The Ott Preserve and Attacks on Perpetuity

Slash in Ott Preserve after timber cut in 1993-4. Photo March 1994 by Richard Brewer

Preserved natural areas are vulnerable.  I don’t mean they’re delicate.  It’s true that some will need a particular kind of management, such as prescribed fire, and some may not tolerate a lot of human traffic, but good-sized natural areas–a few hundred acres–are often fairly robust.  They’re vulnerable not because they’re fragile, but because there are always certain people who look at preserved land and think it’s not utilized. It’s just empty land, a land bank waiting for their higher and better, destructive use.

The vulnerability is complete when the appetite for a quick, cheap, and easy fix is joined with one more factor:  The organization charged with defense of the conserved land is not up to the job.

We have seen this vulnerability several times in southwest Michigan.  One recent case is the Colony Farm Orchard at Western Michigan University, described in a number of earlier posts at this website.  Land bought with tax-payer dollars was given to WMU by the state with the restriction that it be kept as open space for public use.  But a little more than 30 years later, in 2009, WMU persuaded the Michigan legislature and governor to strip the restriction from the Orchard.  The land is currently open to any kind of development.  Though WMU claimed expansion of their BTR park–to create jobs–as their justification, no such restriction remained in the bill signed by then-governor Jennifer Granholm.

Another example is Jean Klock Park on the Lake Michigan shore at Benton Harbor. It’s a particularly sad case. In 1917, John Nellis Klock and his wife Carrie gave the city 90 acres of coastal marsh and sand dunes, including nearly 3000 feet of lake frontage and beach. It was, as far as I can determine, the first Lake Michigan natural land protected for public use.

Given as a memorial to a daughter who died young, the land was meant to be for the benefit of the people of Benton Harbor but especially for the children.  The city proved a good steward for nearly 70 years. Then, in 1986, the city tried to add a large part of the park to its Downtown Development Authority.  This threat was rebuffed, but another surfaced in 2003 in the form of a proposed luxury housing development.  Although this specific proposal also failed, the settlement reached set the stage for a successful attack within two years in the form of the Harbor Shores development which includes a Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course that has subsumed a large area of the park’s best dunes.

The machinations that resulted in the degradation of Jean Klock Park are probably not yet totally revealed, but even so it is difficult to summarize the operation in a few paragraphs. Several people and agencies that might be seen as having protection of the park and its natural features as part of their job or mission, instead acted to undo the protection.  Among them were the Benton Harbor city commission, Governor Jennifer Granholm (again), U.S. Representative Fred Upton, Michigan’s Natural Resources Trust Fund board, and the U.S. Park Service.  There were, of course, also some conservation heroes fighting the development.

Loss of areas that we have every reason to think of as protected in perpetuity is not restricted to Michigan; attacks are regrettably widespread.  A current example is the pristine Izembek National Wildlife Refuge at the end of the Alaska Peninsula in southeastern Alaska.  The U.S. Congress provided pork-barrel funding to build a 9-mile road between King Cove and Cold Bay, two villages with a combined population of fewer than 900 people.  The road would run through designated wilderness including wetlands that are sites for feeding, nesting, or molting of black brant and Steller’s eider, among other arctic tundra species.   Construction is awaiting an environmental impact statement.

The current attempt to put a wide, paved trail through the best parts of the Harvey Ott Preserve in Battle Creek, Michigan, may not be as globally important as a road in a 400,000+ acre refuge containing wetlands of international importance. But otherwise the situation is fairly similar.

The Ott situation is especially unhappy because Ott has been through this before, about 15 years ago. The Calhoun County Commission sold about 300 trees, mostly large oaks, out of the preserve.  The catastrophe was not as complete as it could have been, because as the result of heavy citizen opposition, the commission canceled a second clear-cut that would have removed the rest of the upland forest in the preserve.

The 1993-1994 Ott timber sale had no redeeming features.  It happened mostly because the Calhoun County Parks Department was broke. On the other hand, a trail for hiking and biking can be a good thing.  (Trails and trail conservancies are given a thorough discussion in chapter 13 of Conservancy: The Land Trust Movement in America.) Certainly the existing foot paths in Ott are, to a point, good things.

One justification I’ve heard for running a trail through Ott is as a connector for the North Country Trail. If a connector is needed, it’s unlikely that a satisfactory route would need to invade the Ott Preserve.  I suspect that Ott has been chosen mostly because those pushing the trail see Ott as being unused, empty, not utilized.

I suspect they also see it as free land.

If the best route–avoiding the Ott Preserve except perhaps for a small spur–would involve private land, private land can be acquired by purchase or the right to use the land as a trail can be acquired as an easement.

Sometimes the right thing to do is a little harder than the expedient one.

It’s possible that a new trail for Calhoun County could be a good thing.  A new trail through the Ott Preserve wouldn’t be.  Ott is utilized.  It’s a preserve.

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3 Comments

  1. Dick Klade
    Posted March 5, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Preservation indeed is a land use. And where acres not dedicated to commodity production or human occpancy are scarce, it is the highest and best use. As our population continues to grow, creating unsustainable demands on our natural resources, perserves become more and more valuable.

  2. Posted January 26, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    It seems the common denominator is that these lands are in public (government-controlled) hands. The public’s desires are varied, and change over time. Better to manage land via private non-profits, who (hopefully) could avoid mission drift? What’s your experience?

  3. Richard Brewer
    Posted January 28, 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    @at
    I doubt that the subversions of protection for any of the parcels mentioned here represented the desires or will of the public. They were decisions by politicians and bureaucrats, probably acting contrary to the wishes of the public and contrary to the public good. Land trusts have so far done a generally good job of defending their dedicated land. Other private conservation organizations have been a little more variable. Private organizations without a specific conservation mission, still more variable. I summarized the situation as of about 2003 in Conservancy, especially in Chap. 4.

    However, protection by conservation easement, whoever holds it, may prove to be less durable than fee ownership. I provided some discussion of this in Conservation Easements and Perpetuity: Till Legislation Do Us Part, which is one article in a symposium published by Duke University Law School as the fall 2011 issue of the journal Law and Contemporary Problems (vol. 74, no. 4). The whole symposium can be accessed as Conservation Easements, New Perspectives in an Evolving World thttp://www.law.duke.edu/journals/lcp/