Conservancies preserve special areas in county
Bob Gross, Times Herald 5:09 p.m. EDT March 21, 2015
The land preservation movement in Michigan started in St. Clair County.
In 1960, the fledgling Michigan Nature Association made its first purchase, 40 acres north of Capac originally called Redwing Acres, but now known as the Louis G. Senghas Memorial.
"We have a long history in St. Clair County, and our roots going back to the 1950s as Michigan's first land trust go back to St. Clair County," said Garret Johnson, executive director of the association.
The MNA now has more than 170 nature sanctuaries in Michigan, including about 13 in St. Clair County.
"That puts St. Clair County as one of the early innovators in terms of land preservation," Johnson said.
For years, the MNA was based in Avoca — the home of its founder, Bertha Daubendiek. It has offices now in Okemos.
"We were in the first generation, the first 30 or 40 back in the 1950s," Johnson said.
"The MNA is Michigan's first and we're home grown," he said. "We retain that local citizen, do it on our own kind of community spirit."
The association is the largest landowner of the six nature conservancies with holdings or that work in St. Clair County. Those conservancies create nature preserves, some of which are open to the public and some that require a guide to visit, and work with municipalities to preserve areas that are unique to the county.
One of the newest kids on the block is the Blue Water Land Fund. It's the entity created by the Community Foundation of St. Clair County to hold title to and guide the preservation of the Blue Water River Walk, which opened in June 2014.
Jenifer Kusch is the secretary of the land fund.
"The riverfront definitely is a priority of ours," Kusch said. "The properties that we are interested in are those that would have some value to conserve. An empty lot in town might be a nice gift, but it could not be one we would likely hold in trust."
Potential donors, she said, first would contact Randy Maiers, executive director of the community foundation at (810) 984-4761.
"A group from the land fund would supply a questionnaire and determine the next steps, whether we would be interested in visiting the property ... we do have a protocol for it," she said.
Conservancies, she said, exist to save some of the special areas.
"It is important because of the rapid pace of development and habitat destruction that some special places be saved for the enjoyment of citizens and the continued viability of species," Kusch said.
Conservancies also enjoy a flexibility that public agencies don't. For example, conservancies can purchase a piece of critical property and hold it in trust for a public entity until that entity can put together the funding to purchase it outright.
Mark Brochu, director of St. Clair County Parks and Recreation, said the county has used that funding mechanism several times to add to the park system.
"The first time we did it was when we purchased the property for Fort Gratiot County Park," he said.
The Trust for Public Land originally was going to hold the property for the county but had to drop out when the price increased. Brochu said Citizens First stepped in and held the property for the county.
The Trust for Public Land was able to hold the property that became Columbus County Park until the county could secure funding, Brochu said.
On Thursday, he said, county commissioners approved two agreements with the community foundation and the Six Rivers Regional Land Conservancy, which is based in Oakland Township.
The community foundation will purchase and hold for the county 38.79 acres on the Pine River adjacent to Goodells County Park, and the county will reimburse the foundation $180,000 plus incidentals, Brochu said. Six Rivers, he said, will purchase and hold 25.99 acres northwest of Columbus County Park on the Belle River, and the county will reimburse it for $77,000, also plus incidentals.
"It's a process that helps us gain control of the property and maintain our eligibility (for a Natural Resources Trust Fund grant)," Brochu said.
The Six Rivers conservancy — which grew out of the Oakland and Macomb land conservancies — is named for six major rivers that rise in or touch Oakland County: the Huron, the Rouge, the Clinton, the Shiawassee, the Flint and the Belle, said Chris Bunch, the conservancy's executive director.
"If you were going to argue why we are called Six Rivers Land Conservancy, you would argue about whether the Belle River actually crosses into Oakland County, while standing in a wetland," he said.
The conservancy has been working with the Belle River Watershed Group to develop a watershed management plan. In 2011, the county health department received $250,000 to develop a plan for the watershed.
"We've been working on prioritizing land for preservation for water quality purposes," Bunch said. "That's part of the Belle River Watershed Management Plan that is being run by the St. Clair County Health Department."
One of the major issues identified in the Belle River, he said, is fallen trees, log jams and woody debris.
He said four years ago, he and another staff member tried to kayak the Belle from Columbus County Park to a takeout at King Road in China Township.
"We had to portage around the world's largest logjam," he said. "It was huge. I swear it was 100 yards long.
"One of the priorities of that watershed plan is to get a lot of that woody debris cleared out to make it more accessible," he said.
The Thumb Land Conservancy, which is based in Marlette, has three properties in St. Clair County, said Bill Collins, the conservancy director. The Dead End Woods comprises 18 acres in Fort Gratiot; the Peltier Beach Ridge Sanctuary is 11.5 acres at Metcalf and M-25; and the Dr. James F. Gerrits Memorial Sanctuary is 38.5 acres in Ira Township.
The Peltier and Dead End Woods properties were conserved as mitigation for wetlands developments, Collins said; the Gerrits property was a gift to the conservancy.
"We'll work with anybody who has any good ideas to preserve any property," he said. "We have to work within our bylaws. We have to focus on natural areas, but we'll consider any project anybody brings up."
The Nature Conservancy, one of the largest land trusts in the United States, worked with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on Dickinson Island in the 1990s, said Lisa Niemi, conservation information coordinator with the conservancy.
"We haven't worked there in a while," she said. "What we did on Dickinson is we worked with the DNR and we acquired a number of tracts, just small ones, and it comes to about 10 acres we transferred to the DNR.
"A lot of times we are able to move faster than the state or any federal agency."
The Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy, which is based on Ypsilanti, holds a conservation easement on the Edna S. Newnan Nature Sanctuary in Wales Township near Emmett, said Jill Lewis, the organization's executive director. The property owner is the Michigan Nature Association.
She said the conservancy wants to take a proactive approach to land conservation, but so far its work in St. Clair County has been reactive.
"Sometimes, conservancies can have different criteria," she said. "We're looking for high quality natural areas."
Contact Bob Gross at (810) 989-6263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RobertGross477.