The Lake Michigan coast near Grand Haven features two spectacular natural areas, each of which gives rise to towering sand dunes that are cloaked by lush forests.
The Rosy Mound Natural Area and North Ottawa Dunes are stellar examples of freshwater dune ecosystems in the Great Lakes region, which has the largest assemblage of freshwater dunes on the planet.
Both sites would likely be sand mines or residential subdivisions today were it not for the work of Ottawa County Parks Commission Director John Scholtz.
Local officials and conservation leaders say Scholtz, 59, has been the central figure in efforts to increase public ownership of park lands and preserve valuable natural features in Ottawa County — one of Michigan’s fastest-growing counties.
“John Scholtz is the Teddy Roosevelt of Ottawa County,” said Spring Lake Township Supervisor John Nash. Roosevelt, a century ago, established five national parks and is considered one of the nation’s greatest conservation leaders.
Twenty-five years at parks helm
Scholtz has been at the helm of the Ottawa County Parks Commission since 1987. He was hired from the Saginaw County Parks Department shortly after Ottawa County created its Parks Commission.
At the time, Ottawa County owned 419 acres of park; today, the figure is 6,349 acres of land in 40 parks and natural areas.
The county’s parks portfolio includes six parks with Lake Michigan beaches, 14 parks or natural areas along the Grand River, 70 miles of recreational trails and a year-round recreation program.
“It’s a world-class county park system because of citizens who cared enough to establish designated funding and John's quiet, trusted leadership and vision,” said Julie Stoneman, program manager at the Heart of the Lakes Center for Land Conservation Policy in Grand Ledge. “John might not be aware of how powerful his role has been … and he won’t take credit.”
Scholtz said Ottawa County’s establishment of a Parks Commission in the 1980s, followed by a parks millage that county voters first approved in 1996, laid the foundation for an ambitious land acquisition program. That millage now generates about $3 million annually -- all of which goes to the parks system.
But it was Scholtz who leveraged revenue from the parks millage to obtain numerous large grants from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund over the last quarter-century.
In fact, Ottawa County has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Natural Resources Trust Fund, a state fund that uses oil and gas royalties to acquire and develop recreational land. The Trust Fund has given the county $15.1 million in grants over the past three decades, according to state data.
“I think we’ve been able to acquire properties that captured the public’s imagination … and we presented quality projects to the Trust Fund,” Scholtz said.
Ann Conklin, chief operating officer at the Michigan Recreation and Parks Association, said Scholtz is a leader among municipal parks managers.
“He understands the process of getting grants, he develops quality projects that the community wants and those are tied to great planning,” Conklin said. “He’s really been a pioneer in a lot of ways.”
Scholtz says he’s always had “a love of the natural resources in this area” – a passion that led him to earn an advanced degree in parks management at Michigan State University and into a long career.
Rapid growth spurs parks drive
Ottawa County began its aggressive pursuit of parklands in the mid-1990s. Scholtz said many residents were concerned that rapid growth was consuming too much open space, particularly near Lake Michigan, the Grand River and other waterways.
“I think your average person could see that we were losing a lot of open space,” Scholtz said. “There was this sense that if we didn’t do something in the 1990s it was going to be too late.”
The 1996 parks millage of 0.33 mills was supported by 53 percent of Ottawa County voters. In 2007, 67 percent of county voters supported a 10-year renewal of the millage.
Given the anti-tax sentiment with many voters, it seems almost quaint that Scholtz and the Parks Commission were able to raise property taxes for parks in one of Michigan’s most politically conservative counties. (Mitt Romney won 68 percent of the county’s votes in 2012 – outpacing his statewide total by nearly 25 percentage points.)
Scholtz said the keys were: Allowing voters to decide the fate of a parks millage; leveraging county funds to secure state grants; convincing politically conservative voters that acquiring parkland was an investment in the community’s future; and making good on the promise to develop high-quality parks.
The state Trust Fund contributed $3.9 million toward Ottawa County’s purchase of the 513-acre North Ottawa Dunes property from a sand mining firm. The county chipped in $2.1 million and local residents donated the remaining $1.5 million.
But Scholtz’s calm demeanor, reputation and savvy negotiating skills created an opportunity for the county to acquire the North Ottawa Dunes.
He intervened amid a heated public debate over plans to mine the dunes and then build homes on the site. Scholtz persuaded the mining firm’s owners to sell Ottawa County the site for $2 million less than its appraised value.
That acquisition was one of Scholtz’s greatest achievements because it fit with his underlying mission: To create greenways that preserve large tracts of undeveloped land while providing recreational opportunities for the public.
The North Ottawa Dunes project created a five-mile long greenway along the Lake Michigan coast by linking the county’s North Beach Park to P.J. Hoffmaster State Park in Norton Shores.
The county has also acquired large tracts of land to create greenways along the Grand River.
“The best way to preserve the ecological integrity of the landscape is to focus on corridors, so wildlife can move; even plants move within corridors,” Scholtz said.
This stewardship of the outdoors has become a family affair, too.
Scholtz’s wife, April, is land protection director for the Land Conservancy of West Michigan.
Fittingly, Scholtz’s private interests mirror his career. The married father of two likes to hike, cross-country ski and lakeshores:
“I actively use our parks, so I see the system from a park user’s perspective.”