Landslide 2011: The Landscape I Love
Photograph © Allison Barnes
Photograph © Michael Carroll Mettler

Life, nature, and art exist in a careful balance. Notions of what is precious and precarious often lie side by side—every now and then they converge in something memorable and celebratory as in the Saugatuck Dunes. — Joseph Antenucci Bercherer

History of Saugatuck Dunes

(upper) The now buried town of Singapore in 1869;
(lower) The Ox-Bow Summer School of Art, circa 1950.
Images courtesy Saugatuck Douglas Historical Society.

Native Americans settled the dunes along the shores of Lake Michigan and the Kalamazoo River, building birch bark canoes and trading from the prime location. Early European traders and, later, American lumbermen moved to the area, establishing year-round settlements in the 1830s that would become the towns of Saugatuck and Douglas. Writer James Fennimore Cooper was one such settler and would later immortalize his experience with the Native Americans in his book Oak Openings (1848). Mills were set up to process the region’s harvested lumber, but, by 1880, clear-cutting decimated the abundant timberlands.

In the late 19th century, the area also became an attraction for Chicagoans. In 1898, social reformer Reverend George Gray established his “Chautauqua for the Poor Forward Movement Camp” in the region. The 100-plus acre camp under the auspices of the Presbytery of Chicago continues to provide generations of inner-city children the opportunity to experience the dunes. The Ox-Bow Summer School of Art, established at the turn of the century, operates as the oldest summer school of painting in the country. The school helped usher in the American era of plein air painting, which focused on painting outdoors, as opposed to in a studio, and encouraged collectors and benefactors to visit the region.

At the same time, a group of Chicagoans began work to reclaim the region’s deforested land and helped launch a successful fruit industry in order to promote more sustainable local agricultural practices. With the economy stabilizing and the recreational offerings growing, a large influx of summer cottages and tourists came to the area. The beaches and dunes attracted summer visitors from all over the Midwest.

Today, a thousand acres of protected open space in the Saugatuck Dunes State Park, over 20 art galleries and working artist studios, churches of all faiths, and a diverse collection of historic architectural styles, reflect the area’s many layers of settlement. The buildings from the former milling town of Singapore that could be salvaged were moved into town, where a handful still stand, but the bank and graves of the early settlers rest where they were buried at the last undeveloped harbor mouth on Lake Michigan. In 2009, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Saugatuck and the nearby town of Douglas to its annual list of America's Dozen Distinctive Destinations and, in 2010, reiterated its significant by naming it to their annual list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

The Saugatuck Douglas Dunes Coastal Area lies within three different governmental jurisdictions: the City of Saugatuck, the Village of Douglas, and Saugatuck Township. Each of these entities has developed planning and zoning regulations that have, at times, been at odds. However, the agencies worked together to develop the Tri-Community Comprehensive Plan, which, among other things, established land-use goals. The plan recognized that open space was a significant economic driver of the local tourist economy and proposed the creation of a park along the lakefront that would link the Saugatuck Dunes State Park with Oval Beach and the Presbyterian Camps to the south.

Spurred by an ultimately unsuccessful proposal to install a water treatment plant in the state park, David Swan has worked for more than a decade to preserve the natural and cultural resources of the dunes. In 2006, he led a group of local organizations in an effort to support the implementation of the updated Tri-Community Master Plan, concurrently working with public officials and private citizens to enforce local zoning ordinances. The coalition of groups and hundreds of interested citizens formed the nonprofit Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance in 2007.

Since that time, Mr. Swan has directed scientists from around the state in the development of a comprehensive inventory of flora and fauna throughout the area and worked with a cartographer to map out the critical dune areas. This information has been invaluable to better understanding the impact of potential development in the area as well as providing the public with a better understanding of the site’s natural resources. The efforts have also served to engage the media, citizens, and officials. As the current President of the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance, Mr. Swan has advocated for funding more research and land acquisition of key resources in the region. He continues to tirelessly advocate for implementation of locally-determined zoning rules that serve to protect the dunes’ resources.

Photograph by Erin Wilkinson


In 2000, a key 400-acre lakefront parcel came up for sale and State and local officials and business leaders, working in concert with the Conservation Fund, the Land Conservancy of West Michigan, and the Nature Conservancy, began negotiations to purchase the land. A private developer, however, purchased the culturally and environmentally significant property and has proposed extensive plans that challenge existing zoning and permit regulations meant to guide development of the dunes.

David Swan
David Swan

Saugatuck Dunes, MI

How You Can Help

The public can help to preserve this site by supporting the current zoning regulations. Local residents are encouraged to participate in the public meeting process as well as the planning and zoning challenges. Professionals nationwide are encouraged to write letters of support for guided development that thoughtfully addresses the regional resources. The Alliance is currently working to develop an alternative plan that would respect the historic, environmental, and cultural assets of the land. The goal of the Alliance will be to involve the community in developing a new vision. For more information, visit the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance website.

Learn More

Saugatuck Dunes

Saugatuck Historic Coastal
Survey Report


Photography by 
Michael Carroll Mettler

As a painter, Michael Carroll Mettler began taking a camera on trips into the ancient Maya sites of Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala in order to retain details for later work. Visits to these sites exposed him to their original spiritual energy and the peoples’ enormous creative expressions, ranging from stone palaces to ornate pottery. The modern villages continue to be identified by the distinct set of colors, patterns, and symbols found on the back-strap looms where women weavers create the brightly colored, traditional clothes. Each trip, from the late 1980s through the 1990s, drew Mettler further into the natural settings of sacred lakes, rivers, mountains, caves, and volcanoes and allowed him to appreciate nature in a holistic sense, feeling it as the live body supporting the Maya spiritual sensibility. The images he returned with overwhelmed; the painter gave way to a self-taught photographer and Nature has continued to educate him ever since. Mettler has parlayed that ability at home in the Midwest, amongst the city parks, western Michigan Dunes, and vast Lake Michigan. Today, his goal as a photographer is to express as clearly and as fully as possible the sacred relationship we have with nature.


presenting sponsor
The Davey Tree Expert Company
Education Partner

Land Trust Alliance