Conservancy builds connections to nature through education and conservation

As we drive to work or school and sit inside climate-controlled homes and offices, it’s easy to think of nature as something that exists somewhere else, says Zachary Branigan, Executive Director of the Saginaw Basin Land Conservancy. 

He and his staff - Lisa Cleland, Trevor Edmonds, and Ted Lind - are working to by reconnecting people of the community with the nature around them. Through urban restoration projects and creating preserves where people can learn about and engage with the outdoors, the Conservancy hopes to protect and promote Bay County's natural resources. 

Children problem-solving at Discovery Preserve in Bay City

People in populated areas often lose sight that nature weaves through every aspect of their lives, says Cleland, the Conservancy's Associate Director, and when people look for connections with nature, they see the tangible value of nature.

One method the Conservancy is using to create that connection is to improve blighted property. Once blight is reduced, communities grow and thrive, Branigan and Cleland say.

In this part of Michigan, much of the abandoned, urban land was heavily contaminated during our era as a center of industry. Neglected property becomes the perfect place for crime, ranging from relatively minor infractions such as littering to potentially life-threatening assaults. Nearby homes and businesses suffer reduced property values.

Rehabilitate the land, though, and the picture quickly changes. Remove the toxins and the land becomes healthy enough to support wildlife and plants. Nature trails beckon fitness buffs to enjoy runs and nature-lovers to plan hikes. With more people using the space, the opportunity for crime is reduced.

The effect goes beyond fitness and natural beauty. Studies show that parks and recreation areas increase property values: according to information released by the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences in 2018, homes that are adjacent to naturalistic parks and open spaces are valued at 8 to 20% higher than comparable properties. A study found 7% higher rental rates for commercial offices surrounded by high-quality landscapes. Shoppers told researchers they would travel greater distances to visit a shopping area with high-quality trees. They also said they would spend more time and money in a shopping area with trees.

"The work we do overlaps with just about any other facet of the community,” Branigan says.

Baltimore Oriole on Saginaw Bay Birding Trail

Since 1997, the Saginaw Basin Land Conservancy has been focused on preserving natural areas to improve communities. So far, the community-supported, non-profit organization has protected 6,000 acres of land in 22 counties.

In the beginning, the Land Conservancy focused on preserving large tracts of land in rural areas. More recently, though, the focus has shifted. “The last few years, we’ve really been focused on urban restoration projects like blight and land-use issues in downtown areas,” Branigan said.

For example, a few years ago the Conservancy led efforts to tear up a 3-acre parking lot in downtown Saginaw. In 2017, they unveiled the Janet H. Nash Riverfront Preserve where the parking lot once stood. Today, visitors to the Preserve meander along paved, riverfront trails surrounded by native plants and flowers. 

A similar project is in the works for downtown Bay City, but Branigan can’t reveal details yet.

“It’s an urban, blighted site that needs some tender loving care to become a new, natural space for the community,” Branigan says.

The Bay City property joins a long list of land where the Conservancy encourages people to enjoy nature.

Two Generations Planting Trees at Dicovery Preserve

Some examples of the Conservancy’s holdings in Bay County include the Saginaw Bay Birding Trail, which winds along the Saginaw Bay coastline from Port Austin to East Tawas. Stops along the trail in Bay County include Discovery Preserve at Euclid Park; the Middlegrounds Island; Golson Nature Area; Quanicassee State Wildlife Area; Hampton Township Nature Trail; Bay City State Recreation Area; Nayanquing Point State Wildlife Area; Pinconning County Park; Pinconning Nature Preserve; and the Wah Sash Kah Moqua Nature Preserve.

There’s also the Michigan Sugar Trails, a 26-acre site located on the Middlegrounds Island with trails open to fishermen, walkers, runners, and more. A highly-visible project is the Golson Nature Area, located near a popular boat launch just off Johnson Street. Birders and others enjoy boardwalks, platforms and interpretive signs that offer information about natural features.

Most of these spaces were relatively unknown and unappreciated before the Conservancy championed them. “We look for projects that are very difficult, projects that are worth doing and projects that wouldn’t happen without us,” Branigan said.

The Conservancy strives to not only protect natural spaces, but also to promote them. Helping people to understand what we have here requires ongoing efforts.

“I don’t know whether or not people truly appreciate our region as an outdoor destination, even though it is. We don’t have hills. We don’t have epic off-road trail networks and vistas onto Lake Michigan," says Branigan. "But we do have the largest contiguous freshwater coastal wetlands in the United States. We have all kinds of different resources.”

Helping people appreciate local resources takes different forms. For example, Cleland points to Snowfari, a guided event where people look for Snowy Owls in this area. Awards are another way. On Feb. 21, the Conservancy will hold its 7th Annual Osprey awards, presented by the Morley Foundation. During the dinner event at Saginaw Valley State University, people, organizations and businesses will be recognized for their efforts to conserve our land and water resources.

Creating a connection with Bay County's natural resources also comes through volunteer work, and beginning this spring, Cleland expects to need volunteers for a number of projects including tasks such as planting wildflowers and raking trails. Everyone is welcome: families looking for activities, high school students in need of volunteer hours, and senior citizens with knowledge and skills to share. Cleland is open to packaging opportunities for businesses that want all their employees to work together on a volunteer project.

Connect with the Conservancy through their Facebook page. To learn more about the public nature preserves, environmental protection projects, and outdoor recreation sites the Conservancy is involved in, visit their website.

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