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Leelanau Conservany Logo The Leelanau Conservancy's Whaleback Project
by the Leelanau Conservancy


Whaleback, the brooding hill which rises over 300 feet above the western shoreline of Leelanau County, has been the subject of concern and speculation for many years. The largest undeveloped tract of shoreline property remaining in Leelanau County, the big hill just south of Leland is one of the most recognizable landscape features in Leelanau. Over the years, many people have expressed concern for the future of this landmark, encouraging the Conservancy to work toward the preservation of the property. There seems to be a special quality to this particular place. In the spring, fingers of fog move up the deep ravines in the western face of the hill. Most people have never set foot on the property, but many look up at Whaleback from Lake Michigan or across Lake Leelanau, and they want to think it will stay pretty much the way it looks right now.

Named for its whalelike silhouette, Whaleback is a point of focus for anyone looking out over Lake Michigan, from any high vantage point in the northern half of Leelanau County, as well as from many Lake Michigan beaches. Sailors use it as a point of reference. Encompassing 117 acres and 3700 feet of lakeshore, Whaleback's towering bluffs rise 300 feet above Lake Michigan and yield spectacular views.


The Conservancy has signed a purchase agreement to buy a 50% undivided interest in Whaleback from Bill Hancock and Anita Jones for $800,000. The Conservancy has set a goal to raise $850,000 which includes the purchase price plus management and stewardship costs by the end of May. A partition plan has been drafted and agreed to by the owners of the property.


1. To preserve the visual character of the bluff, both close-up and as viewed from a distance.

2. Protect a significant natural habitat for rare and endangered species, such as bald eagles and barred owls.

3. To protect a major wildlife corridor, undeveloped Lake Michigan shoreline, and add to the protected acreage of the Indiana Woods Conservation Easement (100+ acres).

4. Realizing that our 50% interest won't prohibit all development in the future, goals for the partition plan are to ensure that future residential development will be of an appropriate scale, and will not damage the landscape or nearby protected areas.


Whaleback is one of the most distinct landscape features of Leelanau County. It is home to a unique assemblage of plants adapted for life on this windswept bluff. There are four zones of vegetation:

1. Open boulder beach, subjected to intense wave-action. The beach is home to sea rocket and shorebirds.

2. Steep gravel bluff, stabilized by white cedar, oak and birch, with deep ravines hiding pockets of wildflowers. The bluff harbors a distinct assemblage of plants. Exposed ridges are stabilized by the roots of sun-loving red oaks, while deep ravines conceal ferns and orchids which grow in damp, cold, shady places.

3. The hilltop where intense winds cause trees to be stunted and flagged, allowing a rich understory of forest flowers such as trillium and columbine to develop. Dominant trees include red oak, and maple.

4. Mixed hardwood forest on gentle slopes and protected valleys away from desiccating winds. The rich woods contain large second-growth oak, beech, maple and ash.

Map of Whaleback and surrounding areaTHE PARTITION PLAN

The Conservancy has worked with the other two property owners, Fred Roth and Jane Roth Thompson to create a partition plan which will preserve 85% of the property.

The plan accomplishes the Conservancy's goals for the property, while allowing limited development of the Roth/Thompson portion. In this novel arrangement, the Conservancy will give up some outright ownership in favor of conservation easements restricting development from private land on Whaleback. Under the terms of the plan, the property would be divided into four areas. Following purchase and partition, the public will be able to access the Whaleback Natural Area by an 1,800 foot long trail, sited along the course of an overgrown two-track access road. The trail makes its gentle ascent through deep hardwood forest to the northern edge of a small clearing, formerly an apple orchard. From there, it proceeds along the edge of the field to the towering bluff top. This highest portion of the property offers spectacular views over Lake Michigan. In the future, the bluff-edge trail, which has been shared by humans and wildlife for centuries, can be expanded into a loop trail. In all, the trail will be about one mile long. Limited parking will be provided at the base of the hill, near M-22.


A big boost to the project came last summer when several of the donors of conservation easements in Indiana Woods came forward with a challenge to neighbors and friends to help finance the project. Several families talked over the situation, and they offered to put up about half of our expected purchase price. Since that time, other families have stepped forward and, to date, $625,000 has been pledged toward the project We are now asking you to help us raise the final $225,000 needed to make this dream a reality. You may pledge over several years, or make a one time donation.

"What is something like Whaleback worth to the people of this County?" asks Ed Collins Conservancy Founder. "In a sense, whatever it takes. Even if we don't hike it, but only drive by or look at this hill from the beach at Good Harbor or from the ridges of East Leland, or we look at the changing textures of sun and shade on the hill and we recognize that this landmark feature is preserved for future generations, we've got our money's worth."

The Leelanau Conservancy is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the character of Leelanau County. Conservancy projects such as this are solely funded by donations.
Please make your contribution today.

Links From This Article
Gull Island Efforts
M-22 Transportation Corridor: Part I
M-22 Transportation Corridor: Part II

The Leelanau Conservancy may be reached at:
616-256-9665 | P.O. Box 1007 | Leland | MI 49654

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