When Joe Engel’s office phone rings these days, chances are he is getting a call from someone looking to protect their land. They may have wooded acres, riverfront property, lake frontage and wetlands or something else, land they value deeply and never want developed.
Engel is the executive director of the Land Conservancy of West Michigan (naturenearby.org), a 40-year-old nonprofit that announced in January that it achieved a goal it established years ago — the protection of 10,000 acres of land in West Michigan. An astonishing figure, and they are far from done.
Those properties total 10,600 acres. They include 16 public nature preserves, 108 conservation easements on private property, and 12 government partnerships with municipalities, counties and townships that provide permanent protection for public natural spaces like parks. The organization, which works in an eight-county area, also launched a campaign to raise $1.5 million to protect interspersed private parcels totaling 10 miles of river frontage along the Pere Marquette River, a world renown trout stream, 66 miles of which is federally designated as a National Wild and Scenic River.
The Pere Marquette River is the longest undammed river in the Lower Peninsula. Much of it runs through state and national forest land. To date, the conservancy has secured 3,200 acres, more than 22 miles of river frontage.
“There is a lot of pressure on land everywhere in the country now that we have a population that has grown from 200 million to 320 million since our 200-year anniversary,” said Engel, an attorney who left his law firm last year to become the conservancy’s director after years on its board of directors.
“We will get a call from someone who says, ‘My aunt Judy protected 160 acres on the Muskegon River five years ago, and I have a piece of that land I don’t ever want developed. Can you help?’ I say ‘Yes. I’ll come, and we’ll have a cup of coffee and talk about that.’ Our goal is to preserve natural landscapes that ideally reflect West Michigan.”
The conservancy helps private land owners achieve their goal by establishing a conservation easement on their property. The written agreement specifies which lands are to be protected in perpetuity, the terms and limitations involved while making clear that ownership remains in the property owner’s hands. In many cases, that results in substantial tax benefits and, in some cases, being paid for the diminished value of the property.
Engel said the demand for these agreements has grown to exceed the conservancy’s current capacity to do the work — a stunning revelation about an organization that started as a tiny grassroots effort. Today, the nationally accredited conservancy has eight paid staffers.
“In 1977, three guys sat around a kitchen table and said, ‘Let’s save some land.’ And with a very informal structure, they set about doing that,” Engel explained. “You had ‘Silent Spring’ (a book by Rachel Carson) in the 1960s, and people were waking up to the importance of preserving lands and watersheds in the 1970s. … Environmental awareness in the country started to take off.”
Land trusts, he added, are in demand because they provide a “readily accessible vehicle to protect land in perpetuity. Governments do it, but the process is cumbersome and politicized at times.”
What’s ahead is more of the same, Engel said. “We work relatively quickly and take lands that otherwise might have been developed. People are looking for ways to protect land; and as a culture, we have become more sensitive than my generation was to the fact that land and water is a finite resource. If we don’t act now to protect it, it won’t be there tomorrow for my kids and grandkids.”
Land Conservancy of West Michigan Preserves
The Land Conservancy of West Michigan has 16 nature preserves that are open to the public. Here’s a quick look at three.
Saul Lake Bog
Location: Kent County
Size: 123 acres
What to see: Oak-hickory and beech-maple forests, hardwood swamps and vernal pools, sphagnum bogs and tallgrass prairies. Overlooks and boardwalks provide impressive views of the bog and other wetlands — and frequent glimpses of the wildlife they contain.
Flower Creek Dunes Preserve
Size: 14 acres
Location: Muskegon County
What to see: A glimpse of what the Lake Michigan shoreline used to be — undeveloped and undisturbed. The preserve protects a population of the threatened Pitcher’s thistle, a unique wildflower found only on certain areas of the Great Lakes shoreline. The trail brings visitors up a steep portion of the dune and leads to an overlook with impressive views.
Bradford Dickinson White Preserve
Size: 45 acres
Location: Kent County
What to see: The trail leads hikers through tall stands of pine and majestic oak-hickory forests, providing panoramic glimpses of the wetland below. Though it’s close to Lowell, visitors often comment on the solitude and wilderness feel of the preserve.
Howard Meyerson is an award-winning journalist and managing editor of Michigan BLUE Magazine.