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Preserving land for the future
The Land Conservancy of West Michigan and its environmental partners are calling the development of a green infrastructure a top regional priority.

By Daniel Schoonmaker
Photography by Johnny Quirin


A few days before Christmas, volunteers and conservationists from the Land Conservancy of West Michigan walked to the northern boundary of Saugatuck’s Oval Beach — long marked by a sign declaring the pristine dunes beyond “Private Property” — and for the first time in generations stepped onto public land.

Conservancy staff wasted no time in knocking down the sign warning visitors to steer clear of the 4,400 feet of Lake Michigan frontage that links Saugatuck’s premier beach to the Kalamazoo River. Land Protection Director April Scholtz picked up the “Oval Beach Ends Here” sign and staked a fresh “Nature Preserve” sign in its place.

“This property has been a project of the Land Conservancy since the day it opened,” explained Scholtz, who has been with the organization since 1993, when it was known as the Natural Areas Conservancy of West Michigan. “We finally ended up with all the right pieces together at the right time.”

A year’s worth of volunteer labor has given the 171-acre Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area well-marked trails for hiking, fishing, bird-watching or a visit to the historic site of “Fishtown,” a small fishing community that existed in the late 1800s. By far the Conservancy’s highest-profile acquisition, it was nearly its greatest loss after Oklahoma businessman Aubrey McClendon narrowly outbid a Conservancy-led consortium for the larger property.

 

As the developer and the city of Saugatuck fought legal battles over taxes and zoning, the Conservancy sought the southern portion of the property not part of McClendon’s lakefront development. Eventually, it acquired it for the city at a total cost of $22.1 million through a public-private partnership of local and national interests (with some $2.5 million still needed by 2012).

“Our job is not to lie down in front of the bulldozers,” said Scholtz. “Our job is to work with landowners on a voluntary basis to conserve properties.”

The Land Conservancy and its partners practice a type of development regarded by many as every bit as important to West Michigan as the latest downtown high-rise or suburban industrial park. Armed with a long list of emotional and economic benefits, educators, sportsmen, environmentalists, economic development groups and other stakeholders are calling the development of green infrastructure a top regional priority, with the preservation of natural places a core component of that — arguably the most precious piece, as once natural lands are lost, it is virtually impossible to bring them back to their original state.

“How a community takes care of its natural places shows a lot about how it plans for the future,” said Peter Homeyer, executive director of the Land Conservancy. “We don’t know what our future needs will be, but we do know that access to natural lands and open spaces will be one of them. It’s not about how many acres we can save; real success is something that only the future can judge us on.”

The Conservancy has 14 publicly accessible preserves in West Michigan and has worked with local governments and the state to establish or expand park preserves. It also has negotiated dozens of conservation easements — permanent restrictions private landowners place on lands to bar future owners from development. These easements come with large tax incentives, including relief for future generations from the burden of paying taxes on the development value of the property, increasing the likelihood that it will stay in the family.

Pete DeBoer, Conservancy land protection specialist, explained how a pending easement is ensuring that 120 acres of family land near Baldwin is protected as habitat in perpetuity.

“(The landowner) asked me why people wouldn’t want to do this. I told her that a lot of people don’t want to lock up the land, and she couldn’t understand it. This is everything that she ever wanted of the land, and it’s everything her parents and grandparents ever wanted of it.”

Since 1996, Ottawa County voters have twice approved mileages to acquire undeveloped properties along the Lake Michigan shoreline and the Three Rivers corridor. Unlike conventional park systems focused on improving lands with softball diamonds and playgrounds, Ottawa County is focused on hiking, water access and habitat preservation. It now has 6,000 acres of natural areas, with plans to acquire an additional 1,000 in the next six years.

“Voters have seen what happened in places that developed quickly and later realized they didn’t preserve enough of their native landscape,” said Ottawa County Parks Department Director John Scholtz, husband to the Conservancy’s April Scholtz. “They recognized that our community was growing so fast that we would not have enough parkland if we didn’t act.

“People generally choose to develop the land with the most attractive features first, such as lake frontage. That is the same land that we’re after.”

This occurred in Grand Rapids a generation ago. Compared with its Midwest peers, the community has done a remarkable job of preserving natural spaces with facilities such as Blandford Nature Center, the city’s Huff and Aman parks, Calvin College’s Ecosystem Preserve and the Conservancy’s Lamberton Lake Fen Nature Preserve — all within city limits.

Calvin College began purchasing land for its 100-acre campus preserve 25 years ago. Initially begun as a scientific and educational endeavor with some thought toward future development, the college’s Christian philosophy led to preservation.

“We’re informed by the Biblical belief that God made creation and he called upon us to care for it,” said preserve manager Jeannette Henderson. “The founders realized that with the growth of the city, there needed to be a place set aside for the animals to come. They didn’t realize how important it would become.”
The refuge is home to coyotes, foxes and a wide variety of other animals and plants. It is also home to wetlands and a creek that are strategically important to the nearby Reeds Lake watershed in East Grand Rapids. Any disruption to the preserve would have a cascading effect on the habitat and water quality of the areas around it.

As it turns out, some lands are more important than others. The Land Conservancy uses 11 criteria (wetlands, endangered species, connectedness to other preserved properties, etc.) to target acquisitions. On that scale, the 24-acre Lamberton Lake Fen Nature Preserve (sometimes called the Hubba Tubba preserve for its well-known neighbor) with its endangered turtles and urban setting can easily outweigh much larger opportunities.

Conservationists contend that an undeveloped 300-acre property with wetlands that feed into a major watershed (such as the Rogue River, Muskegon River and Marquette River systems) positively affects the water quality of all the bodies of water it touches, improving fisheries and wildlife habitat, creating opportunities for recreation. If that resource is removed, the surrounding ecosystem suffers, as do hunters, fisherman and anyone that lives on or otherwise uses nearby lakes or rivers.

Behind the interpretative center at the Blandford Nature Center, these effects are plainly visible. The stream there serves as a drain for storm water for the suburban neighborhood adjacent to the Blandford property. Forty years ago, it was a slight meandering creek, but it has since carved out a deep ravine that feeds sediment into the Brandywine Creek system, regarded as one of the highest quality waters in the state, altering its cobblestone bed and putting the entire ecosystem at risk. More obvious is how the erosion has cut away the hill on which the interpretative center sits, threatening to topple it into the ravine.

“You think you can leave nature to itself, but you can’t,” said Blandford Executive Director Annoesjka Steinman. “You still have the impacts of man.”

The vast majority of land preservation is not acquisition but managing issues such as Blandford’s erosion (which it hopes to address as a volunteer project) or its exploding deer population. Preserves face a constant threat of invasive species such as garlic mustard or autumn olive, with thousands of volunteers mobilizing to pull out the habitat-destroying plants and the Conservancy now performing the prescribed burns.

“People think the only way to protect the land is to stop the bulldozer,” said Melanie Manion, conservancy stewardship coordinator. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Daniel Schoonmaker is a freelance writer based in Grand Rapids. GR

Cristina Stavro is a former Gemini intern and a student at Calvin College.

   
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