WILDERNESS GUARDIANS

Organization acquiring property, partnering with landowners to preserve the U.P.

 

Story and photo by Katherine Larson
“It was 1999. A group of friends from Marquette went on a hike in the woods that ended with them sitting around a campfire, passing around a bottle, and solving the problems of the world.”

Andrea Denham, executive director of the U.P. Land Conservancy, loves to tell the story of how the organization was founded. From the talk around that campfire grew the Lake Superior Community Partnership, aimed at helping the area become economically competitive; the Noquemanon Trail Network, aimed at connecting and improving area recreation opportunities; and the U.P. Land Conservancy, aimed at preserving the land, community, and culture of the U.P.

With the UPLC coming up on its 20th anniversary in July, Denham said, “We are a grass-roots organization,  volunteer-led and passion-fed.”

The group’s focus is on “working to establish permanent legal protection for ‘conservation land’ or ‘the conservation value of land’—legal terms referring to land that for various reasons is important to the way water stays clean, animals maintain their habitats, plants remain healthy, and the community enjoys the benefits of the natural ecosystem.”

Asked for an example of “conservation value,” Denham offered the instance of “a family camp on 10 acres that includes lake shore, wetlands, and a stream going through the property, along with a cabin and a road. What you do with the cabin and on the roads will eventually affect the lake where you swim and fish. In this example, the wetlands act as a filter. They help take care of such things as oil and salt from cars, and so help keep the lake safe. So, in this example, the ‘conservation value’ of that land might focus on the intact wetlands, and preserving the ‘conservation value’ would require keeping those wetlands intact.”

Another example would be “a forest with a great diversity of trees at a great diversity of stages of development. Such a forest supports a great diversity of animals, birds, rodents, amphibians, insects, and so on, and so the ‘conservation value’ focuses on the diversity itself.”

The UPLC pursues its goals in two main ways: through conservation easements, and through outright ownership of land.

Conservation easements allow the landowner to continue to own and use their property privately. “People worry about their family camps,” Denham said. “What will happen to them? Will the children be able to keep them? Will the children want them? What about encroaching development? They call us, and we take a look at the land. If there is significant conservation value, the owner can donate to us the portion of ownership rights that keep the conservation value intact. The land itself is still the owner’s, free to pass down or to sell or to use as the owner wishes, subject to that conservation easement which preserves the conservation value.”

So, in the 10-acre example involving wetlands, maybe a square will be drawn around the cabin. “Within that square, the owner or successor can use and alter the buildings and roads all they want, so long as their activity doesn’t affect the protected wetland,” Denham explained. Or, in the case of the diverse forest, “the owner can manage it for timber, but in ways that preserve the conservation value of its diversity.”

The process is highly individualized and can be written to be as strict or (within limits) as loose as the donor wants, with the goal of ensuring that no matter who owns the land in the future, its conservation value will be protected.

Denham said that UPLC personnel check all their conservation easement land at least yearly, working with the landowner and neighbors to help protect the property. She added, “We walk the boundaries and make sure no one’s trespassing, dumping, cutting trees, or whatever. So the property-owner gets an extra layer of protection. The easement gives us legal recourse, but we haven’t had to exercise enforcement rights much. It’s mostly just friendly conversation with neighbors about boundaries. ‘Please don’t drive your ATV through our wetlands.’ ‘Oh, okay. I didn’t realize they were yours.’ Then we work together to restore the wetlands, and everyone’s happy.”

With most conservation easements, the donor gets a tax break because the UPLC is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Moreover, while some land value goes down because of reduced development potential, some goes up because the conservation value is protected. In the meantime, Denham said, “the landowner can rest easy, knowing that the property will remain as beautiful as it is.”

Denham added, “This community is so passionate. For most people who live here, it’s not just a pile of trees, it’s a way of life. We grow up going to camp, watching the trees grow and the animal life change. It’s not that common outside the U.P., but in the U.P. it’s an essential part of our way of life. And people want to hand that experience down through the generations. It’s bigger than any of us as individuals; it’s our community and our community’s future.”

As for land that the UPLC owns outright, “some we protect ourselves, and some we continue to own but have given conservation easements to larger partners, like the Nature Conservancy, to keep as a nature preserve.”

These properties fall into three categories, Denham said. “Some are nature preserves that we set aside as untouched wilderness areas because they are very sensitive ecologically and provide homes for endangered species. And some are nature preserves on which we build trails, put up interpretive signs, and invite everyone in—veterans’ groups, church groups, school groups, individuals. We let people know that they’re there and we hope people use them. We also offer guided hikes and educational events, and we have a great group of volunteers who are really excited about expanding the accessibility of these preserves to the whole community.”

A third category of land owned by UPLC includes 24 “conservation reserves.” Denham said, “These are properties which we manage for timber production while maintaining their conservation value. We’re working with a variety of partners, including the Northern Institute for Applied Climate Science and the Nature Conservancy, with the goal of adapting larger-scale climate change mitigation forestry practices in ways that are practical for the small-scale landowner.”

She explained, “The National Forest Service and the Nature Conservancy own millions of acres, and they are developing forest management practices that actively prepare the land for the inevitable changes to weather and biomes that are coming. Change is happening rapidly, and the way humans have managed forests for centuries doesn’t fit any more.”

So, Denham said, the UPLC’s “research focuses on various scenarios: if carbon emissions reach certain levels, then some kinds of trees—maples, for example—won’t thrive in the U.P. anymore, while other trees will move in. The same is true with insects and other wildlife. Our effort is to project 50, 100, and 150 years into the future, and to actively prepare our forests for these scenarios. If we plant trees now that will fit future conditions, then when the future comes those trees will be established, and the forests won’t suffer a massive die-off.”

“We’re still at the groundwork level, creating written management plans and doing pilot studies on different forest management and harvest styles,” Denham added. “We’re determining what works best, and then we’ll offer our results to the local landowners—someone who owns five or 10 or 40 acres—as a way to preserve their land.”

As of August 2018, the UPLC became officially accredited through the National Land Trust Alliance, which Denham described as “the gold standard of the land trust management world. They certify that we are carrying out our mission of protecting land for the sake of the community responsibly, ethically, and truthfully.”

An important part of the UPLC’s strategic plan is encouraging people to get out into the woods. “People don’t protect what they don’t love, and they don’t love what they don’t know,” Denham said. “So we offer educational outings, fun hikes, and off-trail excursions. We try to do at least one big open-to-the-public event every month. If you are a part of a social group or church club or family reunion, we’d love to take your group out into the forest. If your office is looking for a team-building activity, we’re here.”

One such outing is a guided snowshoe hike at the Vielmetti-Peters Conservation Reserve on Sunday, Jan. 13, to be led by Denham. “We’ll be snowshoeing the waterfall trail together, and it’ll be a grand time,” she said. “Meet at the end of Brickyard Road at 1 p.m. and we’ll hike from there, a couple of miles out and back on a pre-packed route. Bring water and a snack, and dress in layers appropriate for the weather.” Other upcoming activities are posted on the organization’s Facebook page and on the community calendar, www.marquette365.org.

An especially family-friendly event is the UP200 Takeoff Party on Friday, Feb. 15. After the sled dog racers head out from downtown Marquette, the UPLC will host a gathering at the Chocolay Bayou Nature Preserve from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. with a bonfire, hot cocoa, and snacks to enjoy while watching the teams swoosh by in the quiet of the woods. A trail lit by ice lamps will lead from the preserve’s Main Street parking lot to the Iron Ore Heritage Trail where the mushers will pass.

In addition, all are invited to the UPLC’s annual meeting on Thursday, Jan. 17, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Women’s Federated Clubhouse at 104 W. Ridge Street in Marquette. Denham said, “This is an excellent time to come and be introduced to UPLC as we give a rundown of 2018 and look ahead to our big year in 2019. Come meet folks who are passionate about saving land in the U.P. for the sake of the community and learn how we are ensuring a green, healthy future for the region. We will be focusing this year’s annual meeting presentations on a look into the future as we discuss the upcoming Dead River Community Forest. [The event will include] a film—parts of which were shown at the 2018 Fresh Coast Film Festival—that captures the essence of the project.”

For more information about the UPLC and its work, email uplc@uplandconservancy.org or call 906-225-8067.

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