Earth Day 2015 Colony Farm Orchard Protest

The Save the Colony Farm Orchard group held a second protest rally at the Orchard on this day (22 April 2015). Three speakers made brief remarks. The following is approximately what I said plus a few things that I left out for brevity or that I should have said but didn’t.

My topic was What would be the ecological effects if Western Michigan University develops the CFO as it proposes and turns it into another BTR park?

A quick answer is that everything currently there would be obliterated.

What in particular would be lost? Two things: the history of the land and the natural history of the land.

The CFO is land that was once part of a tall-grass prairie, the Genesee Prairie, surrounded by a bur oak savanna. The CFO was probably mostly in the savanna.   In the 1800s what’s now the CFO was part of private farms that included orchards.  Later it was the orchard part of the Colony Farm of the state mental hospital. The Colony Farm ceased its agricultural operations beginning in the 1950s and the CFO was all but abandoned by about 1970.

The CFO as it stands could provide information, in the plants and in the ground, of the history of the site from Paleo-Indian times to settlement, on through the 20 century. Mark Hoffman, the historian of the Colony Farm, can tell us that Neil Hindes had an orchard in the area, consisting of 100 apple trees plus others, in 1844.

Apple trees are long-lived.  Could  the apple trees there today be the same ones?

Will we find out the age of these trees when we count tree-rings on the stumps after WMU cuts them down?– Just before the bull-dozers move in?

Of many specifically ecological effects, I’ll mention three.

(1)The first is speeding up return of the sequestered carbon of the site to the earth’s atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Included will be the carbon in the living and dead trees–many quite large–in all the rest of the living vegetation including a very dense understory, and in the thick, long-undisturbed soil–the leaf litter, the humus. The stored carbon will go into the atmosphere and contribute to global climate change. Of course, in the global scheme of things, the carbon from only 40 or 50 acres is small. Somebody should calculate how many more LEED certified buildings WMU would have to build to save enough energy to achieve a balance.

(2)The second is the loss of the plant-animal community of the CFO. The CFO is an odd, interesting site. It has gone nearly 50 years with minimal direct human influence (except for the devastated southern end where the electrical substation was put in in 2001).
The CFO is a site of surprisingly high diversity, both as to species number and also in patchiness. There are patches dominated by native plant species (such as bur oaks and other species of the primeval prairie and savanna. Other patches are dominated by non-natives, including some considered invasives. There are lots of species of plants that flower at different times making it good habitat for honey bees–and probably also native, solitary bees.

Much of the CFO land has a thick understory–head-high and taller–making it excellent cover for many smaller mammals and ground-inhabiting birds.

The thick understory also makes it slow walking for people. This is not a park; visitors have to zig-zag their way along, following the route of least resistance.

Animal species diversity here is high too, partly based on the small human presence and partly based on vegetational diversity.  A morning bird walk here in most seasons would probably produce as many or more bird species as a walk of the same length through the woods on Asylum Lake Preserve.

(3)The third effect and probably the one of greatest ecological consequence, is the effect on Asylum Lake Preserve. Loss of the CFO is another step in the ecological pauperization of the supposedly protected Asylum Lake Preserve. The CFO  is, functionally, 54 acres of complementary habitat added to the scant 274 acres of the preserve. Coyotes, red foxes, and deer slip back and forth between the Asylum Lake Preserve and CFO. Many bird species, including ground-nesters such as as American woodcock and wild turkeys can nest here, probably including ones that forage on the Asylum Lake Preserve. And there are many other connections.

It’s a well-established conservation principle that bigger is always better where preserves are concerned. One important reason is that the rate of local extinction of species is lower in bigger preserves. With a lower extinction rate, species diversity tends to be higher, and higher species diversity usually is accompanied by greater ecological stability.

Besides these connections, the CFO serves as at least a partial buffer for the noise, fumes, lights, and so forth coming from what’s in and around Stadium Drive, 131, and 12th Street. Even a little BTR Park like the CFO would  yield will, with its roads and parking lots and business operations, bring noise, lights, and chemical emissions just across the road from the Asylum Lake Preserve.

The WMU administration has reminded us repeatedly that they have
no intention to harm Asylum Lake Preserve. Where I come from, making a big deal of  the fact that you’re promising to do what you’re legally required to do would prompt sarcastic comments.

But the claim is a sign of a serious problem. WMU administrators apparently think that only direct assaults on a site can harm it. That the structure and functioning of Asylum Lake Preserve would be damaged by interfering with the Colony Farm Orchard seems to be beyond their ken.   We’ve listed a few of the connections between the plant and animal populations of the two sites, and the list goes on. Connections are what ecology is.

 

 

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