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Shelden Trails: One of the Most Biodiverse Forest Tracts in Southeast Michigan

The Shelden Woodlands constitute a significant section of an important 800-acre forest habitat that is one of the largest and most biodiverse forest tracts in southeast Michigan. About fourteen miles of trails on 670 acres, running along an area of unique typography (ranging in elevation from 800 to 950 feet above sea level) and containing steep hills, woodlands, grasslands, wetlands, and the historic remnants of the Shelden Estate Greenhill Farm, comprise the Shelden Trails.  The geography of this area was influenced by glacial end moraines leaving a diverse topography and enhancing the beauty of the area.  The Michigan Natural Features Inventory’s (MNFI) report on Stony Creek Metropark indicates that much of the vegetation in the Shelden Woodlands area is relatively unchanged from what was found in the 1800s and constitutes a significant contribution to the region’s biodiversity.

The MNFI and Metroparks Natural Resources department staff have found rare occurrences of State threatened species in the Shelden Wet-Mesic Forest. In addition, the MNFI states that, “The overstory is diverse and includes: silver maple American beech, basswood, yellow birch, American elm, sugar maple, swamp white oak, red oak, shagbark hickory, and white oak. Spice bush is common within the shrub layer.  Common ground flora species include: skunk cabbage, Jack in the pulpit, broad-leaved goldenrod, wild ginger, and naked miterwort. In addition, numerous fern species were observed including: maidenhair fern, lady fern, Ney York fern, Christmas fern, silvery spleenwort, and broad beech fern. Vernal pools are abundant and provide critical breeding habitat for the numerous frogs and salamanders that inhabit the site.”

The MNFI also found that the Sheldon Wet-Mesic Prairie contains over forty species prairie plants including big bluestem, little bluestem, smooth aster, sedge, pale spiked lobelia, bottle gentian, whorled loosestrife, black eyed Susan, Riddell’s goldenrod, Culver’s root, shrubby cinquefoil, and tamarack.

The Shelden Trails were not explicitly designed as a multi-use trail system.  A large portion of the trails are composed of the historic Shelden estate, gifted to Stony Creek Metropark by Elizabeth Shelden in 1981 for public recreation and developed mainly from old roads, footpaths, and trails.  The roads and footpaths ran among the estate’s nine buildings (no longer in existence). The trails in much of the surrounding land were designed by a landscape architect in the late 1920s/early 1930s to highlight natural features as part of the country manor estate and used by both people and horses.  Despite this long-term use the conservation value of the property has persisted. 

Although this land is now protected as part of Stony Creek Metropark, its lack of purposeful design has led to off-trail paths being developed, a lack of safety for users, and trails running too close to sensitive habitat areas. Renovations to the trail system will be specifically designed to help protect and preserve this area and its biodiversity, making it more sustainable and discouraging users from leaving the trails and creating “bandit” trails that encroach on critical habitat. Taking an ecological approach to trail redesign and reconstruction will serve to protect the earth’s beauty and bounty.

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