Preserving Nature

Melt water drastically increases the flow of the river over Yellow Dog Falls every spring, evidenced here by the rushing waters. (Photo courtesy of Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve)

by Jim Pennell

Whose woods are these I think I know

His house is in the village though

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow

– Robert Frost

Land, as they say, is a wise investment because they’re not making any more of it. With the exception of an occasional volcanic eruption that spills lava into the sea that statement is true. Here in the U.P., land and water are two of our primary commodities. We have an abundance of both and they are closely watched and cared for. The area known as the Michigamme Highlands is a place that people seem to have a deep passion for, whether they own land there or not. It spans from north of Marquette to the Huron Islands and contains vast areas of timber, countless lakes and streams and the foothills and peaks of the Huron Mountains, including Mount Arvon, the highest point in Michigan. This was one of Henry Ford’s favorite places to be. The earth here is sacred to some, and road trips to Big Bay and along the labyrinth of dirt roads beyond have been celebrated in story and song.

The Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve is a local land trust that has recently increased its land ownership in the Michigamme Highlands and has established the Yellow Dog River Community Forest. Emily Whittaker, special projects manager for the preserve, said the YDWP was able to acquire 688 acres along the Yellow Dog River in northern Marquette County with the intention of having it be a protected space that will be permanently open to the public for recreation, education and enjoying other activities associated with forest areas. Purchasing the land through a variety of funding sources, Whittaker said the largest chunk came from a $400,000 U.S. Forest Service Community Forest Program. Another $400,000 came from private foundations. The preserve also received funds from community organizations, including several chapters of Trout Unlimited, the Kalamazoo Audubon Society and many individual donations, Whittaker added.

“When we purchase property we’re trying to achieve one of two things, either provide public access or protect the resources,” Whittaker said. “Wetlands, river corridors and waterfalls are our priority acquisitions. Our organization has always had our eye on this property since it’s kind of the crown jewel of the river. It features the main public access point for people to reach the river and many beautiful waterfalls and granite cliffs. The previous owner offered it to us before they put it up for sale. They were willing to give us a shot, but if we were unsuccessful in purchasing it they were prepared to put it on the open market, which we didn’t want to see happen. Property along rivers and lakes often gets divided and sold off to private individuals. Once that happens you see reduced public access, fragmentation of the landscape and a lot more development along those sensitive waterways.”

Whittaker said the purchase pushed the number of acres preserved to more than 1,000. Prior to the Community Forest Purchase, the YDWP had 412 acres, which included 40 acres by the McCormick Wilderness Area, 160 acres at the headwaters of the Salmon-Trout River, 40 acres at Pinnacle Falls, 160 acres of wild wetlands around where the Yellow Dog empties into Lake Independence, and the preserve’s first purchase of 12 acres along the Bushy Creek Truck Trail.

The work of the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve is not limited to land acquisition. There is also upkeep and monitoring to be done on the land.

“Most of our properties are pretty remote. Pinnacle Falls is the only one that gets significant visitation. We’ve done some trail work and added some signage there to control ATV use,” Whittaker said. “We also monitor the boundaries to make sure no one is encroaching, do basic maintenance and trail work and clean up after people when they leave garbage. YDWP has a staff of four people at this point and they, along with our board of directors, are out there doing the monitoring. We also use volunteers and we’re starting a program called Volunteer Land Stewardship Program, but we haven’t publicly launched it at this point. I’m anticipating we’ll launch it in the next couple of months. It will be a more formalized monitoring program where we’ll train volunteers according to a protocol. The Community Forest is going to be different because it will be the most visited property that we own. It will take additional attention, but since it is so popular I expect there will be more interest in monitoring it from the public.”

The YDWP is not alone in its effort of land preservation. The Nature Conservancy also owns land in the Michigamme Highlands. Jeff Knoop, the Nature Conservancy’s director of land preservation for the Upper Peninsula, said the conversancy was started in 1952 as a group which broke away from the Ecological Society of America to protect natural areas where research was being done.

With more than 1 million members nationally and internationally, the conservancy’s process for land acquisition originally focused on rare plant or plant communities in a small area, so it worked on acquiring small pieces of land.

“Since then we’ve gone to a broader focus and we’re looking at entire ecosystems or what we call conservation areas and try to acquire certain portions of the highest quality land,” Knoop said. “We also work with other partner agencies, be it the federal or state government or local land trusts.

“I moved up here in 2001 and along with a colleague, Tina Hall, started the U.P. wide program,” Knoop went on. “We’ve identified five or six areas in the U.P. where we’re doing the bulk of our work. These are the high quality land areas with the largest number of rare endangered plant and animal species that we’re aware of. We’ve protected almost 300,000 acres since we started. The bulk of that, about 240,000 acres, was a large scale working forest easement we obtained that is mostly around the Two-Hearted River in Luce and Alger counties. We’ve preserved about 1,500 acres in the Michigamme Highlands area.”

Although The Nature Conservancy is a national organization, the funding is all done on a local level.

“We purchase 60 percent of the land and the other 40 percent is gifted or sold to us below the market rate,” Knoop said. “Generally we get no allocation from the national office. When we raise money we have to do it on our own for purchases and staff salaries. Where do we get our money to buy all this land? Well, we work with a lot of large corporations that can give sizable amounts of money for conservation work, but the big money to do land acquisition comes from private foundations. There’s a number of those across the country and Michigan has quite a few that give money strictly for conservation work. We also do what’s known as a Government Cooperative Project, which is when the state or federal government is interested in a purchase but doesn’t have the money available. We step in and make the purchase and then sell it back to the state at our cost. Over the years we’ve done quite a few of those. This helps with additions to national parks and wildlife refuges.”

 

A look at the Marquette County Plat book gives an interesting view of land ownership. There are no distinct boundaries for the Michigamme Highlands, but the area north of the City of Marquette to the western boundary of Marquette County is almost 200,000 acres. About 73,000 acres, or a third of that, is owned by two large timber companies. Federal, state and local governments own almost 14,000 acres, and the Huron Mountain Club has 20,000. The Loma Farms property includes 3,372 acres. Land trusts like the YDWP and The Nature Conservancy hold just over 10,000 acres. This leaves around 80,000 acres owned by private individuals and smaller corporations. It’s worth noting that the nickel mine in Michigamme Township owns only 2,970 acres of land. The one entity that has recently radically and permanently changed the size and style of the roads, the face of the landscape and the very feel of this precious area owns a mere 1.5 percent of the land in that region.

Large corporations that hold vast acreages are changing their views of land ownership and this is good for land trusts.

“There is a national trend where big forest companies are finding it’s more financially beneficial to chop up their large land holdings and sell them as subdivided pieces,” Whittaker noted. “They’re finding, for example, a 40-acre parcel of timber that you can only harvest once every 60 years can be sold off and the money used to buy land elsewhere that’s ready to be harvested. Because of this, we have a couple other projects that are probably going to result in additional acquisitions this year.”

The recent changes in the political world and the growing demand for resources have made the work of local land trusts all the more crucial. It’s good to know that there are people who have the patience and vision needed to save wild areas. Financial support is always appreciated, and it’s good to know that any money given here goes towards local land projects. If you own wild forestland, consider contacting one of these agencies about the ways your land can be preserved, either now or in the future.

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