The essential role of regional land conservancies in protecting Michigan’s outdoors

“People care about and protect what they know about. And if they have access to it, then they know about it.”

Glen Chown, Executive Director for the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy (GTRLC) says that his organization’s work can be seen from space. “When you are orbiting the Earth...we have testimonies from astronauts that they can see our Lake Michigan dunes because the contrast of the white sand and the deep blue water is so stark,” he says.


That's how big a role local and regional land conservancies play a big role in preserving open space in communities across Michigan, according to Chown.


Chown is referring to the Arcadia Dunes, a unique partnership between GTRLC and Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) that was facilitated in part by The Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF). Derived from the sale of oil and mineral rights this fund has spent roughly a billion dollars since 1976 to purchase more than 140,000 acres of land and preserve it for public use.


Jonathon Jarosz, Executive Director of Heart of the Lakes–an organization that works with conservancies throughout the state–says that the beauty of the arrangement is that it takes non-renewable resources and turns it into something that can benefit the state for generations.


“Oil and gas was extracted; it's not coming back,” he says. “The idea then is to be able to put some of that revenue back into something that is renewable: these public places that people can access.”


Although only local governments can buy land through the MNRTF, land conservancies are often a critical partner in the process, pre-purchasing land that is later sold to municipalities or the state with trust fund money, arranging financing for the 25% matching funds required by the program, negotiating with landowners and performing on-going stewardship.


Land conservancies have in turn been able to grow their own reach through the MNRTF, bringing together donors, volunteers and local governments in the service of protecting some of the state’s most beautiful spaces.

Cranberry Lake Park, Oakland Township. Photo by Doug Coombe.


“These properties are not just run of the mill properties,” Chown says of the projects GTRLC has worked on in the northwest lower-peninsula. “They're the best of the best because they wouldn't qualify for a trust fund grant if they didn't have outstanding natural resource values.”


Because of the desirability of land in places like Arcadia Dunes or Crystal Lake­–where GTRLC helped protect the Railroad Point Natural Area–these places are often being eyed for development when they’re acquired. Land conservancies often have the local knowledge and connections to negotiate with landowners and financial partners as well as the flexibility to purchase lands without the need for immediate grant funding.


Chown says that his organization has worked on dozens of projects– drawing in a total of $67 million from the trust fund–where they’ve been able to pre-purchase lands that were then transferred to public ownership through the MNRTF.


Conservancies can also bridge the needs and interests of residents with state and local governments. In Macomb County, the Six Rivers Land Conservancy is doing this by helping create more opportunities for paddlers through a project on the Salt River in Chesterfield Township.


Chris Bunch, Executive Director for Six Rivers says that not only will the project provide canoers and kayakers access to the Salt River, it will also help protect 33 acres of the floodplain from development. This could help limit runoff into the river and Lake St. Clair while also joining together several neighborhoods and providing open space for a nearby school.

Salt River, Chesterfield Township's Webber Paddle Park. Photo by Doug Coombe.

Although the project hasn’t been acquired by the township yet, it’s the sort of purchase that could likely be made through the MNRTF. Six Rivers has found financial partners for the project like First State bank and helped pay for appraisals, environmental assessments, and other groundwork. “By the time the township cashes us out on it, what they're getting is the property with a nice little bow around it,” Bunch says.


This sort of public-private partnership is often critical for advancing projects in an era of limited municipal budgets. But the special skills that these organizations have acquired over decades extend to other forms of management as well.


Chown says that the GTRLC has acquired a deep knowledge of invasive plant management, building deconstruction and trail construction among other things and they bring this to the table when they’re working with local governments. For example, right now the conservancy is working with hundreds of volunteers to build a trail network at the Maplehurst Natural Area in Antrim County.

Drayton Plains Nature Center Waterford Township. Photo by Doug Coombe.


The MNRTF enables this work by allowing organizations like these to think bigger and take on more projects as they’re paid back for land acquisitions. The conservancies in turn help build a larger constituency for open space in the state as they work with volunteers and provide more access for people to engage with the outdoors.


In Macomb County, Bunch hopes that by getting more people on the river, he can get people to care more about water quality and the need for protecting open space access in their communities.


“People care about and protect what they know about,” he says. “And if they have access to it, then they know about it.”

“Preserving Michigan” is an ongoing series exploring the history and impact of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund on the people and communities of Michigan. The series is underwritten by the Michigan Environmental Council. Issue Media Group maintains editorial independence for all of our underwritten content. Please review our editorial underwriting policy for more information.

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