Area conservation agency working to improve eastern Cass forest land

JONES — Agriculture is more than just a business in Cass County — it is a way of life for many who call the region home.

While host to a number of different industries, from manufacturing to service, farming is what Cass remains best known for, with locals growing everything from corn to maple trees. As a result, much of the land in the area has been tamed, turned into either crop fields, roadways, or plots for homes and commercial buildings.

Located near the border of Cass and St. Joseph counties, however, are acres of forests, wetlands and streams that have remained largely untouched by the thresher of modern civilization.

A group of dedicated conservationists would like to keep it that way, if they have anything to say about it.

Over the past several years, the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy has led a project to protect the lands surrounding the state-owned Crane Pond State Game Area, located in eastern Cass County near the village of Jones. Working with other outdoor agencies in the county, like the parks department and conservation district, as well as farmers, hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts, members of SWMLC have developed a vision of the future of the 6,300-acre region, and created ideas they hope will increase its presence in the region.

“We like the idea of creating some wildness in southwest Michigan,” said Peter Ter Louw, president and executive director of the SWMLC.

Leaders of the nine-county conservation agency, which is based out of Galesburg, first set their eyes on enhancing the Crane Pond State Game Area, as well as the Three Rivers State Game Area located a short distance away in St. Joseph County, around three years ago, Ter Louw said. Both game areas are managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which has worked alongside the SWMLC during the process.

In 2014, the agency received grant dollars to pay for a geographic information system survey of the two game areas, as well as the land surrounding the properties, which includes the Cass County-owned Dr. T.K. Lawless Park in Vandalia and Jones’ Swiss Valley ski resort.

In addition to these popular attractions, eastern Cass’ forests and wetlands are a favorite destination for deer and turkey hunting, as well as for people looking for morel mushrooms to pick, Ter Louw said.

“We felt it was a meaningful area for us to do work in, and to help protect for future generations,” he said.

The SWMLC later assembled a committee dedicated to forming a plan for conserving the lands, a project the agency dubbed the Jones Area Regional Conservation Plan. The group, which was comprised of figures such as Cass County Parks and Recreation Director Scott Wyman, met several times to come up with recommendations for land protection, habitat and recreation improvements, and agricultural preservation.

Next spring, the SWMLC will look reassemble the Jones Area Regional Conservation Plan committee to develop additional goals for the project, such as reaching out to local landowners, hosting field trips to the wetlands or inviting university students to use the properties for research projects.

The SWMLC recently began protecting two pieces of property surrounding the Crane Pond State Game Area, which are owned by Charlotte Mittler, a seasonal resident of Corey Lake, located outside of Jones, and her family. These properties, known as Walnut Farm and Forked Lake, are still owned by the Mittler clan, though under a protection easement with the SWMLC, the land cannot be developed or subdivided, Ter Louw said.

Mittler is currently working with the DNR to transform the Forked Lake property from a corn and soybean farm into a field with natural grasses that will help enhance the ecology of the area, Ter Louw said.

The director said he is hoping that other local landowners will follow suit in the years to come.

In addition to protecting a vital natural resource, Ter Louw said the lands have a lot of potential for recreational opportunities, including an extensive trail system, which could connect the game areas to Lawless Park and other public properties.

While it may take decades to accomplish, Ter Louw said he hopes to one day establish a corridor between the Crane Pond and Three Rivers game areas, through either land acquisition or by partnering with agencies and local landowners to protect and manage properties between the two sites.

“It will be a little like putting Humpty Dumpty back together again,” Ter Louw said.

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