Colony Farm Orchard: A Time for Knowledge, Wisdom, Conscience

Large maples, Colony Farm Orchard, fall 2009. Photo by Richard Brewer

The Kalamazoo Gazette for Sunday 14 February carried a Viewpoint I wrote which they titled WMU can keep orchard in natural state.  It had been altered slightly, improving the message in some ways.  Nevertheless, I prefer the version below. Posting it here may also be useful to those who missed the piece in the Sunday paper.  It was on the first section’s back page, which was otherwise totally occupied by a large advertisement for a heartburn medication.  But I was grateful to the Gazette for fitting it in anywhere and continue to regard newspaper conservation as a cause almost as important as land conservation.

Neighbors, WMU Alumni and Friends, and All Others Interested in Conservation: All that is required for the Colony Farm Orchard to be saved is for the WMU President and Board of Trustees to decide to set it aside as conservation land. Nothing prevents this. Please send President Dunn your recommendation. Do this now, even if you have contacted him before to provide current sentiment.

What should happen to the Colony Farm Orchard? House Bill 5207 said nothing about this question. The bill’s only effect was to remove the restriction that required public use for open space. Now that WMU can do whatever it likes with the land, the question becomes, What is the right use?

Feelings of local conservationists have been growing more antagonistic for seven months–feelings that they were kept in the dark by WMU, stone-walled rather than engaged in dialog, feelings that the attempt to remove the conservation covenant was in itself a betrayal of public trust, and feelings that the legislature and governor snubbed an outpouring of grass-roots sentiment that every civics class says is an essential element in our system of government.

People are also unhappy with WMU’s campaign based on a claim of job creation.  With able and willing citizens out of work, thoughtful critics see “job creation” as a cynical fiction, since the claim makes sense only if one realizes that jobs would be few, several years away, and bought at heavy expense to WMU and tax-payers. There is plenty of expansion room at the old BTR Park and then, if ever needed, at ready and waiting brownfields.

But all this is water over the dam.  Now that the WMU board and administration can do anything with the land, what should they do?

If the land could talk, it would likely say that its best use is pretty much what it’s been doing.  The Declaration of Conservation Restrictions for the Asylum Lake Preserve adopted by the WMU Board in 2004 states as its first goal promoting ecosystem integrity by maintaining the Preserve as green space and wildlife habitat and protecting natural features from further degradation.

If the Orchard were developed, WMU would be abandoning the last two aims. Development would diminish the Preserve; its status as wildlife habitat and its natural features would be degraded. Wildlife populations at Asylum Lake would fluctuate more, some would decline, and some declines would end in local extinction. It is easy to underestimate the Orchard’s role in the functioning of Asylum Lake Preserve. The Orchard and the Preserve are ecologically connected.

Ron Sims, the new U.S. Deputy Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was known for preserving open space in his last job in Seattle as County Executive of King County.  He had come to realize that protected natural areas and open space are as important for the lives of the urban dwellers that were his natural constituency as for others. First-hand experience with natural land is valuable for everyone, but even when people are unable to visit the land, it enriches their lives by providing a great variety of services whose effects extend tens, hundreds, or thousands of miles. Included are things as simple as nurturing birds and butterflies any of us can enjoy in the sky and as complex as participating in the global carbon cycle.

Though the restrictive covenant on the Colony Farm Orchard is gone, the land is the same, still providing essential ecosystem services to the Preserve and to all of us, and still deserving permanent protection. The only difference is that now the protection will have to come from knowledge, wisdom, and conscience on the part of the WMU board and administration.

Email address: john.dunn@wmich.edu. US Postal address: President John Dunn, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan 4908-5202.

If you wish, you could send a cc or a note to colonyfarmorchard@gmail.com, to let others who wish to save the Orchard see your views.

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