Column: The Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy

Published 1:39 pm Thursday, May 25, 2006

By Staff
I first became aware of the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy when I joined a team to officially survey an extremely rare butterfly found here in Southwest Michigan, the Mitchell's satyr. I was surprised to find this project was headed by the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy. A bit weird, I thought, some little Podunk club I'd never even heard of manning such a vital project. When I became involved, though, I quickly found that the SWMLC was a far cry from a gathering of tree hugging, back porch, herbal tea sippers. They're real doers. The SWMLC's primary mission is to preserve and protect wild lands here in the Southwest Michigan area. To this end many ambitious members roll up their sleeves to clear unwanted invasives, make hiking trails, plant seeds, transplant rare plants threatened by development and all manner of neat stuff.
I must admit, I'm not much of a club joiner. Sure, we need the large national and international conservation agencies. They wield substantial cudgels to thrash politicians and wildlife managers about the head and shoulders when they start getting stupid with our natural resources. They also provide funding for major conservation projects. As invaluable as these big organizations are they're too distant for me to really relate to. Mostly, the involvement in conservation is simply providing cash through membership. For me it's only remote satisfaction to know I'm somehow helping some unknown something in some rain forest or stretch of tundra that I can't even find on a map. The conservation world desperately needs cash cows but I'm more of a down home, hands on guy.
That's the unique appeal of the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy. They provide the opportunity to be truly involved in conservation and to make a tangible difference right here at home. The results can be seen, smelled and touched. Based in Kalamazoo, the SWMLC was formed in 1991 with a basic goal to protect wildlife habitat. Their primary avenue for this is through conservation easements where landowners enter into contract with the Conservancy to dedicate forever a given parcel of land for wildlife habitat. It can never be developed even if it changes ownership. The land owner still owns the land and is not required to open it to the public. He can hunt, fish and recreate on it as he pleases.
The other way SWMLC preserves habitat is by outright land donations. Typically, when land is donated to the Conservancy it is officially dedicated as a preserve. SWMLC members maintain and enhance the habitat to be as good as it can be. One example is the Chipman Preserve, donated by John and Patty Chipman. It's well over 100 acres of prairie and savannah remnant near Kalamazoo where I and other members have enjoyed numerous hours of habitat work. Last Sunday the Chipmans joined a group of us for a few hours of pulling invasive garlic mustard. Just recently SWMLC obtained 365 acres of pristine woodlands, restored prairie and undeveloped Lake Michigan shoreline in Allegan County. Named Wau-Ke-Na (meaning forest-by-the-water), it was willed to SWMLC by Chicago businessman William Kerby Smith, who passed in 2004. This is a truly stunning place and the SWMLC is drafting plans to do it proud.
According to Pam Larson, SWMLC communications director, currently nearly 6,000 acres of premier Southwestern Michigan wildlife habitat is under SWMLC stewardship, either through conservation easements or Conservancy owned preserves. Membership has grown to 1,100 households. How's that for a bargain, hubby, wife, kids and the dog all included in one minimal membership fee? It's not all work and no play, either. Usually included on work days as well as on other occasions, Nate Fuller, the conservation and stewardship director and one of the best rounded naturalists you'll ever meet, conducts nature walks where he identifies birds by their calls and talks about virtually every plant and animal encountered.
A most impressive thing about SWMLC is all that they accomplish with just a lean staff of five professionals working out of a no frills office. No wallowing, top laden bureaucracy here. For more information on the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy and their programs go to or call (269) 324-1600.