the grant source was the Washtenaw County Recreation and Parks Department. I believe I told the Township board that I hoped trail construction would begin in the spring of 2014.

Who would have believed then that the project would take four years to bring to fruition? Since 2013, we’ve had many hiccups. Sometimes, the barriers seemed insurmountable. The project has evolved into a three-party endeavor with the Washtenaw County Road Commission, Ann Arbor Township and the University of Michigan as the parties, an arrangement that requires consistent communication and deep collaboration. Budgets have gone up and down. University leadership has changed. Gifts have fallen through. Deadlines have changed. But each time a barrier seems insurmountable, one or more of a very large team of dedicated, creative, generous and competent partners have found a way to jump the barrier and move onto the next challenge.

I hesitate to call out individual names because of the risk of leaving out one of the many dedicated partners, but a core group of very dedicated partners deserve special recognition for the success of the project. These are Mike Moran of Ann Arbor Township, Matthaei-Nichols passionate development director Gayle Steiner, Matt MacDonnell of the Washtenaw County Road Commission, Frances Mueller of the University of Michigan’s Provost Office, and Bob Grese.

The broader circle of supportive stakeholders includes our corporate neighbors Toyota and NSF as well as almost 150 individual donors, including the Matthaei sisters and Pam Braden in honor of Fred Matthaei Junior and Fred Matthaei III. University administrators (especially from the Office of University Development and A&E), County and Township employees and contractors, the Ann Arbor Township board, the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Department, advocates from the Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments (especially WCC Trustee Diana McKnight-Morton), and many, many more dedicated individuals have contributed to the success of the project.

To all of you, thank you.

Ride on.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Summer 2017 Nature Education Programs at Matthaei Botanical Gardens

A list of summer 2017 programs offered presented by our organization and by the non-profit and mission-related groups at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum.

Mon., July 10, 7-8:30 pm
The Milkweed Community
Presenter: Herb Study Group; Michigan Botanical Club; Wild Ones Ann Arbor
Everyone knows about the monarch-milkweed connection. But many other creatures also make their home in the milkweed community. Join Michigan naturalist and photographer Don Drife as he presents a program on the organisms that feed on and among the different species of milkweeds, 
and those that make passing visits.

Wed., July 12, 6–7:30 pm
Catching Your Breath
Presenter: MI Alzheimer’s Disease Center
A free monthly program for caregivers of adults with memory loss. Designed for learning skills for continued health and well-being. Info and to register: 734.936.8803.

Tues., July 18, 7:30 pm
Practicalities of Modern Electric Cars
Presenter: Sierra Club Huron Valley
Electric cars give us the promise of reduced greenhouse emissions and less reliance on fossil fuels. When buying a vehicle, many consumers are also concerned with costs, maintenance, reliability, etc. Tonight’s presentation explores some of these questions along with other areas to consider when 
purchasing an electric vehicle.

Sun., July 23, 10 am-2 pm
Hosta Round Table Discussion and Annual Plant Auction 
Presenter: Hosta Hybridizing Group
Come prepared for  a lively discussion about plant material, goals, making crosses, methodology, surprises, disappointments, successes, seed growing and plant management. 
Plus, a fundraising auction of rare or unusual hosta seedlings.

Wed., July 26, 5:30 pm
Bring Your Own Bonsai Workshop
Presenter: Ann Arbor Bonsai Society
Jack Sustic, AABS member and former curator of the National Bonsai & 
Penjing Museum in Washington DC., will host a bring your own tree discussion and workshop. Individual trees will be discussed, and there will be time for working on trees as well. This is a good opportunity to get ideas for trees that are under development.

Sun., July 30, 1-4 pm
Things with Wings
A family-friendly program featuring crafts, face-painting, butterflies, birds 
of prey, and more. Free.

Open House & Intern Presentations
Sun., Aug. 6, 1-2 pm
Members and the public are invited to this annual open house, where our interns present and discuss the projects they’ve worked on all summer.

Tues., Aug. 8, 7 pm 
Showcasing the Beauty of Bees: The Basics of Macrophotography
Presenter: Ann Arbor Backyard 
Beekeepers (A2B2)
Michigan State University Associate Professor of Entomology Zachary Huang discusses varroa mite control and associated diseases, especially nosema. Huang is an outstanding photographer of bees, and his photographs grace beekeeping internet sites and publications.

Tues., Aug. 15, 7:30 pm
About Enbridge Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac

Join us for a film about Enbridge Line 5. Line 5 is a twin set of pipelines that pass along the lakebed of the Straits of Mackinac, just west of the Mackinac Bridge. Currents in the Straits are strong, turbulent, and variable. The area is described as the absolute worst place for a pipeline. Placed in 1953, the pipelines are used to pump millions of gallons of crude oil, natural gas, and propane gas. The entire pipeline route travels through Wisconsin, through the southern edge of the Upper Peninsula, under the Straits of Mackinac, and down through the Lower Peninsula to Sarnia, where it again crosses to Sarnia, Ontario. The film discusses the risks to our Great Lakes, water, environment and economy. Please join David Holtz, Sierra Club Michigan Chapter Chair, to watch, discuss, and plan for action. Presented by Sierra Club Huron Valley. Free.

Sat., Aug. 19, 11 am  
Cattleya Orchid Species
Presenter: Great Lakes Judging (Orchids)
Diane Burton, accredited American Orchid Society judge, reviews important Cattleya species as they occur in nature. Monthly orchid judging takes place at 1.

Mon., Aug. 21, 10–11:30 am
Catching Your Breath
Presenter: MI Alzheimer’s Disease Center
A free monthly program for caregivers of adults with memory loss. Designed for learning skills for continued health and well-being. Info and to register: 734.936.8803.

Wed., Aug. 23, 6 pm
Images of Japan
Presenter: Ann Arbor Bonsai Society
AABS members Jack Wikle, Diane Faust, Cathy Strachan, Cyril Grum, and Kurt Smith share photos and impressions from their 2016 trip to Japan with renowned bonsai expert William Valavanis.

Sat. & Sun., Aug. 26 & 27
Ann Arbor Bonsai Society Show & Sale

Includes a display of over 100 bonsai, demos in the bonsai and penjing garden at Matthaei, bonsai accessories and materials, Peoples’ Choice awards, and more. $3 admission per adult (12 and under free) payable at the door.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Green Light for Shared-Use Trail at Matthaei Botanical Gardens

Construction begins March 2017 on a paved hiking and biking trail connecting the University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens with a network of trail systems throughout the area. The trail provides an important non-motorized link from the botanical gardens to Washtenaw County’s Parker Mill Park, with connections to the regional Border-to-Border Trail, the local Gallup Park pathway, and beyond.

The trail also provides a safer travel route that parallels but avoids Dixboro Rd., a busy Washtenaw County artery with a narrow shoulder inadequate for safe biking or walking. As it makes its way to Parker Mill Park, the two-mile path crosses parts of the botanical gardens, Radrick Golf Course, and the grounds of the U-M Adventure Leadership Program. The project is scheduled to be completed at the end of 2017.

The trail (marked in green) connects Matthaei
Botanical Gardens with the Washtenaw County
Border-to-Border trail system (in purple) and to
other trails and destinations locally and beyond.
When finished the new trail will also expand on existing non-motorized connections to University of Michigan and St. Joseph Mercy Hospitals, University of Michigan Central and North Campuses, Eastern Michigan University and Ypsilanti, Concordia University and Washtenaw County Community College, as well as public transportation to these destinations.

“The Arb and Gardens, the Adventure Leadership Program and Radrick Golf Course are united in valuing the environmental and personal health benefits of being outdoors,” says Karen Sikkenga, associate director of Matthaei-Nichols, “and nonmotorized transportation connections to U-M’s campus are central to Matthaei Botanical Gardens’ strategic goals. Currently more than 140,000 visitors each year carpool, ride a bike, or drive a car to get to Matthaei. The new trail will allow them to leave their cars safely behind.”

Sikkenga says that the idea for the trail came to her as she detoured on her bike through Radrick Golf Course one morning after Dixboro Rd. temporarily closed for repaving in 2013. But the trail concept isn’t new, she adds. “A Dixboro Road trail project had been explored prior to 2005, but it stalled when the various parties couldn’t agree on the details.”

This time, all the parties agreed. Trail construction caps a multi-year collaboration between the University, state and local agencies, businesses, and individuals. The trail travels over land owned by the University of Michigan, which granted an easement for the project. Washtenaw County Parks, Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, and Michigan Department of Transportation together provided more than $2,5M for the trail construction. In addition to these grants, over 125 individuals and businesses contributed almost $800K toward the trail.