Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy saves land for turtles, loons, plants, and people, too

The Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy has been experiencing successes from the east side of the region to the west -- on lands at the headwaters of southern Barry County's Augusta Creek and the headwaters of region in the Paw Paw River Watershed.

In Van Buren County, the Land Conservancy has raised 98 percent, all but $75,000, of $2.2 million needed to acquire, maintain, and open to the public a 188-acre property known as the Portman Nature Preserve. The new nature preserve in Almena and Antwerp townships in eastern Van Buren County purchased in January is the Land Conservancy's  most ambitious conservation project to date, says SWMLC’s Conservation and Stewardship Director Nate Fuller. (Watch a video of the project here.)

The property is one of the most ecologically significant natural areas in southwest Michigan. The Portman Nature Preserve is home to every species of turtle found in southern Michigan, Fuller says. Two federally endangered species and many plants that state has listed as endangered also live there. 

"The Portman Nature Preserve is an amazing mix of woods, meadows, and wetlands with frontage on three lakes, a creek, and hundreds of springs," says Fuller. 

The project came about through a massive collaboration of local, state, and federal organizations. It was made possible by Gerald and Julie Portman, The Conservation Fund, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Enbridge Energy Limited Partnership, the U.S. Forest Service, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and The Carls Foundation. Further,  200 individual donors and friends of SWMLC met The Carls Foundation’s $75,000 matching grant challenge issued in late autumn of 2016, to raise $150,000 to go toward the project.
 
SWMLC identified the 188-acre property as a high priority site for conservation almost a decade ago. The Portman Nature Preserve part of a critical headwater region in the Paw Paw River Watershed and also helps provide clean and abundant water to the region, and ultimately to Lake Michigan. It is also home to an incredible diversity of plants and animals.

"Our vision is to create a nature preserve that not only conserves this outstanding property's natural features, but also serves as an outdoor classroom for local students, and a natural space for the community to explore, learn, exercise, gather, and connect with nature and each other," says SWMLC President and Executive Director Pete Ter Louw.

Bill McNulty, retired educator and former principal at Mattawan Middle School, is an enthusiastic supporter of the project. He says he is particularly excited about the opportunity to engage students in a natural setting to enhance development and learning across multiple subjects. 

"After just a few minutes at the Portman Nature Preserve I could see the potential opportunities for our community’s children," says McNulty. "I am so excited that our schools have been welcomed to be a part of this from the beginning. This outdoor classroom provides an extraordinary natural setting for our children to learn about science, art, writing, and so much more."

If SWMLC is able to raise the final $75,000 needed to complete a safe parking area and entry trail system, it will schedule a Saturday "Sneak Peek" event in late spring for the public to visit the new Portman Nature Preserve.

Fair Lake Preserve in Barry County
In Barry County

On the region's east side, at the headwaters of southern Barry County’s Augusta Creek, lies Fair Lake. Only a few houses dot the five miles of Fair Lake’s shoreline, which has kept the lake healthy. When a large natural tract of land on the lake recently went up for sale, Noel and Larry Hayward, decided to purchase the property and donate it to the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy (SWMLC) so that it would be conserved forever.

The new 66-acre Fair Lake Preserve has more than 1,500 feet of frontage on the north side of Fair Lake and is home to plant species found only in the highest quality wetlands in Southwest Michigan, such as Pitcher plants and Grass-pink orchids that line the banks of the lake. Fair Lake also has southernmost nesting pair of common loons in the continental United States. The loons have chosen, year after year, to make their nest on a platform at the north end of Fair Lake. And that's why the Haywards decided to purchase the property and donate it to the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy. 

"My parents bought land on Fair Lake in 1938," says donor Noel Hayward. "Even back then, an older neighbor of theirs said the loons had been here for years, so they’ve been here for at least 90 years and probably much longer. The loons are so special to us and we would like to do whatever we can to help them continue to make their home here on the lake."

The Fair Lake Preserve is SWMLC’s sixth nature preserve in Barry County. It is critical for wetland and water conservation, says SWMLC Conservation Projects Manager Emily Wilke. "During the past few years SWMLC has been focused on conserving land within the Augusta Creek watershed and conserving land on Fair Lake has been one of our highest priorities," Wilke says.

Overall, the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy has protected more than 4,700 acres of land in Barry County, especially wetlands, streams and watersheds, such as the Augusta Creek which flows south into the Kalamazoo River. SWMLC is also focused on expanding wildlife habitat within and adjacent to the Barry State Game Area.

This spring, SWMLC plans to lead a birding hike through this new preserve. Look for details at the SWMLC website or at SWMLC’s Facebook page.       

Source: Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy
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