Category Archives: Land Trusts (& other private land conservation)

The Plenteous Summer

Prairie planting Oshtemo Township August 2010. Photo by Richard Brewer

When I go outside this summer I’m impressed by the amount of greenery.  I don’t have data, but it’s the greenest summer–the largest volume of foliage–I remember.

This makes sense.  The limiting factors for photosynthesis, Biology 101 tells us, are temperature, light, and carbon dioxide.  Translating photosynthesis into plant growth–that is, new biomass–also involves availability of water and soil nutrients, such as nitrogen.

This  growing season has been, day after day, one of the most consistently warm years–hot, I’d say–that I remember.

As for sunlight, I doubt that one summer is a lot different from another. Certainly, day length is the same from one year to the next.  There may be a few more cloudy hours one year than another, but all in all I suspect that the light this year has been about the same as last year or the one before.

Water, though, I think may have been in better supply than usual.  I haven’t tried to check weather station figures, but from my own rain gauge and how often our garden needed water, it seems to me that we’ve had a lot of well-spaced soaking rains.

Nitrogen is sometimes a limiting factor for plants, including several field crops. I don’t know that it was any more or less abundant this year.  Nitrogen compounds from agriculture are generally increasing in the environment.  For some plants an increase in nitrogen could encourage growth; however, many plants have modest soil nitrogen requirements.  Included are many prairie species.  For such species, a lot more nitrogen doesn’t increase production.

However, the compound nitrous oxide is increasing in the atmosphere as a result of current agricultural practice.  Nitrous oxide is a powerful greenhouse gas, so it’s likely that more nitrous oxide is a part of the equation for global climate change in general.

More influential though is the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide.  As everybody knows, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has gone steadily up, probably since early in the Industrial Age and certainly since 1958, when the systematic recording of atmospheric carbon dioxide began. Lately, the concentration has been rising about 3% per year.  This implies a doubling in about a quarter century, roughly one human generation.

So, maybe high temperatures, lots of rain, and more carbon dioxide than ever made 2010 a banner year. My guess is that the luxuriant growth this year is mostly tied to the warmer summer and the plentiful and effective rainfall.  The carbon dioxide level would have only have changed a couple of parts per million from last year.

Poison ivy growing up an oak, Oshtemo Township August 2010. Photo by Richard Brewer

However, increased carbon dioxide is probably the primary agent for a great increase in the growth of some plants in the past decade or more.  I’m thinking particularly of the vines, specifically the lianas–vines that can spread across the ground but can also climb trees.  Poison ivy, the several species of grapes, and Virginia creeper are native examples of lianas. There are a number of introduced lianas that are invasives in some natural areas.  Local examples are Asian bittersweet and European ivy.

A little more than twenty years ago, a friend asked me whether I thought that wild grapes were a serious pest in local forests; specifically, how frequently did they climb into the crown of a tree and kill it by shading its leaves?  I had spent a lot of time in beech-maple forests and told him that in my experience such a thing was rare. I went on to say that having a tangle of grapes in the forest canopy had its benefits, among them providing cover for barred and horned owls to hide from crows and blue jays.

No more than five years later my advice would have been different. At least by the mid-1990s, the grapes, Virginia creeper, and poison ivy were creeping up tree trunks in much greater numbers and the trees were suffering.  These trends continue.

Lianas are, of course, a prominent life form in the forests of the Tropics, and it’s possible that their success here in recent years is just one more result of global climate change. But temperatures are erratic.  The general trend in this part of the world is up, but any given year may be unchanged or even down.  Carbon dioxide, by contrast, is a little higher every year. My guess fifteen years ago when I began to notice the increased liana growth was that it was related to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide.  Research in the past few years supports that hypothesis.  This link is to a study of poison ivy.

Despite what’s been happening with the lianas, my impression is that most herbs and shrubs within the forest didn’t join in this year’s burst of growth, not the way plants of the edges and the open spaces have.  Perhaps this makes sense too.  In the forests, the limiting factor for plant growth most of the time is light.  Despite our atmosphere’s extra carbon dioxide, despite this year’s good supply of water and the high temperatures, light at ground level within the forest is dim most of the growing season.  In the oak woods here, sweet cicely, white avens, tick trefoil didn’t look any more robust than they did last year.

It was just an average year in the woods.

Colony Farm Orchard: Get on the Visitors’ List ASAP

For 33 years, from 1977 to early 2010, the Colony Farm Orchard was protected by a restrictive covenant.  By virtue of the terms of the gift to Western Michigan University by the state of Michigan, this land was to be kept as open space for public use.

Now, as can be seen, WMU is telling us the land is restricted again in a different way.

The Colony Farm Orchard's new signs. Photo by Richard Brewer

On 17 July 2010, David Nesius, a conservationist interested in retaining the Colony Farm Orchard as a natural area, noticed activity at the Orchard.  Workmen were installing new signs that read Western Michigan University Property RESTRICTED ACCESS  By Permission Only.

He spread the word via email about this new restriction on the public’s access to the land.

I was struck by the date on which the restricted access signs were posted.  On 16 July 2009, exactly one year ago, Representative Robert Jones introduced House Bill 5207.  This was the bill designed to strip the protective covenant from the Orchard land.  The timing of the legislation, some of us suspected, was designed to hide the attack on the Orchard as long as possible, occurring as it did when most students were away, many faculty were in libraries or at field sites scattered around the world, and many townspeople were on vacation.

Was the timing of the new signs a re-run of a successful gambit?  Maybe. I didn’t learn they’d gone up until I got back from a visit out East, so it kept me in the dark for a week.

On the other hand, the legislators who collaborated in dismantling the conservation covenant on the Orchard might wish that the signs had been delayed until after the August primaries or even the general elections in November.  Such a threatening display from WMU may bring back bad memories for some voters.

The Wednesday 21 July Kalamazoo Gazette carried an article by Paula Davis about the new signs.  She quoted WMU Associate Vice President for Community Outreach, Bob Miller, as saying that a concern for public safety prompted their installation. “We just want to know who is going to be there and what their plans are.  We’re not saying, ‘No Trespassing.’ We’re not saying, ‘Keep out’.”

When asked by reporter Davis how to get permission to be on the property, Miller said that people could “call the university and the university will direct them to the correct office.”  The Gazette article concluded with the university switchboard number.

Ladislav R. Hanka, local artist and conservationist, pursued the matter, finally talking with Donna Marks, executive assistant in the office of the Vice President for Advancement and Legislative Affairs.  After some discussion, it appeared that an email to Ms Marks ( containing one’s name, interest in the Orchard, what he or she would be doing there, when or how often visits might be, and who one’s companions might be would suffice.  Probably Ms Marks could provide further information if desired (387-2072).

Obtaining permission to visit the Orchard is highly desirable. Whatever the signs were meant to accomplish, they should not prevent anyone from continuing (or beginning) their bird watching, asparagus picking, snow shoeing, bur oak hugging, plein air painting, or any other other kind of nature, conservation, or environmental activity.

It’s well to remember that the Orchard land is still available for permanent protection.  Even though the open space/public use covenant has been removed, WMU is not compelled to expand the BTR park onto this land. It’s a fact that the original language of HB 5207 called for a new restriction that WMU would use the land for BTR Park expansion.  But after that language served its purpose as a more-or-less plausible justification for dumping the conservation covenant, the language was dropped, even before the bill left Representative Jones’s House Commerce Committee.

The upshot is that the WMU administration and board have the power to grant continued life to the Orchard, and they will bear the responsibility for any death sentence.

In the meantime, the Orchard land lives and participates in the ecological functioning of Asylum Lake Preserve.

Michigan League of Conservation Voters: Rep. Robert Jones-100, Colony Farm Orchard-0

The League of Conservation Voters is a national environmental group that is best known for its Environmental Scorecard, where the league tallies the pro- and anti-environmental votes cast by our elected representatives.  I’m glad the organization exists; I strongly support the idea that we should know how politicians vote on conservation issues and hold them accountable .

Logo of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters

About a week ago, the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (LCV) produced its Environmental Scorecard for the state legislature’s 2009-2010 session.  The scores were based on 18 bills in the House and 10 in the Senate.  Much of the report  was interesting and informative.  However, there was one serious omission–House Bill 5207.   This bill, introduced by Representative Robert Jones (D-Kalamazoo) and fast-tracked by him through the Commerce Committee of which he was chair, was as strongly anti-conservation, anti-environment, and anti-sustainability as any measure taken up this session.

The bill was not named “House Anti-conservation Bill 5207;” nevertheless, it was straightforwardly a bill to strip the open space/public use restriction from the Colony Farm Orchard, a semi-natural area adjacent to the Asylum Lake Preserve, in order to allow Western Michigan University to develop the site for expansion of its BTR Park.  Perhaps we ought to see the language of the restriction one more time:

“The conveyance shall provide that Western Michigan University may utilize the property solely for public park, recreation, or open space purposes, except that the legislature, by statute, may authorize Western Michigan University to utilize the property for some other public purpose.”

The anti-environment nature of the bill was brought to the attention of Michigan LCV staff by more than one person and on more than one occasion.  The conservation problems with HB 5207 were repeatedly brought to the attention of House and Senate members and the Governor  by letters, e-mails, phone calls, FAXes, personal visits , and e-mailed links to a documentary movie (The Colony Farm Orchard: Here We Go Again by Matt Clysdale) on YouTube.  By means of a couple of dozen published letters to the Kalamazoo Gazette, many news articles, public meetings and presentations of Matt Clysdale’s movie in Kalamazoo and elsewhere, the environmental controversy became widely known.

Nevertheless, the Michigan LCV did not include HB 5207 on its list of environmentally significant votes.

Because of this omission the LCV was able to award Representative Robert Jones a score of 100% and an “Honorable Mention” on its Environmental Scorecard.  As it turned out, 32 state representatives and 11 senators received 100% scores.  All were Democrats.

It is possible that  Rep. Jones introduced HB 5207 without knowledge of its conservation implications, or even its content.  But he certainly knew the problems well before his Commerce Committee took it up, well before the House passed it, and well before the Senate passed it–which was late at night just before the legislature broke for Christmas.

Dozens of people talked with Jones, asking him to withdraw HB 5207 or modify it.  But perhaps they weren’t the right people. They were WMU Environmental Studies students, local conservationists, members of community groups, and ordinary people who think that promises made should be promises kept.

We should note that with this bill included, no legislator would have received 100%.  All the 100% Democrats either voted for it, or took to the hills when the question was called. The only legislators who voted against the bill were two Republicans in the House and one Republican Senator. Clearly, no one in the Michigan legislature deserved a perfect score.  Without knowing how many other serious omissions there were from the list of “environmental” bills, it is impossible to know what the true highest score might have been.

Michigan LCV needs to consider seriously–and then let us know–why HB 5207 was omitted from the list of environmental bills.  Was it simple ignorance on the part of the staff that did the evaluation?  Was a decision made to overlook the anti-environment nature of the bill because WMU was marketing the bill as a job creation measure?  The politicians looked the other way when it became clear that any jobs created would be few and years away.  Perhaps LCV also looked away, afraid it might be seen as putting environment and business in conflict.

I suppose it could even be possible that HB 5207 was seen as too local an issue to be included.  If so, how many other bills of environmental importance might be missing from the evaluation?

But the conservation impact of HB 5207 reaches far beyond Kalamazoo. It sets a precedent for the legislature to tamper with conservation covenants on any land held by the state or state institutions.  What will happen if the Michigan Department of Natural Resources decides that we could get along without a few of our state parks and persuades a friendly legislator to introduce a bill to sell them for development?

A lawyer for a land-owner who wants to get out of a conservation easement that has become inconvenient could be thought remiss if the lawyer doesn’t say, Talk to your local representative.  The rules for conservation easements are just part of a state statute; they can be changed.

The Michigan League of Conservation Voters has some explaining to do.

View in Colony Farm Orchard early June 2010. Photo by Richard Brewer

Asylum Lake Preserve: What Kalamazoo ought to do, part 2

My last post several days ago repeated and updated some remarks I’d made on Earth Day 2004.   It ended with the following comment about the Asylum Lake Preserve situation at that time:

Today’s Gazette (24 April 2004) had more good news. After a long process, a Declaration of Conservation Restrictions and Management Framework for the Asylum Lake Preserve was approved last Friday by the Western Michigan University (WMU) Board of Trustees. This way of protecting such land is not as strong as a conservation easement held by a land trust provided with an adequate defense endowment. But all in all, I’d say that the Asylum Lake property is now more secure than at any time since 1985. Continued vigilance by area citizens will still be needed. In the long run, their outrage at proposed violations is the only permanent protection.

Asylum Lake Preserve Winchell Avenue entrance. Photo by Richard Brewer

These statements are still basically correct.  However, the passage of six years has shown some weaknesses.  Some are structural, stemming from the arrangement that was worked out by the 20-member Focus Group from 1999 to 2004, others are operational shortfalls.  Following are a few I’ve observed.

Omission of  the Colony Farm Orchard

The failure of the non-university members of the Focus Group to insist on the explicit inclusion of the Colony Farm Orchard in the Declaration of Conservation Restrictions was a mistake. However, it’s likely that some element of the WMU administration was already tightly committed to future development of the Orchard land, despite its protection by a conservation covenant. By 2004, the Focus Group had already been meeting for about five years. It’s possible that if the community and other non-university members had been as intransigent on this matter as they should have been–that is, as intransigent as WMU–any resolution might have been several more years away.

Weak Focus on Conservation

The Policy and Management Council set up to oversee the management of the Preserve seems to spend too much time dealing with house-keeping and not enough with conservation.  To an outsider like me, some of the causes for this seem evident, but there may also be other non-obvious reasons.  The first problem is that the composition of the council is stacked in a way that makes any action counter to the WMU administration’s wishes difficult or, perhaps, impossible.  The by-laws specify the composition of the board:

University Members
a. Campus Planning
b. Environmental Institute
c. Environmental Studies
d. Physical Plant
e. VP Business and Finance.
f. 3 At-large members selected by the VP for Business and Finance

Community Members
a. Asylum Lake Preservation Association (ALPA)
b. Environmental Concerns Committee of the City of Kalamazoo (ECC)
c. Kalamazoo Environmental Council (KEC)
d. Oakland Drive/Winchell Neighborhood Association (ODWNA)
e. Parkview Neighborhood Association
f. Parkwyn Village Neighborhood Association

A near-automatic WMU majority of 8 to 6 is built in, if all members are present and voting.  It could be argued that this is the way it should be.  After all, it’s WMU’s land; shouldn’t they be able to do what they want to with it?  Who knows what a bunch of community activists might vote for?

It’s conceivable that on some crucial environmental issue one or more of the University delegates might be persuaded by the arguments of the Community delegates, resulting in a tie or even a majority against the WMU position.  (Perhaps the Environmental Studies delegate might be swayed.) I don’t know that any such thing has ever happened, but it would be interesting to see the WMU administration’s response if it did.

However, my guess is that that the Council meetings will be models of seeming tranquility until such time as every appointee from the Community groups becomes willing to (1) engage the whole Council on every matter related to  conservation purposes, including matters being neglected, and (2) scrutinize and debate every proposal so as to eliminate those that fail to advance conservation mandates or are less than prudent in the use of the Asylum Lake Preservation endowment.


Sidewalk along Parkview Avenue (looking east) and new parking lot under construction. Photo by Richard Brewer

I do not question the seriousness or good intentions of the Council: nevertheless, I think some actions or the neglect of some actions needed more rigorous examination.  Here are a few examples.

Shrinkage of Preserve. Reduction in size of the preserve has occurred through such actions as widening Drake and Parkview, adding sidewalks which turned the outer acres of the preserve into narrow strips isolated beyond an 8-foot expanse of concrete, and the current construction of a large parking area within the main body of the preserve.  Although WMU refers to the Preserve as 274 acres, that’s what it used to be.  Someone should subtract the land lost and provide  an accurate figure. No more shrinkage should occur.  Explicitly including the Colony Farm Orchard as a part of the Asylum Lake Preserve would be one way to restore lost acres.

Proliferation of Trails. The preserve needs to regain control of its trail system.   The current network seems to consist of paths to everywhere any visitor ever decided to go. The proliferation  is confusing, it contributes to soil erosion, and it opens almost every part of the preserve to disturbance by people and dogs.  I suspect that few if any ground-nesting birds are able to bring off successful broods today.  Every path plus a several-foot zone on each side is, ecologically, a loss from the preserve.  Preserves need trails but they should be short, mostly narrow, and based primarily on considerations of environmental and nature education.

Extravagant and Unnecessary Construction. Some completed and proposed construction probably needed more debate more focused on conservation and prudence.  Of course, we all like to see the old Preserve looking good, but which of these projects have been necessary and a reasonable use of the endowment fund?

Colony Farm Orchard. The Council should have taken up the Colony Farm Orchard’s role in the ecological functioning of Asylum Lake Preserve. A series of special meetings would have been appropriate. After assembling the relevant information, including hosting a forum for public debate, the Council should have made its own recommendation to WMU as to the Orchard’s best use in terms of the conservation values of the Preserve.

How Secure is the Asylum Lake Preserve?

There were faint earlier signals that we should have heeded, but for many of us the alarm bells really began to ring when we read Paula Davis’s article in the 3 July 2009 Gazette reporting that the WMU board had authorized paying Michigan State University up to $985,000 to give up its lease to do insect research at the Colony Farm Orchard.

Possibly the WMU administration and board knew so little history that they didn’t understand how the citizenry would react to a threat to the Orchard property.  But to the many Kalamazoo area residents who had fought the BTR park battles of the 1990s, the news about the Orchard was like the crew of a WW II cruiser sighting a U-boat periscope in the North Atlantic. Somebody involved in the maneuver would seem to have anticipated a negative response, judging by the stealth involved in the introduction of the legislation (to strip the Orchard’s open space/public use covenant) and the attempt–successful–to hustle it through the House.

Many people were, of course, unhappy with WMU’s designs on the Orchard.  Their letters of protest showed that most of them also believed that WMU’s willingness to break this covenant was evidence that its pledge to protect the Asylum Lake Preserve was also suspect.

Was WMU surprised that people drew this inference?  Only the administration and board could say, and they have managed to say remarkably little through the whole process from July 2009 to the present. One thing WMU administrators have said, in various permutations, is,  “We have made a decision to sustain our commitment to the Asylum Lake property.” Sometimes the statements were more forceful, but few people I’ve met were persuaded by any of them. The very fact of the reiteration–coupled with the plain fact that WMU was disregarding identical protections carried  by the Orchard–usually provoked the “The lady doth protest too much” reflex.

Here is a quote from the Declaration of Conservation Restrictions:

This Declaration…is intended to run with the land and shall be binding upon WMU, its present and future boards, its successors and assigns and shall constitute a servitude upon the Preserve.

This a strong statement.  However, it is somewhat undercut by the next clause in the document, Termination:

The intention to terminate this Declaration must be announced at an open meeting of the Policy and Management Council (“the Council”). See Section 8 herein. A hearing on said intention shall occur at the next meeting of the Council, which shall be scheduled within a reasonable time. At least 15 days and not more than 30 days before any hearing to terminate this Declaration, WMU shall place a public notice in the major local paper noticing the public hearing of said meeting at which public comment will be allowed concerning the intention to terminate. The Council shall make findings of fact regarding said intention to terminate this Declaration. A vote to support termination shall require a 3/4 vote of the Council. The action of the Council shall be presented to the WMU Board of Trustees at its next scheduled meeting within Kalamazoo County and at which public comment shall be allowed.

So, how secure is the Asylum Lake Preserve?  We see that the Declaration can be terminated  by a 3/4 vote of the council followed by WMU Board action.  A 3/4 vote of a 14-member Council would require 11 yeas. It would take only four no votes to block it.

Might the Council vote to terminate?  You be the judge.  And you might ponder this question at the same time: If WMU proposed terminating the Declaration and lost in the Council, what would be the administration’s next move?

I’ll return to the status of the Colony Farm Orchard in a future  post.

[23 June 2010.  I rearranged the order of this post to make it more descriptive.]

A Cleaner, Greener Land: What Kalamazoo Ought to Do. 2010, Part 1.

I made the following remarks at the 24 April 2004 Earth Day celebration at Kalamazoo Valley Community College and included them on the earlier version of my website as Conservation Letter 2 . Today, in boldface , I look at the same topics six years later.

White trillium, Earth Day 2010. Photograph by Richard Brewer.

When I agreed to give a talk at Earth Day, I asked my wife what I should talk about. She said, “It’s Earth Day. Talk about positive, forward-looking things.”

“What should I call the talk?” I said.

“Use the title of the last chapter in your book.”

So today I’m talking about positive, forward-looking things going on in the area or the state, and the title is “A Cleaner, Greener Land.”

I added the subtitle myself.

A few months ago, I heard Dave Poulson speak just across the hall in KVCC’s Eye on Environment series. Poulson spent several years as the environmental reporter for the Booth newspapers, the only environmental reporter in the state as far as I know. He had just left that job to join an environmental journalism center at Michigan State University when he spoke here.

In his talk Poulson said that of all the issues he had reported on in his years of covering the environment in Michigan, he had concluded that the most important one, the central one where all the rest came together, was land use. As someone with a special interest in land conservation, I think that’s a sound conclusion, at least for the local and state level.

Today I’m going to mention a few hopeful land use actions that have been done or begun or at least been mentioned. I’ll also add a couple of other hopeful things that ought to be started.

1. First, I think this Earth Day is an encouraging sign in itself. I remember the first Earth Day in 1970 in Kalamazoo. Lew Batts spoke to a large audience at Nazareth College. [At the talk, I probably mentioned that there were smaller gatherings around the same time at Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo College.]

For the last several years, there has been no evident continuing civic commitment to Earth Day in Kalamazoo. Nevertheless, every year some group has stepped forward and put on something. I remember a couple of years ago, the Food Co-op, seeing that nobody else had planned anything, did the best they could in the space next to Kraftbrau.

2010–Continuing in the positive mode, it’s worth mentioning that the Kalamazoo People’s Food Co-op in these past few years has a remarkable record of success.  I would say this is largely a result of (1) very good management and (2) the existence of a large constituency in and around Kalamazoo who want organic and  local foods and who prefer to support this kind of organization instead of pouring their dollars into the pockets of large corporations.  The success of the small Co-op store on Burdick St. has shown the need for larger quarters and, after long study, the Co-op is planning to build at the north edge of the downtown area, next to MacKenzie’s Bakery.

To the Co-op’s great credit, the new building will be on a brownfield site, which it is joining with the city in remediating.  Also, the new downtown Kalamazoo link between the Kal-Haven trail and the Kalamazoo Riverfront trail will run right by it.  Potentially, people could walk or bike to the new store from Portage, Battle Creek, or South Haven.  (Unfortunately, people living in downtown Kalamazoo will have a longer walk than they do to the Burdick store.)

The Co-op is raising money for the project starting with its members.  It’s a worthy cause.

The groups that I know of that have been working on Earth Day this year are the Kalamazoo Environmental Council and KVCC. I’m sure representatives of other groups and just plain individual environmentalists have contributed also. Today gives every indication of being one of the best celebrations in a long time, but just the fact that official neglect hasn’t managed to kill off Earth Day in Kalamazoo has to be seen as a hopeful sign.

2010–More recent Earth Days have had, as far as I could tell, little or none of the coordination of events among the various groups that was evident in 2004.  This is unfortunate but perhaps understandable considering the absence of any city or county sponsorship.  However, the number of events and activities have continued to expand, with more and more groups doing their bit for Earth Day.

Earth Day is, strictly speaking, 22 April, but Earth Day events have spread to the weekends before and after the 22nd, and even beyond.   Nevertheless 22 April is the date in 1970 that the first of these national teach-in on the environment was held.  Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisconsin) was the originator.  I hadn’t remembered until I read a little Earth Day history recently, that his inspiration came from the Viet Nam war teach-ins that had begun around 1965.

2. The biggest story on the front page of the Kalamazoo Gazette a month or so ago (28 March 2004) had the headline “Highway Upgrades Bypass Schoolcraft.” It’s one of those typical newspaper headings that don’t tell you what the article is about. What the story said was that the Michigan Department of Transportation has for the time being given up any plans to study, then plan and build a 4-lane $250 million 131 bypass around Schoolcraft.

This was not news; MDOT had made the announcement in December 2003. The reason is that there’s no money for new highway projects these days because of the poor economy. The Gazette article admits this but also spins the story to blame the people in the region for not embracing the idea of a bypass years ago.

The postponement is good land use news. Any of the bypass routes would eat up farmland that is probably the best in the state. Most of the routes would also destroy woods and marshes and would obliterate landmarks and relicts of Prairie Ronde, the 20-odd square miles of tall-grass prairie that once occupied the land around Schoolcraft. The bypass itself, depending on the exact route, could be four miles long and would occupy perhaps 600 acres and disturb much more in the construction. Interchanges and later business development would knock out additional acreages of farmland and natural land.

Only total cancellation of the whole idea of having a four-lane expressway all the way from Cadillac to the Indiana border would be better news for farmers and all opponents of sprawl.

2010–The Michigan Department of Transportation has not given up its dreams of a 4-lane highway to Nowhere, Indiana, as yet. Most recently, it has been talking about a bypass around Constantine.  The only thing lacking is the money–well, the money and a legitimate reason for spending it this way.  The project would cost $22 million, or probably more, which MDOT doesn’t have.  But by using other money, MDOT has started environmental impact studies, preliminary engineering, and land acquisition.  About 50 parcels of land will need to be bought, just to get around Constantine.

The economic downturn and lower gasoline usage mostly because of high gas prices have again spared Michigan the additional environmental degradation that would occur with a conversion of US-131 to an expressway all the way from Petoskey to the Indiana line.  But we’ll never be safe from the threat as long as Michigan retains, where a Department of Transportation ought to be, a Department of Concrete Six Lanes Wide.

If  “transportation” was really MDOT’s mission, its public statements would not be 98% about yet one more new highway or one more highway widening.  Rather it would also be busily dealing with questions of mass transit, bike trails, sidewalks, passenger trains, and how best to achieve transportation objectives without damaging natural areas and farmland. When it did talk about highways, it would talk about keeping the ones we have in good repair.

3. Today’s Gazette had more good news. After a long process, a Declaration of Conservation Restrictions and Management Framework for the Asylum Lake Preserve was approved last Friday (16 April) by the Western Michigan University (WMU) Board of Trustees. This way of protecting such land is not as strong as a conservation easement held by a land trust provided with an adequate defense endowment. But all in all, I’d say that the Asylum Lake property is now more secure than at any time since 1985. Continued vigilance by area citizens will still be needed. In the long run, their outrage at proposed violations is the only permanent protection.

2010–I’ll update the Asylum Lake/Colony Farm Orchard situation in my next post.  In it or later posts I’ll also cover points 4-7 of the original talk.

Land Trusts and The Land Trust Movement

Masthead of the newsletter of the Trustees of Reservations, the first land trust

This is an updated version of a page from the first version of my website.  It will be moved to the Pages section in a few days.

For classification purposes, we can separate land conservation by government and land conservation by private organizations. Two models of private land conservation exist–land trusts and land advocacy organizations. Land trusts protect land by direct action. They buy it or accept it as a gift or acquire a partial interest called a conservation easement that allows them to protect the conservation values of the land. Land advocacy groups, on the other hand, protect land indirectly by persuading government to buy or set aside land for parks or preserves and to regulate privately held land in ways that prevent its degradation. The Nature Conservancy is an example of a land trust; the Sierra Club is an example of an advocacy organization.

Land conservation by government has been important since the early years of the 20th century, beginning with Teddy Roosevelt. A few scattershot efforts, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, occurred earlier. For 75 years or so, federal, state, and local governments did a fairly satisfactory job of land conservation.

This progressive era came to a halt in 1981. Since that time, governmental land protection efforts have been weak or absent, occasionally rising to near adequacy in a few places for brief periods. The slack left in the vital task of land conservation has increasingly been taken up by land trusts.

The first land trust was the Trustees of Reservations, formed in Massachusetts in 1891 through the efforts of Charles Eliot. Several more organizations that followed what we now recognize as the land trust model were begun in the next several decades. Examples include the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, formed in 1901, Save-the-Redwoods League (1917), Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (in 1932 as the Greater Pittsburgh Parks Association), and Michigan Nature Association (1951 as the St. Clair Metropolitan Beach Sanctuary Association). Nevertheless, the rate of land trust formation was slow, and fewer than 50 bona fide land trusts were in operation by the middle of the 20th century. Rapid growth began with the emergence of the popular environmental movement in the late 1950s-early 1960s. By 1980, more than 400 land trusts were in existence.

Formation of new land trusts shifted into high gear in the 1980s as public-minded citizens became aware of two unhealthy trends: the near-abandonment of land protection by government and the escalating loss of natural and agricultural lands to sprawl. By 1990, there were nearly 900 land trusts in existence and by 2000, 1263. A renewed growth spurt took the number to 1667 in 2005 in the most recent complete census.

It probably makes sense to think of the land trust “movement” beginning during a few months from the fall of 1981 to the spring of 1982. Even though about 430 organizations that we would now call land trusts were in operation by 1981, few had any information about what the others were doing. Most were probably unaware that so many other groups with similar aims existed. Two national meetings in 1981, one in Cambridge MA and one in San Francisco, helped to spread the word. The Cambridge meeting, in particular, led to the formation of the Land Trust Exchange, renamed Land Trust Alliance in 1990. These meetings and the activities of the LTE as a clearinghouse and umbrella organization helped to turn the separate local groups into a community.

Today every state except North Dakota has at least one land trust. The density varies greatly. California has (as of 2005 by the Land Trust Alliance census) 198. Massachusetts has 161 and Connecticut, 128. The other states have numbers in the tens or–for much of the South, the Rocky Mountain region and the Plains region–in single digits.

As for results, land trusts have protected about 11.9 million acres, as of 2005. Nearly half of these acres were protected in just the 5 years from 2000 to 2005.

Much more about the history of the land trust movement, its connection with the broader conservation and environmental movements, current practices of land trusts, and prospects for the future are discussed in Conservancy: The Land Trust Movement in America. The website of the Land Trust Alliance is informative, as are its many publications including its journal Exchange.

Field Trip to Big Island Woods (Cooper’s Island) Coming Up

Hackberry, a frequent canopy tree at Big Island Woods. Photograph by Richard Brewer.

Saturday 24 April I’m leading a field trip to the Big Island Woods, also referred to as Cooper’s Island.  It’s a trip for the Kalamazoo Wild Ones chapter.

“Big Island Woods” refers to an “island” of forest in the middle of Prairie Ronde, southwest Michigan’s largest mesic (tall-grass) prairie. The village of Schoolcraft was founded just east of the Island.  Of the Island’s original 300 acres or more, about 20 acres now remain.  The site is probably the natural area in southwest Michigan most worthy of permanent protection, for its combination of ecological, botanical, and historic values.

Historically, Prairie Ronde and the Big Island are interesting because of their connection with the earliest settlers in Kalamazoo County (such as Bazel Harrison), with James Fenimore Cooper (whence “Cooper’s Island”), and with Clarence and Florence Hanes, authors of The Flora of Kalamazoo County.

Ecologically, the remnant of the Big Island that survives is of interest because of its unusual species composition, its similarity to prairie groves of Illinois, and several rare plant species.  The forest could perhaps be called wet mesic and has a diverse canopy, despite a windstorm about ten years ago that blew down many large trees.

Probably the most unusual plant species is the white trout lily, known from only one other site in Kalamazoo County.  Two other rare plants are the trees Ohio buckeye and blue ash.  There are, in addition, many other plants of mesic forest and southern swamp forest, including a relatively rich complement of spring ephemerals.

Red-berried elder in bud, early April, at Big Island Woods. Photograph by Richard Brewer.

Down trunks and woody debris from the wind storm about a decade ago make travel somewhat difficult in some parts of the woods.

Relatively little work has been done on the biota other than plants.  However, as a wooded island surrounded by agricultural fields and village streets, it could be an important stopover site for migratory  birds.  In less than two afternoon hours on 11 May 1996 three observers found 42 bird species including 14 species of warblers.

The trip will leave from the I-94 car-pool parking lot at Oakland Drive, Kalamazoo, at 9:15 AM Saturday.  Because parking at the field trip site is limited to about five cars, car-pooling is essential.  The field trip will conclude about noon.

Later on, after the trip, I’ll try to write something about what we saw and talked about at Cooper’s Island.

Costa Rica in the Dry Season, February 2010

Friday night sundown, Gulf of Nicoya, from hilltop at La Ensenada. Photo by Richard Brewer.

Katy and I just returned from two weeks in Costa Rica.  As part of an Elderhostel–though the program is now called Exploritas–we visited five sites ranging from mangrove forest along the Pacific Coast to the rather chaparral-like vegetation called paramo around 11,000 feet above sea level on Cerro de la Muerte.  Included were visits to several important conservation areas, including  La Selva (and Selva Verde) and a site in the Savegre River valley.

Spending eight or more hours a day in the field, our group identified, or had identified for it, about 280 species of birds.  On one night excursion we heard and saw the Common Pauraque (but no potoos).  We also saw 2- and 3-toed sloths, howler monkeys, collared peccaries and a few other mammals plus various herp species including crocodiles and caimans, 2 species of iguanas, several other lizards, a few frogs, and the cane toad, native here but with a bad reputation in places where it has been introduced, like St. Croix, US Virgin Islands.

Interest in resource conservation is high in Costa Rica.  For one thing, ecotourism, which is what we were participating in, is a major element in the nation’s economy.  The subjects of ecotourism’s costs and benefits and how sustainable it is are complex, but as an incentive for setting aside natural lands, the impact has been positive and powerful.

At Selva Verde. Photo by Richard Brewer.

I’ll write more about our observations and experiences.  For now, I’ll say just that they involved a lot of interesting and beautiful wildlife and plants, spectacular scenery, lots of good food, and good company.

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: 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, to let others who wish to save the Orchard see your views.

Colony Farm Orchard: Can The Land Abide?

I sent a slightly different version of this essay to Western Michigan University’s student newspaper, the Western Herald on 17 January 2010 [Published 20 January with title Reps. Jones, George could have protected Colony Farm Orchard.]

004The Herald correctly reported on 10 January 2010 (online, 11 January print) that Governor Granholm signed HB 5207 recently.  The bill removed the restriction that the Colony Farm Orchard should be used for open space, public park, or recreation or, by legislative action, could be used for some other public purpose.  The effect of HB 5207 was to kill that covenant, potentially allowing WMU to use the land for anything, without asking anybody.

The Herald story listed a few of the many people who share the blame for stripping the conservation covenant.  Listing all would make a long story–and a long letter–but Kalamazoo’s two elected legislators should be given special recognition, because either could have stopped the process.  Representative Bob Jones (D-Kalamazoo) could have said no when WMU handed him the bill.  He could have said yes when conservationists asked him to withdraw it from consideration.  He did neither.

Senator Tom George (R-Kalamazoo) could have killed the bill at any time during the months it sat in the Senate.  A word from him would have been a death sentence because of the convention in the legislature of deferring to the position taken by the Senator from the affected district (professional courtesy–so to speak).  But Tom George did not say the word.  In fact, his position as given by the Herald is that as times change, so should laws and deeds.

This catches precisely the difference between the exploiter mentality and that of the conservationist–the difference between the polluters, clear-cutters, and  mountaintop blasters, on the one hand, and Teddy Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold on the other. It is the mentality that would make permanent protection of any conservation land impossible.  The times have changed, says the exploiter; we’ll change the laws, we’ll change the deeds. This natural land is now expendable.

It’s a mentality to reject.  Though the restriction on the Colony Farm Orchard is gone, the land is the same, still providing essential ecosystem services to Asylum Lake Preserve and to all of us, and still deserving permanent preservation.  The only difference is that now the protection will have to come, not from a legal constraint, but from the knowledge, good judgment, and conscience of the WMU board and administration.

WMU Students, Faculty, and Alumni, Fellow Citizens, let us follow the board’s and administration’s actions closely.