Sunday, March 8, 2015

Gerrits Sanctuary Dedication

Bill Collins, Executive Director, Thumb Land Conservancy

On July 16, 2009, the TLC was given its second nature sanctuary, a gift of Lois Gerrits, wife of the late Dr. James F. Gerrits, a well-known doctor in Saint Clair County.

The Gerrits Sanctuary is 38.5 acres, a piece of one of the largest forest tracts remaining near Lake Saint Clair, straddling the border of Saint Clair and Macomb Counties. The sanctuary lies along the east boundary of the City of New Baltimore. Although development has taken a toll on nearby land, the forest on the sanctuary is mature and contains many high quality woodland species. It is part of what appears to be the largest and least fragmented forest tract remaining along the Great Lakes coastline from Ohio north through the Algonac area, excluding Grosse Ile near Detroit, and Walpole Island on the Ontario side. The southern half of the Gerrits Sanctuary is a mix of mature upland and swamp forest. The north half is old-field that was once farmed by the Gerrits family. Located only about ¾ mile north of Anchor Bay, this coastal habitat is critical for migratory birds and insects such as butterflies that move along the Great Lakes.

I first noticed this forest back in 2002-03 when I was working to protect another large forest tract not far southwest in Chesterfield Township, near 23 Mile Road and Jefferson Avenue. The forest was partially developed as “Secluded Woods” and “Lakeview Estates”, but that’s another story. In studying the remaining forest fragments near Lake Saint Clair, the large fragment of which the Gerrits Sanctuary is a part, caught my attention. I even spent part of a day walking through the forest back then, and found a high quality community with what appeared to be suitable habitat for Michigan Endangered Painted Trillium – Trillium undulatum. I later told Macomb County officials at a public hearing, that one day they would look back and regret not having protected forests like those at 23 Mile and Jefferson, and the tract that would contain the Gerrits Sanctuary about 6 years later. I could not have guessed that within a few years I would have the opportunity to protect part of that very forest just given to me by the owner. For that, I am very grateful.

The Gerrits Sanctuary, part of one of the largest remaining forest tracts along the Great Lakes from Ohio north to Algonac.

The property closing was held at the Law Offices of Timothy J. Lozen, with attorney Anna Kovar and TLC executive board members William Collins and Terry Gill present. Ullenbruch Flowers and Gifts of Port Huron kindly donated a nice bouquet of flowers to express our appreciation to Mrs. Gerrits. Lois shared several stories about her and her husband at the closing. Dr. Gerrits was co-pilot of a bomber in World War II, and later a fighter and test pilot. Because of his war experiences, he became an outspoken critic of war. He and Lois twice voluntarily went to Vietnam in the 1960’s, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and Catholic Church, to provide civilian medical care to the people of both South and North Vietnam.

Dr. Gerrits later became involved with a residential development partner on land that was part of the Gerrits family farm. The parcel that Mrs. Gerrits donated to the TLC was also part of the farm, although the southern half remains forested. Because of development of adjacent land, the parcel was left landlocked. It also has a storm sewer pump station with a complicated legal history. The TLC was aware of these issues before our closing and we felt we could deal with them for the sake of protecting the natural area on the site. For details on this matter, refer back to my posting a few days ago, “Ira Township Dispute 2010 – 2012”.

In early 2011, in the midst of our troubles, Susan Gerrits, daughter of James and Lois Gerrits, suggested that we have a formal dedication of the Gerrits Sanctuary. This is something the TLC had hoped to do eventually, but with the hassle that Ira Township was giving us, I wasn’t even sure that we’d hang on to the property very long. We planned for the dedication anyway.
The Gerrits Sanctuary was dedicated on November 26, 2011 with a large gathering of the Gerrits family. Present were all the children of James and Lois Gerrits – Susan Gerrits, Peter Gerrits, Peggy Gerrits, Tom Gerrits, and Tim Gerrits. Also present were Randy and Kathleen Schein, and many other family members.

Left to right: Peter, Peggy, Tom, Susan, and Tim Gerrits.

As part of the dedication ceremony, Susan Gerrits read an excerpt from “Here with the Long Grass Rippling” a poem by Malcolm Cowley written in 1968:

I pray for this:
to walk as humbly on the earth as my father and mother did;
to greatly love a few;
to love the earth, to be sparing of what it yields,
and not to leave it poorer for my long presence;
to speak some words in patterns that will be remembered,
and again the voice be heard to exult or mourn -
all this, and in some corner where nettles grew in the black soil,
to plant and hoe a dozen hills of corn.”

Susan and I agree that one day we would like to set a big boulder on the sanctuary with a plaque or engraving that will serve as a monument to Dr. Gerrits and Lois Gerrits.

After our dedication ceremony, we all went about some fall stewardship work. Some picked up trash. There wasn’t a lot of litter, especially for being located next to a large modular home park and having not been cleaned-up much before. Others, including myself, did some much needed tree cutting along the property line. One of the biggest ongoing concerns about forested nature preserves adjacent to residential areas is trying to keep dead trees from falling on houses. This has been especially true since the Emerald Ash Borer hit.

Later, the TLC executive board joined the Gerrits family for a late lunch at the Green Street Tavern in New Baltimore, the Gerrits’ favorite restaurant. I’ll never forget, they gave us an applause when we walked in. And they even paid our bill. Wow! Thank you to the Gerrits family and I hope we can do it again.