Next summer public will be able to visit Armintrout-Milbocker preserve, home to 560 plant species

Through Dec. 31, 2021, donations to the project earmarked for the creation of public access will have twice the impact as they go toward matching a $50,000 challenge grant from the Carls Foundation.

When Jim Blanchard was the governor of Michigan, the Christmas tree for the Governor’s Mansion came from a plot of land just outside of downtown Allegan.  

When Gerald Ford was president, the White House Christmas Tree came from just across the river.

By next summer, visitors can see for themselves the kinds of massive trees — as well as rare wildflowers, soaring eagles, and towering bluffs — on the newest land preserve of the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy.

SWMLC has completed its purchase of 140 acres in Allegan, which includes a stretch of the Kalamazoo River. The conservancy is busy now raising the additional  $100,000 needed to create easy, protective, public access to the jewel of a natural site.

The new Armintrout-Milbocker Nature Preserve, named for the two Allegan families who owned the land for generations, features three miles of Kalamazoo River frontage and 100 upland acres of mostly pine and oak forest, fringed with 40 acres of diverse wetlands.

Fall colors complement three miles of Kalamazoo River frontage and 100 upland acres of mostly pine and oak forest, fringed with 40 acres of diverse wetland at the new Armintrout-Milbocker Nature Preserve.It’s slated to open to the public next summer, says Hilary Hunt, director of land protection for the conservancy.

Through Dec. 31, 2021, donations to the project will have twice the impact as they go toward matching a $50,000 challenge grant from the Carls Foundation.

The money will be used to help create parking for 30 cars, a trailhead and trail system, and interpretive signs throughout the preserve. 

In addition, the conservancy will create a management plan that includes invasive plant and trail management and habitat restoration work.

A natural gem

Although the land was originally used in part for Christmas trees and lumber, 560 plant species have been identified in its diverse woodlands. New trails will be mostly flat, easy to walk, and designed to allow visitors to appreciate those features without harming the habitat.

As is the case with the conservancy’s other land preserves, it will be open from dawn to dusk 365 days a year.
Once access is completed, explorers will be able to see a red oak tree whose trunk measures 5 feet in diameter or some of the 10 plant species there that are either endangered or threatened in Michigan.

A Hairy Leafcup is a rare find growing at the Armintrout-Milbocker Nature Preserve, the latest piece of land preserved by the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy.They include plants like American columbo, a rare native plant that’s an indicator of high-quality forest communities. Hunt says the plants die back each winter, then grow back higher every year until they reach as much as 7 feet tall. They flower only once and then die.
Hairy Leafcup, a beautiful yellow flower, is another rare wildflower find.

The new preserve will delight bird watchers as well as botanists. More than 60 bird species have been spotted in the preserve, from the tiny prothonotary warbler to the bald eagles with nests nearby, Hunt says.

Those who prefer the big picture can view the Kalamazoo River from the site’s southern bluffs, 60 feet above the water, created over time as the river’s outside bends scoured the sandy banks. On the north side, along the slower inside river bends, the land melts into the river and its low-lying wetland communities.

The largest source of funding toward the recent purchase of the property was $1 million from Natural Resources Damages Assessment settlement funds, awarded by the Kalamazoo River Trustees from settlements with companies that contaminated an 80-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River from Kalamazoo to Lake Michigan.

“We believe that protecting and restoring this important property is an excellent use of the settlement funds that will protect critical biodiversity and provide impactful environmental and recreational benefits,” Hunt says.

A $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service Community Forest Program is aimed at protecting the property for use as a community resource, to create recreational, environmental, economic, and educational benefits.

Allegan Public School students look for birds on the 140 acre Armintrout-Milbocker Nature Preserve, the latest piece of land preserved by the Southwest Michigan Land ConservanAn additional $125,000 from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and $100,000 from Consumers Energy also helped acquire and develop the preserve.

The Armintrout-Milbocker Nature Preserve is being integrated into the curriculum of local students, in subjects such as environmental science, language arts, and media.

“The preserve is … a tremendous opportunity for residents, especially Allegan youth, to discover nature,” says Kevin Harness, Advisory Committee member and retired Superintendent of Allegan Public Schools.
No public hunting or fishing will be allowed on the nature preserve.
Although for now, public access has ended and will not be back until next spring, 200 people got a look at the land during a public “sneak peek” event in October.

A rich history

There once was a house there, and old records also show it may have been the site of a slaughterhouse and perhaps even an early park, says David Armitrout, one of the former owners. Later, the land was used to grow Christmas trees and utility poles.

Sycamore trees set off the winter landscape at the new Armintrout-Milbocker Nature Preserve.“I’m very happy that this land will be preserved in its natural state, forever, for the enjoyment of everyone,” Armintrout says. “I always thought that there was something special about it.”  

It was a failed dam project that led to its current natural state. “We can all thank Consumers Energy for assembling it from 10 separate parcels into one unit of land, with a couple of miles of river frontage,” Armintrout says.

The energy company bought the site, and others nearby, initially with plans to build a dam upriver. 

Opposition to that project kept the dam from being built, but Consumers held on to the property, sometimes renting it out to farmers on a yearly basis. In the 1920s the company also planted red and white pines for the production of utility poles, plantings that predate plantings done by the Civilian Conservation Corp formed in 1937, Armintrout says. 

Armintrout’s family nursery was founded in 1935 and its involvement with the land started in the 1950s.

“My father, Paul Armintrout, leased the land to grow evergreen nursery stock and Christmas trees,” David Armintrout says. 

He was taking a big risk because he needed 5 to 12 years to grow a tree to market, and Consumers Energy would only give him a one-year lease. He took the chance. “Consumers acted in good faith,” Armintrout says, “and renewed his lease every year.”

A fern grows at the Armintrout-Milbocker Nature Preserve, the latest piece of land preserved by the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy.In the late 1970s, Consumers was ready to sell the property, had it appraised, and offered the Armintrouts the first option to buy it on a 10-year land contract at 10 percent interest. The family accepted the offer.

In 1996, Armintrout says, he and Bernard “Buster” Milbocker and Robert  “Moe” Milbocker formed a partnership to explore other uses for the land.

Their early efforts to create a preserve didn’t work out, he says, and the possibility of developing the land for other uses was put on the back burner “as we were all so busy with our own companies and our first choice was to preserve it.”

Meanwhile, the land continued to shelter plant species and wildlife, Armintrout says. Whitetail deer were reintroduced to Allegan County in the 1930s and wild turkeys in the 1950s. Resident Giant Canada geese weren’t prevalent until the 1980s. Coyotes, otters, beavers, and bald eagles are now all back.  

About the river

The grant money funding much of the preserve’s acquisition and development speak to a different chapter of the area’s history: the pollution of the Kalamazoo River by the paper companies upstream of Allegan, in Kalamazoo, Parchment, Plainwell, and Otsego.

In 1990, the Allied Paper, Inc./Portage Creek/Kalamazoo River was designated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency as a Superfund site, its waters and sediments fouled by toxic industrial waste.

For the past 30 years, the agency has been working with the responsible industries to remove soils of the river banks and bottom-land contaminated by polychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs, a byproduct of paper production. That effort, still under way, started upstream in Kalamazoo and has extended thus far to Otsego. It may be another 25 years before the cleanup reaches Allegan.

Paul Ruesch, on-scene coordinator for U.S. EPA Region 5 Superfund Division, calls the Armintrout-Milbocker preserve “a fantastic project.”

He also notes that the families’ legacy of stewardship extends to more than the land that will bear their names.

“Aside from the nature, recreation, wildlife, and wetland value this preserve will add along a very important stretch of the river corridor, the Armintrout and Milbocker families have been tremendous supporters of the overall cleanup project,” Ruesch says.

“Milbocker Bros did a ton of 'heavy lifting' in Area 3 and Area 4, and also did the Otsego Township Dam removal and Trowbridge Dam Phase IA stabilization.

“The Armintrout family has been very cooperative and supportive with respect to land access downstream of Trowbridge Dam as well for our emergency and sampling access,” Ruesch says. 

“EPA really appreciates the willingness of these families and landowners to engage with us to accomplish this cleanup work.”

Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy is a nonprofit land conservation organization founded to protect southwest Michigan's wild and scenic places for the benefit of wildlife and future generations of people. Serving the nine counties of southwest Michigan since 1991, SWMLC has protected over 17,000 acres of forests, wetlands, savannas, prairies, dunes, lakeshore, farms, and vineyards in our area. SWMLC works with volunteers and landowners to improve habitat, ensure water quality, support biodiversity, connect people with nature, and help families conserve the land they love - now and for generations to come.

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Read more articles by Rosemary Parker.

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years, most of that time in Southwest Michigan.