Joint efforts, ecological dividends

January 30, 2011
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LANSING — State and federal agencies, conservation groups and residents have been teaming up to increase the amount of environmentally important land protected in Michigan.

Donations of natural areas, land easements and land trusts have been growing in recent years, according to conservation groups.

Amy Trotter, the resource policy manager for Michigan United Conservation Clubs, said that for a piece of land to be placed under easement, a government agency or conservation group must own the development rights. That means the owner keeps the property but cannot build on it for a specified amount of time.

Trotter said land easements are typically under contract for 10 years or longer.

The main reason securing development rights is gaining in popularity is that it’s cheaper than purchasing land outright to preserve it.

She said the state and environmental groups sometimes approach landowners to see if they are willing to sell their development rights for conservation purposes.

Patrick Brown, the head of the biology department at Northern Michigan University, said those ecosystem management techniques became more common in the early 1990s, when groups started to look at what land should be protected for public use.

“The idea was to try to come up with ways the public could enjoy natural areas without spoiling them,” said Brown.

Much of the recently protected land in a more than 250,000-acre Upper Peninsula conservation is near state and national parks and forests, Brown said. That increases the buffer zones between parks and industrial or developed areas.

The deal was completed last fall after eight years of effort.

Pamela Larson, the communications director for the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy based in Portage, said there’s been steady growth in land conservation since the late 1970s when the federal government granted tax credits to people who donated land or sold easements for conservation.

Larson said landowner education raises interest in easements.

“As people become more concerned about the health of the environment or they start to see landscapes disappearing, they realize they have to do something to protect the wildlife,” said Larson, “Instead of a parking lot that leaches oil into our watershed, there could be an open field or a forest.”

The Southwest Michigan group protects 7,000 acres in Allegan, Barry, Berrien, Branch, Calhoun, Cass, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph and Van Buren counties, primarily through easements.

Larson said an important part of the organization’s work is giving community talks about land donations and easements.

Tom Bailey, the executive director of the Little Traverse Conservancy based in Harbor Springs, said there’s been a steady increase in gifts of land to his organization in the last few years.

The group protects more than 40,000 acres in Mackinac, Chippewa, Emmet, Charlevoix and Cheboygan counties. More than 28,000 of those acres are owned outright or under easements.

“Most land donations are from people with a deep love of land conservation and nature,” said Bailey. “When you see these areas where kids used to play become subdivided or have ‘no trespassing’ signs, people realize that something has to be done.”

The breaking up of habitats creates a big problem for environmental quality, MUCC’s Trotter said. “Land fragmentation is the top threat to a healthy ecosystem” so keeping large plots whole protects wildlife. “When the housing boom comes back, which it will, the large chunks of quality habitat are the first at stake,” she said.

NMU’s Brown said fragmentation also restricts the movement of animals, which can threaten their survival.

Bailey said unfragmented land increases property values in nearby communities because natural areas improve overall quality of life for residents. “It’s a very well-known fact that our natural resources are what people come here to enjoy.”

NMU’s Brown said logging can continue on some privately owned land, if it’s done in an environmentally responsible manner, which is how most commercial forestland in the state is managed.

He said consumers want to buy lumber that has been removed in an environmentally responsible way, so more loggers are harvesting in accordance with strict standards.

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