Southwest Michigan is rich in natural resources — dunes, lakes, rivers, forests and farmland. Consequently, the region is also rich in people with a strong connection to the natural world.
“There’s a depth of knowledge in Southwest Michigan of how the natural world works that’s more extensive than a lot of places I’ve been,” says Peter Ter Louw, executive director of the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy. The forward-thinking founders of the SWMLC had considerable knowledge about and commitment to the preservation of nature, enabling the organization to be recognized as a national leader in land conservation. “(This is) a testament to the conservation ethic of Southwest Michigan,” Ter Louw says.
In the early 1990s, there was a surge of interest in land protection around the country. Locally, a group of science professors from Kalamazoo College and Western Michigan University were concerned that many of the natural areas where they had been taking their students for field study were disappearing. In the fall of 1991, they formed a land conservancy, a private nonprofit organization whose mission was to try to permanently protect some of these special places by acquiring land or development rights. Since then, the SWMLC has protected nearly 11,000 acres in the counties of Allegan, Barry, Berrien, Branch, Calhoun, Cass, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph and Van Buren. It owns 43 preserves outright and holds conservation easements on an additional 71 properties.
From the beginning, the conservancy’s founders knew it was just as important to manage, or steward, natural areas as it was to protect them from future development. “That was kind of a founding principle from day one,” says Ter Louw.
This early focus on land management is somewhat uncommon among land trusts even today, but it was especially so 20 years ago, say Ter Louw. According to the SWMLC’s conservation and stewardship director, Nate Fuller, this emphasis has made his job easier and makes his colleagues at other land trusts — who are just now trying to develop management programs — jealous. And while many other land trusts have to buy “every square inch” of the land they want to protect, “about 90 percent of what we hold is outright donations,” Fuller says.
These exceptional achievements have earned the SWMLC national recognition. In 2010 it received the National Land Trust Excellence Award from the Land Trust Alliance. In 2012, the Land Trust Accreditation Commission recognized the SWMLC with land trust accreditation, a status held by only 10 percent of the land trusts in the United States. Accreditation recognizes that the conservancy meets national standards for excellence, upholds the public trust and ensures that conservation efforts are permanent.
Most of the conservancy’s early acquisitions came about because property owners came forward offering to donate their land. The 230-acre Chipman Preserve in Comstock Township is one example. In 2001, the late John Chipman, founder of Landscape Forms Inc., and his wife, Patti, approached the conservancy with the intent to bequeath their property to it in their will in order to preserve it for future generations. As they discussed the long-term conservation plans with Fuller, they got excited and decided to make the transfer sooner. According to Ter Louw, they said, “Let’s give it to you now so we can see it happen in our lifetime.” The Chipmans were active participants in the restoration of their own land, which is now the conservancy’s most popular preserve.
Restoring the region’s native ecosystems, such as prairies, savannas and wetlands, to their natural states makes for more diverse and healthier landscapes. “We’ve really grown to recognize the greatest thing we can do for our land is build resiliency into it,” says Fuller. “If nature’s one thing, it’s dynamic. It’s never static.” He cites climate change as an example, noting that while some may argue about the rate of change, land stewards see undeniable proof that it is happening. “We see it every year on our properties, on our preserves. And we see that the healthiest ones can respond. That’s why we try to return health to our landscape, so that it can retain its water (and) its nutrients (and so) there’s a variety of habitats and plants and wildlife that can support each other.”
In conjunction with broader habitat conservation, the SWMLC works to protect federally listed endangered species. The organization’s “poster critter” is the Mitchell’s satyr butterfly, which is found at fewer than 20 sites in the world, most of which are in Southwest Michigan. “People debate about the intrinsic value of an endangered species, especially a little butterfly that no one ever sees, but it’s the canary in the coal mine,” says Fuller. “It’s the indicator species of our headwater stream systems.”
Most of the area’s main river systems start in spring-fed fens where the butterflies live, so maintaining butterfly habitat also benefits the region’s water supply. “If you’ve got Mitchell’s satyrs, you know you’ve got good-quality clean water,” Fuller says.
An active volunteer corps helps the organization with every aspect of its work, but stewardship activities are particularly attractive to many volunteers and keep them serving the Land Conservancy year after year. Volunteers help pull invasive plants, chop down non-native trees and sow native seeds on Saturday workdays at preserves all over the region. Local stewards — property donors who still live nearby and tend the land — also play a significant role. In the Kalamazoo area, a team of volunteers called the Wednesday Workday Warriors has been getting together at nearby preserves almost every week from March into November for the past 10 years.
Kristi Chapman, of Portage, is one of the Warriors and also coordinates other volunteers for their workdays. The retired sales trainer and technical writer from Pharmacia (now Pfizer) says she was hooked from her first workday. Many of the other volunteers are so knowledgeable about nature and conservation, she says, “it hardly feels like volunteering because sometimes it turns into a field trip.”
It’s still hard work. Chapman says she comes home after three hours of work dirty and exhausted but very satisfied. “I love when we do a prescribed burn,” she admits. “There is just nothing more fun than hearing the sound of a big, roaring fire and standing there in all our gear and feeling like we’re a part of something.
Seeking key habitats
Just as landscapes change over time, so has the conservancy. The organization has evolved to be more proactive about conservation planning, seeking out lands that are especially ecologically valuable. Due to a focus on watershed management in the last decade, Ter Louw says, “we’ve done a lot of conservation plans to identify the critical terrestrial habitats to protect water resources.”
One project aimed to find the most important properties for water quality and habitat protection in the Rocky River watershed, near Marcellus. In such cases, the conservancy does “a pretty substantial outreach campaign” to educate landowners about conservations plans, often working with previous property donors. “There’s no better way to communicate our message and provide an understanding to people than to have someone who’s done it and can speak to it in their own terms,” says Ter Louw.
As a result, the Rev. Vernon and Alice Miller contacted the Land Conservancy about protecting their land, and the Spirit Springs Sanctuary in Cass County was born. The out-of-the-way preserve opened to the public last June but is already getting a fair amount of use from hikers, bird-watchers and walkers. “Now we have 120 acres in the headwaters of the Rocky River that’s both a public resource and water conservation site,” Fuller says.
One of the conservancy’s most significant recent acquisitions is the Pilgrim Haven Natural Area, near South Haven, donated by the estate of Suzanne Parish in 2010. The 26-acre former camp includes 800 feet of frontage on Lake Michigan. The conservancy will lease the property to a local recreation authority, which will maintain it and provide for public use.
“This property is part of a bigger regional initiative that we’re involved in, protecting land up and down the lakeshore and along the Black River,” says Ter Louw.
Much of the work the conservancy does is in conjunction with governmental entities and private landowners. “We do a great job of collaborating and partnership building,” says Ter Louw. “It seems like every project we’ve done in the last five years we’ve had multiple partners, and that’s really what made the projects successful.”
As a testament to its reputation for collaboration, the SWMLC was appointed in 2010 by a Berrien County judge as a special trustee of 250 acres of designated natural area within Warren Dunes State Park as well as the nearby 300-acre Warren Woods State Natural Area. The properties had been under a long-term lease to the state by the E.K. Warren Foundation. Now the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment holds the titles, and the conservancy’s role is to oversee the state’s management of the parks, ensuring they are maintained forever as natural areas for public recreation.
Preserving places to walk
Public use is a key piece of conservation so the conservancy also endeavors to conserve places that people value for reasons other than ecological, such as for scenic beauty or historical significance. “There are other things that are harder to quantify,” Fuller says. “We’ll always be looking for the highest-quality natural areas we can protect, but we are also looking to help protect some of the public open spaces that may not be the richest ecological gems of the region but are incredibly important for the community for all those other reasons, (like) having a place to take a walk, having a place where kids can go.”
The Land Conservancy integrates public use into its conservation work by improving access to preserves and creating trails, signage and other amenities. Fuller says there is a “new and exciting project underway” to develop the conservancy’s newest preserve, 70 acres of rolling hills and deciduous woodlands on KL Avenue, which is not yet open to the public. Trails and parking will be developed hand-in-hand with restoration efforts on the property, which was donated by Dr. Dick Malott, of Oshtemo Township.
The township is a partner in the effort, incorporating the preserve in its parks-and-recreation plan.
A prime example of finding a balance between natural restoration and public access is Bow in the Clouds Preserve, on the Nazareth campus of the Congregation of St. Joseph, in northeast Kalamazoo. Sister Virginia “Ginny” Jones had been taking care of the preserve for nearly 40 years with the help of volunteers, including several Eagle Scouts. When she started working there, she saw a lot of native Eastern Massasauga rattlesnakes — a good sign, Jones says, because they need both “quality wetland and good woods.” Like the Mitchell’s satyr butterfly, the rattlesnakes are a bellwether species. But in more recent years Jones saw very few of the snakes. “I knew the habitat quality was going down, and I couldn’t do much about it,” she says.
Although the management of the property had gotten to be more work than Jones and her volunteers could handle, “we wanted to preserve that area — it’s in the city,” she says. “It combines both wetland and upland woods, and we kind of love it and wanted to be able to have it used by other people who would care about it and protect it.” Because Jones had attended some of the first meetings of the SWMLC and was quite familiar with its work, the Sisters donated the preserve to the conservancy in 2007.
“It’s a special gem right within the city limits,” says Fuller. The conservancy has done extensive habitat restoration and trail improvements, and now “we have this wonderful green corridor going through the city of Kalamazoo with surprisingly rich plant and wildlife,” he says.
The bulk of the acreage protected by the conservancy is private land, and it’s protected through conservation easements. A conservation easement grants the conservancy the right to limit development of a piece of land, while the landowner maintains all other rights and can use the property or sell it. Ter Louw says such an agreement recognizes that “there’s something of value, there’s a conservation value that’s worth protecting.” That value is purchased by or donated to the conservancy, and the easement remains on the deed in perpetuity, so that if the property changes hands, it will still be protected from development.
Though not available for public use, land protected by conservation easements is important ecologically. A project to protect Prairieville Creek, the main surface-water source for Gull Lake, involved acquiring conservation easements. “The Boudeman family alone has protected over 1,000 acres near Gull Lake,” says Fuller, and the conservancy acquired a grant to purchase additional conservation easements along the creek.
Helping property owners preserve their lands is rewarding, says Ter Louw. “The compensation isn’t financial. It’s fulfillment of what you’re able to accomplish. You can see the impact we have on the people and the land, and that’s incredibly powerful and fulfilling.”
The SWMLC has made a long-term commitment to the lands it protects so it needs to be around to protect them forever. It’s a tall order, but, as a nonprofit with a track record of collaborating with public and private entities, it is well positioned to do so.
“As state and federal dollars are drying up, it’s the private nonprofit conservation organizations that are stepping forward,” says Fuller. Government agencies and private land owners “see us as the tool of the future of how conservation is going to move forward.”