Sterling Heights

Sterling Heights makes way for more butterflies and more trees (and public art, too)

It’s late spring when the monarch butterfly returns to Michigan, an annual migration pattern where monarchs make a 3,000-mile trip from the forests of southwestern Mexico to head back north. Come fall, the monarch butterflies turn around to travel south again, the only butterfly known to make two-way migratory trips the way birds do.

Summers in Michigan and winters in Mexico, that’s a pretty good deal right there.

But it’s not all flowers and sunshine for the monarch. According to the National Wildlife Federation, the monarch butterfly population has declined by 90 percent in the eastern United States. It’s even more grim out west, where the population has declined by a staggering 99 percent. Elimination of the monarch’s natural habitat, largely caused by development, is believed to be the primary cause.

That’s bad news. More than a beautiful creature, monarch butterflies are part of a larger insect population that is responsible for pollinating one-third of the planet’s food sources.

One corner of metro Detroit has decided to do something about it. On Tuesday, April 19, city officials and community stakeholders gathered outside the Sterling Heights Nature Center as Mayor Michael C. Taylor signed the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayors’ Monarch Pledge, a call to action for communities nationwide to take the steps necessary to help restore our monarch butterfly population.

Mayor Taylor signs a proclamation acknowledging the Mayors’ Monarch Pledge.
It was a big day for the outdoors in Sterling Heights; the city also held a ceremonial tree planting, foreshadowing a citywide effort to significantly bolster its tree canopy in the coming years. Officials also celebrated the city’s 37th consecutive Tree City USA Award from the National Association of State Foresters and the USDA Forest Service. And a ribbon cutting was held for a monarch butterfly sculpture made from upcycled metals and materials.

More butterflies. More trees. And more public art. Check out Sterling Heights, everyone.

“Cities exist, in my opinion, to provide services and to improve quality of life,” Mayor Taylor says. “For the people that we serve, we find that — of course you’ve got to pick up trash, provide clean drinking water; you've got to have a safe city, you have to have the fire service there when you need it. But what makes a city great, and what I think makes people more fulfilled in their lives, is when the city goes above and beyond and can create interesting, unique experiences and connections.”

Butterfly in the sky

Kyle Burnett’s monarch butterfly sculpture was installed outside the Nature Center in September 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic scuttled any chance for a celebration then, but with last month’s signing of the Monarch Pledge, it proved to be the perfect time to celebrate the addition of Burnett’s work. And Burnett was more than willing to make the trek from his studio in Battle Creek to attend.

“Sterling Heights reached out about the mayor’s pledge, how they were planting more plants to enhance the butterfly population. And once they told me about the ribbon-cutting, I had to get my hands on those giant scissors,” Burnett says. “Those scissors are real. And really sharp.”

The monarch butterfly sculpture by artist Kyle Burnett.Burnett’s butterfly sculpture, untitled, was installed at the Nature Center along with two of his other sculptures, one of a frog and another of a Cooper’s hawk. The city commissioned him for his work, much of which was made from repurposed materials and items sourced from Sterling Heights businesses.

“The butterfly is made from transmission parts, pressure plates, tons of welds and sheet metal,” Burnett says.

The fact that some of the materials came from Sterling Heights businesses was not lost on the mayor.

“One thing that I thought was really cool about it is that some of our businesses contributed to the sculpture. The sculptor used scrap metal parts that came from a local fabricator. So it was our business community, our residents, and the city working together,” Mayor Taylor says. “It was a really cool thing to see.”

When it comes to actual butterflies, and not those made from old transmission parts, the City of Sterling Heights has been working on their behalf for a few years now; the butterfly garden at the city’s Nature Center was certified as an official Monarch Waystation by the Monarch Watch organization in 2020. With the signing of the Mayors’ Monarch Pledge, it signifies an even greater commitment to boosting the local butterfly population.

“The butterfly is made from transmission parts, pressure plates, tons of welds and sheet metal,” Burnett says.Much of the pledge is about outreach; the city is encouraging residents to grow plants popular with our pollinators, like milkweed. At the city’s annual Plant Exchange this year, scheduled from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, May 14, at the Nature Center, the Beautification Commission will have butterfly-friendly native seeds and plants available. And previously announced efforts, like the butterfly flyaway zone as part of the Sterling Relief Drain project, remain ongoing.

There are more than 20 action items included in the Monarch Pledge and Mayor Taylor says that the city will do its best to fulfill them.

“We're going to try to do as many as we can,” the mayor says. “But it's very simple. It's about educating people about the monarch butterfly, planting these native plants that help the butterfly survive, and just making people aware of the importance of this animal, and how unique and interesting it is.”

2,000 trees

In a typical year, the City of Sterling Heights might plant anywhere from 200 to 500 trees. The next couple of years will be anything but typical in that regard, says Michael Moore, Public Works Director for the city. Sterling Heights plans to utilize a portion of its money from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to significantly boost its tree canopy.

“We're looking at roughly 2,000 trees that need to be planted over the next couple of years. So that's a tall order for us,” says Moore.

To make such a big project operate efficiently, the city plans to survey and map every single tree in the city, geolocating and creating a GIS map of the city’s tree canopy. And in coordinating with the planning department, the city’s public works department can better identify what needs to go where and when.

“In the past, we had so many open spaces, we could kind of just pick streets and major roads that were most impactful, that needed some trees and plant a bunch of trees there. And we've done a good job doing that,” says Moore. “With so many trees now needing to be planted, we needed a good approach on how best to do that. And that's where I think we need to work with the office of planning. They have a little bit better understanding of what new developments are coming to the city that will have a whole lot of trees or plantings and maybe we don't need to focus on those areas so much.”

A ceremonial tree planting in recognition of Arbor Day. Sterling Heights has won 37 consecutive Tree City USA Awards.
Tree plantings in the city will occur at a more typical rate this spring, and Moore expects things to really take off this fall or by next spring, depending on the progress of the GIS mapping of the city’s tree canopy.

“It could take some time before we start determining where everything's gonna go,” he says. “We've got to get everything out in the field verified with photographic evidence and uploaded into the software.”

That’s a tall order, as Moore says, for a city of this size. And on top of that project, Sterling Heights DPW is offering a May Tree Sale throughout the month, with DPW offering a $50 discount for residents purchasing trees through the city.

No wonder the city was awarded its 37th consecutive Tree City USA Award.

“It's just like I was saying about the monarch butterfly. When you're out in a park and there's all these beautiful trees, it just gives you a better sense of community, a better sense of place, and it makes you more connected to where you are. And having that connection to the city of Sterling Heights benefits all of our residents,” says Mayor Taylor. “We don't just want to be another vanilla municipality in a sea of suburban cities throughout metro Detroit. We want to stand out and we want our residents to be proud that they live here.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.