By John Hummer
Exponent staff writer
Maybe you live near or pass by the Cement City area and are vaguely familiar with the Goose Creek Grasslands Nature Sanctuary just south of the village or the Columbia Nature Sanctuary at the corner of Dearmyer and Taylor roads. Or maybe you live further north in the Napoleon area and often drive by the Lefglen Nature Sanctuary on Wolf Lake Road near Little Wolf Lake.
Maybe you’ve never stopped to explore these areas (and there are many more throughout the state), but they are some of the most priceless pieces of land in the state of Michigan. Fortunately for the residents of and visitors to the state, these lands will be protected forever thanks to an organization called the Michigan Nature Association.
People. Land. Legacy. That’s what the organization is all about. People protecting land and leaving a legacy for the next generation.
Under the visionary leadership of Bertha A. Daubendiek, what started in 1951 as a small bird study group became a statewide land conservation organization with a mission is to protect the state’s rare, threatened and endangered species and imperiled natural communities for future generations. This mission was revised over time as the organization expanded its ideology to accommodate land acquisition and conservation.
For six decades, the organization has acquired and protected an unparalleled network of more than 170 nature sanctuaries across the state from the Indiana/Ohio border to the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula in the Upper Peninsula. It is the largest network of natural areas owned and maintained by a nonprofit conservation organization in Michigan.
“The sanctuaries must have enough high-quality habitat features that house these imperiled species,” said Rachel Maranto, regional stewardship organizer for the Southeast Lower Peninsula in describing what lands the MNA seeks to acquire and protect.
MNA has invested a lot of resources into its stewardship staff to care for the many properties the group now owns. One staff person covers all of MNA’s U.P. sanctuaries, another covers northern lower Michigan, while two others cover southwest and southeast Lower Michigan. Maranto covers the latter, including the Jackson and Lenawee county areas. A total staff of 10 works hard to make it all happen.
The organization also carries on a program of natural history study and conservation education. It has recently started to put more resources into outreach and education and has added long-time Michigan conservationist and land trust professional Julie Stoneman to the staff. She has responsibilities in outreach, fundraising and education programming.
“We’re trying to reach more schools, universities, and the general public,” Maranto said. The organization works with schools and teachers across the state to inspire children to become Michigan’s next generation of conservation leaders.
MNA works closely with area school districts such as Addison and Napoleon schools. Students from the schools’ biology and botany classes come out to help remove glossy buckthorn, garlic mustard, and other invasive species at MNA sanctuaries including Goose Creek and Lefglen. Addison High School’s senior botany class will be working at Lefglen, removing garlic mustard, on May 3.
“Some of our properties, like Lefglen, have a marked trail and parking area,” says Maranto. “That’s sort of our maximum visitor amenities. Other sanctuaries, like Columbia, are a bit harder to access and only have roadside parking and do not have marked trails.” Maranto recommends a map and compass to navigate around unmarked sanctuaries like Columbia.
“It all depends on what your comfort level is with exploring,” she said. Maranto encourages people to get ahold of her for maps or tips on getting around MNA properties.
MNA’s newest acquisition is the McCulley-Bastian Nature Sanctuary, a 70-acre parcel that lies within a priority land protection area along the River Raisin off of M-52 and Sutton Roads between Tecumseh and Adrian. The property is primarily southern floodplain forest and provides excellent nesting habitat for neo-tropical migratory birds and supports wildlife migration as well. The sanctuary currently has no marked trails or other amenities.
On Saturday, May 6, MNA is hosting a “Bio Blitz” at McCullley-Bastian where they gather local experts in different taxonomic groups to identify as many species as they can. However, no experience is necessary if you’d like to help. Contact Maranto (contact information included at end of story) if you are interested.
“Typically, when we acquire new properties, we know there are one or two rare species of interest, but we don’t have the full picture,” she said. “This is our attempt to generate the species list for the sanctuary.”
One stewardship activity that MNA recently performed at Goose Creek was a prescribed burn. Prescribed burns are management tools to combat invasive species, such as glossy buckthorn, a European shrub species that had taken over many parts of the sanctuary.
“Without this management technique, it would turn Goose Creek – which is a prairie fen, basically a grassland wetland ecosystem – into an impenetrable shrub thicket,” said Maranto. “Once you clear out the big shrubs, fire is a great tool to cover a lot of acreage at once.” Students from Aaron Wesche’s biology and botany classes at Addison High School have helped clear out big masses of glossy buckthorn at Goose Creek over the past couple years.
Typically, a prescribed burn promotes stimulation of the native seed bank and the ash from the fire provides good nutrients for the soil.
“You get this really vibrant flush of early summer wildflowers,” said Maranto. “Goose Creek is a great place for viewing wildflowers anyway, but I’m anticipating this to be something like wildflowers on steroids. Where you typically get one or two wood lilies poking out, we might get 50. That’s the scale I’m hoping for anyway.”
To capitalize on the predicted flush of wildflowers at Goose Creek, MNA – along with the Huron Valley chapter of the Michigan Botanical Club – is co-hosting a wildflower walk-a-bout hike on Sunday, June 4 from 1 to 4 p.m.
MNA, as a nonprofit organization, relies largely on fundraising to acquire new properties and support the organization. There are several fundraising campaign options donors can choose from – all accessible via the MNA website. The organization also works with land donors or sellers to help convey property to MNA. MNA will assist land donors with tools such as conservation easements if they wish to retain certain uses of properties such as hunting rights or allowing pets on a property.
“It’s a flexible option for people who can’t afford to outright donate their land,” Maranto said. “There are essentially scattered programs that incentivize land acquisition for the purposes of conservation.”
MNA also works with other organizations on land acquisitions when necessary.
“Each land conservancy has a different mission, so it’s a different piece of the conservation puzzle,” she said. “Not every land owner is a perfect fit for us, but maybe they’re a great fit for another [land conservation organization]. We work together to find the right fit for a property – who’s the best fit for caring for the land in perpetuity. Wherever possible we try to seek out opportunities for mutually beneficial collaboration.”
For more information about MNA and its events calendar, visit www.michigannature.org. The website includes a searchable map function to help locate all the sanctuaries that are open to public visitation.