'Keep Kalamazoo Wild' effort purchases and hopes to maintain woodland next to Kleinstuck Preserve

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

An organization of nature lovers and area residents has signed a deal to purchase 11.8 wooded acres adjacent to the Kleinstuck Preserve, one of Kalamazoo's largest land preserves.

In doing so, it is on track to safeguard more open space for wildlife and casual family recreation and try to live up to its rallying slogan, "Keep Kalamazoo Wild.”

"Oh, it feels wonderful," says Erin Fuller, president of the Stewards of Kleinstuck, a nonprofit environmental and conservation group that has been working for months to acquire the property and protect it from commercial development. "We've been way more successful than we could have hoped. We were really happy when we were able to make an offer on the property and it was accepted this summer.”

Erin Fuller, president of the Stewards of Kleinstuck, says, "We've been way more successful than we could have hoped."The land involved is just east of the Kleinstuck Preserve and is generally accessed from the 2000 block of Hudson Avenue on Kalamazoo's south side. It is in the Westnedge Hill Neighborhood. The 48-acre Kleinstuck Preserve is owned and managed by Western Michigan University. It straddles that neighborhood and the Oakland/Winchell neighborhoods.

The land is a combination of five parcels acquired over the years by a couple who no longer live in the area. Operating as CS Woodland LLC, the property was listed at $699,000. The Stewards of Kleinstuck, which operates with a nine-member board of directors and boasts a mailing list of about 500 people, successfully offered $550,000 on Sept. 30. The deal was closed in October.

The Stewards of Kleinstuck were happy to make an offer three days before another party, apparently an out-of-state residential property developer, was able to do so, Fuller says. She says she and her husband Nate purchased a home in the area about 17 years ago because of its access to the Kleinstuck Preserve. They had previously rented an apartment nearby. They continue to love having immediate access to its foot trails and beauty she says.

Erin is the watershed coordinator for the Van Buren Conservation District. Nate is director of the Sarett Nature Center in Benton Harbor.

Their group of neighbors, friends, and nature lovers met in October of 2019, with about 150 people in attendance, and decided to try to buy the land, after they learned it was for sale and that its zoning would allow residential development. They feared it would threaten the habitat for deer, geese, ducks, owls, turtles, foxes, and other wild animals.

Trails run from the nearly 12 acres into the nature preserve and connect with the Kleinstuck Marsh trail. Over many years, the property's owners allowed the public to have free access to the land for walking and nature tours. The property has, for instance, been a boon to summer day camps run by the YMCA of Greater Kalamazoo. The property is just south of the Y, which is at 1001 W. Maple St.

"That was a great feeling to get it off the market," Fuller says. "But then we still have quite a bit of fund-raising to do.”

Since late 2019, the Stewards of Kleinstuck have raised about $200,000, largely by going door-to-door to receive donations from more than 600 people, and by successfully landing grants from a cluster of local foundations, including the Jim Gilmore Jr. Foundation, the Beim Foundation, and the Giving Well Family Foundation. Funding from the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation has helped it cover the cost of accounting and other administrative needs.

But the group is still seeking donations and is working to pay off the property. In order to close the purchase, the Stewards borrowed a substantial portion of the purchase price from a private lender.

“We’re now making the final push to raise the funds needed to keep this property in its natural state and open to the public forever,” Fuller says.

She says recent grants from the Audubon Society of Kalamazoo and ENNA Foundation "make us hopeful we can pay off the property early." The organization would like to have the property paid off within a year, she says, acknowledging that, "Our success has been made possible by the encouragement and generous support from our donors. We want to say ‘Thank you’ to everyone who has been able to support our campaign so far.” 

A lot of the legwork to raise money has been done by Heather Ratliff, a wellness nurse who serves as vice president of the organization. The group received help with the negotiations for the property and professional expertise from Andrew Gyorkos, of Kalamazoo Commercial Real Estate, and local Attorney Steve Glista.

"Keep Kalamazoo Wild" has been a rallying slogan for the fund-raising campaign and the tagline for a line of T-shirts, hats, tote bags, and other merchandise designed by an area resident and sold to help raise funds (KeepKalamazooWild.com).

"We still do have some fund-raising to do. We're not quite done yet," Fuller says. "We'd like to pay off the loan as quickly as possible, so we don't have to pay any extra. But beyond that, we're really eager to get people onto the property. It is open to the public so people can enjoy it now. But we're really looking forward to when the pandemic is over and we can gather in public, leading some tours of the property so people can see it for themselves because it really is just a lovely piece of property."

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.