As HGJ readers know, to be featured on the front cover of this magazine is no small honor. It is reserved for those who have made a significant difference in our great state of Michigan. Considering this issue’s Green Michigan theme, it seemed fitting to highlight an organization that is working hard to accomplish just that, the Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy (SMLC). SMLC is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and stewardship of green spaces in the 7 county (Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair, Washtenaw, Wayne) Southeast Michigan region. Just as you might place a photograph of a family member in a frame to preserve a moment in time, SMLC strives to do the same for the native habitats and ecosystems of Southeast Michigan. Whether it is native prairies, forests, wetlands, or even farm fields, SMLC and its members believe that preserving the integrity of these lands is of utmost importance for wildlife habitat and enjoyment by future generations.
It all began when several like-minded citizens, watching as the precious lands around them were being destroyed acre by acre for development, began a journey that now spans over 20 years. This group included Southeast Michigan resident and current SMLC Director of Land Protection, Jack Smiley, who, along with other supporters was determined to stop a proposed golf course from altering the William P. Holliday Forest and Wildlife Preserve in Wayne County. In the interim,a 40-acre parcel of land adjacent to the preserve came up for sale. Realizing the negative impact that development of the parcel would have on the adjacent nature preserve, Smiley negotiated a land contract contingent on becoming a qualified non-profit organization. Within 6 months in 1988, both the 40 acres had been purchased and the Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy was established. The Holliday Nature Preserve remained intact, and gained the additional 40 acres purchased by SMLC.
Since its inception, over 2,500 acres of land, including 12 conservation easements and 15 nature preserves, have been protected from development in the Southeast Michigan region. SMLC gains these properties by direct purchase, tax-deductible donations or by holding conservation easements. Conservation easements allow a private landowner a permanent way to protect their property from development, while maintaining it in private ownership.
When determining what parcels of land to acquire, the Conservancy chooses those that are ecologically significant to wildlife. Larger, contiguous parcels with forest, grassland and wetland ecosystems are preferred. The nature preserves owned by SMLC are home to varieties of plants and wildlife, including some critical species in Michigan like goldenseal, a threatened wildflower and short-eared owls, an endangered species. All acquired nature preserves are managed to help support wildlife habitat to its greatest extent. SMLC hosts Stewardship Workdays which immerse volunteers in a variety of projects like trail maintenance, trash cleanup and removal of invasive species such as buckthorn, garlic mustard and purple loosestrife. The stewardship and maintenance of these nature preserves is supported through membership and endowment funds. All nature preserves are open to the public for enjoyment.
Considered one of the “premier” parcels under the care of SMLC is the Morris-Reichert Nature Preserve in Livingston County. These 242 acres of rolling hills and woodlands were co-owned by Dr. Joe & Julia Morris and Dr. Rudolph & Shirley Reichert for nearly 20 years before being donated to SMLC in 1998. The donors had this to say about their gift, "We felt a deep sense of obligation to protect some land and wildlife so that future generations wouldn’t be denied the tranquility of frequent contact with open spaces."
Another gem owned by the Conservancy is the LeFurge Woods Nature Preserve located in Washtenaw County. This beautiful preserve boasts 325 acres of agricultural fields, marsh wetlands, meadows and forest. SMLC
protected this preserve over the course of 12 years, by purchasing andconsolidating 5 properties. A unique asset to this property is the wetland mitigation project that restored high quality wetlands to a previously drained farm field. The quote from the Hollywood film Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come,” holds true for this restoration project. The marsh wetlands are now home to 8 species of Michigan frogs, muskrats, marsh wrens, sora, rails and sandhill cranes.
LeFurge Woods Nature Preserve hosts a number of seasonal events which are free and open to the public. Full Moon Campfires are held from May to November. Be sure to come early and enjoy a twilight walk of the property or hear a tree frog chorus. If you are the camper type, perhaps participating in SMLC’s Annual Sunrise Serenade at LeFurge Woods is more your adventure. Early morning risers note the progression of bird song from nearby marsh, meadow and forest, followed by a delicious pancake breakfast. SMLC Stewardship Committee Chair and naturalist Rick Simek developed this program and has dedicated many years to the Conservancy, having served on the board in several capacities. He intends to continue his support of SMLC because their mission is highly compatible with his conservation values. Rick declares, “We all feel that having a sense of place, a connection to our local environment, is priceless.”
The Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy has come a long way over the past 20 years. It currently has 4 staff members, an 11 member Board of Directors, several standing committees, 2 local divisions (Monroe County and Superior Land Conservancies) and a sizeable volunteer and membership base. Their current headquarters is located at the Conservancy Farm in Superior Township, which was a 99-acre purchase of a 1909 farmhouse and surrounding property, obtained with the intention of maintaining the agricultural heritage of the area. The Conservancy Farm, along with several other SMLC nature preserves, lies in the “heart” of the Superior Greenway, a 1,800 acre greenbelt of conserved land between Detroit and Ann Arbor. The farm also includes a highly popular Community Organic Garden and a program to lease land to local farmers. SMLC Executive Director Jill Lewis states, “The Conservancy Farm is a “place” where SMLC can show visitors land protection at work.”
Lewis, whose childhood experiences of growing up in natural areas helped shape her desire to preserve land in her home state of Michigan, joined SMLC in 2008. Her goals as Executive Director include “building capacity,” in areas like organizational efficiency and effectiveness. She feels confident that a strong, reliable volunteer and donor base will be able to “support our organization for years to come.” Lewis, along with Board President Jim Weiner, has long-term goals of sustainability and proper stewardship of SMLC properties as priorities for the group. Another future objective is to become accredited through the Land Trust Alliance, which provides policies and leadership for organizations involved in conserving land in perpetuity.
SMLC continues to partner with other land conservancy groups and is part of the Southeast Michigan Conservation Roundtable to develop a “green vision” for Southeast Michigan. The realization of a Green Michigan, according to Jack Smiley, requires a need to “rein in urban sprawl, redevelop our cities, protect our agricultural base and preserve natural beauty.” In this way, future generations will be able to experience the wonders of nature and the legacy of what makes Michigan so special. Smiley also states, “As much as SMLC has accomplished, I realize it is just a drop in the bucket…..I just hope that it inspires others to take action, because individuals can, indeed, make a difference.”
For information on conservation easements, volunteering or public events held by SMLC, please visit their website at www.smlcland.org or call 734.484.6565. Mandy Liddle is a naturalist and contributing writer for HGJ.