Sunday, March 22, 2015

Land Protection Methods

Bill Collins, Executive Director, Thumb Land Conservancy

I’ve worked as an ecologist and wetland consultant for 25 years. If you are counting on wetlands or rare species to protect a treasured natural area near you, think again. While I’ve had some success in protection, I’ve seen areas with extensive wetlands, old-growth forest, Endangered or Threatened species, significant wildlife values, and even an ancient Native American burial site, all destroyed by development.

If you are hoping that certain agencies or organizations will come to the rescue, it’s very unlikely. Trust me. On some sites we’ve tried just about everything. We’ve even gone to court and presented information to agencies and politicians at higher levels than you might imagine. You should also know that even when regulatory protection is successful, it is within a very specific statutory framework particular to a resource. So, for example, while much of a site may be protected as wetland, it doesn’t mean that the owner can’t clear-cut the forest. Regulatory success may also be temporary, lasting only until the next challenge by the landowner and their team of consultants and attorneys, or until the next legislative or rule changes affect the resource regulation. We’ve had a lot of changes in wetland regulation over the past 5 or 6 years in Michigan.

Regarding the various organizations working in nature preservation, just like the TLC, they all have specific missions and target areas. The statewide groups are usually only interested in natural areas or species that are of significance on a statewide, ecoregional, or sometimes even global level. Other groups are largely dedicated to particular values such as water quality, certain types of wildlife, certain natural communities, or agricultural lands.

In my years of ecological work, both as a private consultant and previously having worked for The Nature Conservancy and on a brief contract basis with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Division and the Michigan Nature Association, I noticed that other parts of Michigan get much of the attention while the Thumb has been mostly left out. An exception to this is the early history of the Michigan Nature Association, but that’s another story. There has been some effort to protect the Saint Clair River delta, including Dickinson Island, Harsens Island, and the Algonac State Park vicinity. The Saint Clair River has had a lot of funding. Much of the Minden Bog in Sanilac County has been protected. There has been a fair amount of attention given to lands along the Saginaw Bay. But otherwise, the Thumb seems to have been largely ignored by State and federal efforts, even though we have a lot of great natural features here. Only in recent years have I heard anything about the Port Huron State Game Area being recognized as the significant natural area that it is.

So, the message here is, if you want to make sure natural lands are protected, it is best to be proactive about it. That means, before the for-sale signs go up, before you read about it in the newspaper, before the public notice for a permit application, and before the heavy equipment arrives on site, you need to get the land under a conservation easement or you need to make sure it is owned by a conservancy or other owner committed to long-term preservation. I fully realize that the prospects are daunting and sometimes it’s just impossible I guess. But, at the risk of giving you just another cliché, you truly don’t know until you try.

In an effort to help anyone interested in preservation, the TLC has produced a summary of various land protection methods. The pages of this document are provided below. Donations and conservation easements are standard for land conservancies. Other methods, like reserved life estates, are more elaborate but provide greater flexibility. Still other options, like deeded access, are on the edge of being experimental, but could accomplish land protection where all else fails.

If you are interested in working to preserve any piece of land and bring the project to the TLC, we will try to work with you as best we can to help. You may have a project ready to go or it may just be a vague idea. Regardless, contact us and we will see what we can do together.