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Monday, September 24, 2012

The Status of Wild Michigan

This is the first of six articles. 
The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy has been working for 30 years to restore our state’s wildlife.  While we can be proud of the hundreds of worthwhile projects completed with our partners and cooperators, the question arises: How have Michigan’s natural resources fared overall during the last three decades?  Is conservation winning, or do we have much more work to do?
Land Use
When the Wildlife Conservancy was formed in 1982, there were new laws in place to keep urban sprawl -- that phenomenon characterized by massive subdivisions, strip malls, industrial parks, and snarled traffic where farms, woods and wildlife used to be -- out of important wetlands and floodplains.  But over the next ten years, Michigan lost 7.8 percent of its farmland acreage, and biologists became increasingly aware that “leap-frog” development was making remaining habitat too fragmented to support certain species.  
Particularly in Southeast Michigan, but also in the Grand Rapids and Traverse City areas, urban sprawl was not simply the inevitable result of population growth.  Local governments were eager to extend roads, sewer lines and other utilities to far-flung developments.  And zoning rules – ironically enacted to avoid land use conflicts and boost the quality of life – required large building lots and low density developments, thereby bringing in fewer people to areas zoned for residential use and minimizing open space.  
The Farmland and Open Space Preservation Act of 1974 provides tax credits to farmers who give up development rights.  By 2000, about 40 percent of Michigan’s farmland was enrolled in the program, but today, very little of that land is in areas where development pressures are intense.  The tax breaks have largely gone to farmers who were not going to sell to developers anyway.  And where urban sprawl is a real threat, the program has not offered enough money to individual farmers to persuade them to keep their land in agriculture.
In 2001, the final report of the Michigan Land Resource Project predicted that between the years 2000-2040, there would be:  a 17 percent reduction in agricultural land, a 178 percent increase in “built” land, an 8 percent drop in private forestland, a decrease of 10 percent in wetland acreage and a 24 percent loss in other vegetation.  The report also predicted that “land available for hunting will dramatically decrease, while ‘edge’ species such as white-tailed deer will continue to increase in numbers.”
The recent economic downturn has slowed growth in general, so the report’s predicted tripling of the amount of built land is questionable.  But the trends are not.  Habitat fragmentation is still considered one of Southern Michigan’s most serious wildlife management concerns.  Some tough choices must be made if Michigan is to preserve the character of our 36 million acres for future generations.
Michigan is one of only two states that tax land according to its most valuable use rather than its existing use.  Farmland and open space thus sometimes get taxed according to their potential value for housing or commercial development.  That puts real pressure on landowners on the urban fringe to sell sooner, rather than later, and that type of taxing should be eliminated.
Michigan recently started a program to purchase development rights, ironically using penalties and other funds paid back to the Farmland and Open Space Preservation Program by landowners who wanted out.  But the amount of cash generated has been minimal in comparison to the interest by landowners.
Michigan now has more than 40 private-sector conservancies that acquire and hold conservation easements that preserve open space.  Most focus on lands with unique resources such as rare plant or animal species, or scenic views.  
Such programs for purchase of development rights need to be better funded, and local governments need to stop subsidizing road, sewer, and water projects that encourage developments in outlying areas.  Incentive-driven programs of tax credits, low interest mortgages, and school modernization funding can and should be used to promote new development in urban areas.  The Michigan Land Use Institute has rightly called for a program which controls the way taxpayer’s money is spent rather than placing severe restrictions on developers and formulating complex land use regulations. 
Next article will appear on October 1, 2012.

Friday, September 14, 2012

30th Anniversary Celebration/2012 Fall Harvest Social

It’s that time of year again…Fall Harvest Social time! But this year our celebration is even more special. 2012 marks the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy’s 30th year. So, plan for a day of fun with your family at our combined 2012 Fall Harvest Social/30th Anniversary Celebration on September 22.
Michigan Wildlife Conservancy has declared our grand celebration in the name of the birds.
  • 8:30 A.M. –
    • Bring your binoculars and hear Michigan’s morning choir with Michigan Audubon Society on a guided bird walk (running until 10:30 A.M.).
  • 10: 00 A.M. –
    • The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy will take you on a guided bog tour (first of three) and a singer will entertain at a bonfire in our new fire pit.
  • 11:00 A.M. –
    • Join Dr. Patrick Rusz and P.J.’s Percherons on a horse-drawn wagon ride around the prairie (running throughout the day), take a self-guided tour of the Bengel Wildlife Center grounds and stop at all 4 birding stations set up by the Michigan Audubon Society, and don’t forget to find Robbyn Van Frankenhuysen at the fire pit, telling amazing stories that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Wait… there’s more! We have arranged many intriguing programs that are great for the family:
  • 11:00 A.M. –
    • Michigan Audubon Society will be helping us “Fall in Love with Birding”
  • 12:00 P.M. –
    • Nick Van Frankenhuysen will teach kids how to draw animals and birds.
  • 1:00 P.M. –
    • Attending “Skins and Skulls,” will allow you to see both the outside and the inside of some of Michigan’s animals. Don’t forget to complete your experience by making your very own plaster cast of a Michigan animal track.
  • 2:00 P.M. –
    • Chad Kister will amaze you with his exquisite photos of the Arctic in “Arctic Screaming,” a presentation about his experiences from his treks through the Arctic. Chad is an award-winning environmental journalist who has made protecting the Arctic environment his life’s work. Check out his books:
§ Arctic Quest: Odyssey Through a Threatened Wilderness (Available in the Dancing Crane Gift Shop)
§ Arctic Melting: How Climate Change Is Destroying One of World’s Largest Wilderness Areas
§ Against All Odds: The Struggle to Save the Ridges
§ Arctic Screaming: A Journey to the Front Lines of the Climate Crisis
  • 3:00 P.M. –
    • Joe Rogers will finish off the day with birds, birds, and more birds in “Birds of Prey” (sponsored by Clinton County). Come see some of our predators of the sky up close. Mr. Rogers will introduce you to each bird and explain to you the strengths and characteristics of the magnificent feathered species’.
Don’t just come for the fun programs! From 12:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. we are offering many different children’s activities, such as “Bobber Bob,” “Find That Bird” scavenger hunt, and “Fruits and Nuts.” Tickets for these games are $0.25 a piece. You may buy tickets at the information booth. Five lucky kids will win a prize!
We invite you to take in the day with us at Bengel Wildlife Center. You may want to bring a picnic lunch, sun screen, binoculars, and a blanket. For those of you who do not bring a picnic lunch, we will have a hot dog vendor here for your convenience.
We will also need volunteers to set up for our 30th Anniversary Celebration/2012 Fall Harvest Social. We are asking for volunteers for 3 shifts 8:30 A.M. – 10:00 A.M., 10:00 A.M. – 1:00 P.M., and 1:00 P.M. – 4:30 P.M. If you are able and willing to volunteer we would love to have you. Lunch will be provided for volunteers inside the building.
We look forward to seeing and working with you on September 22, 2012!
  • P.J.’s Percherons L.C. - Horse Drawn Carriage Service
  • Risks Apiary
  • Bath Farmers Market
  • Chad Kister - "Arctic Screaming"
  • Michigan Audubon Society
  • Joe Rogers - Birds of Prey
  • Skins and Skulls - Jane Gordon
  • Gene Wasserman
  • Bluebird Society
  • Campfire Storyteller - Robbyn Smith
  • Campfire Singer – Ana Cristina Lesmez
  • Nick Van Frankenhuysen
  • Clinton County Conservation District
  • Department of Waste Management
  • Girl Scouts
  • Jim Atkinson
  • Fenner Nature Center

Friday, September 7, 2012

Fulfilling Russ Bengel’s Dream

This article is from the September-October issue of our newsletter "The Wildlife Volunteer".

30 Years of Fighting for Wildlife 

Russell H. Bengel, the Conservancy’s founder, was a man of great achievement and vision.  He was born into, and experienced, the wildlife abundance of the early 20th century, a time when waterfowl passed through Michigan by the millions.  But his good fortune in witnessing this wildlife majesty turned into a burden. 

By the mid 20th century wetlands were being drained, filled and altered all across the landscape.  “Progress” had destroyed many of the wetlands Russ loved and left the sky wanting for waterfowl.  Bengel, who died in 1984, used to get a tear in his eye when he would describe the loss of waterfowl habitat in his beloved Reithmiller Marsh, in Northeastern Jackson County.  But he fought back.   

Russell Bengel served on the Michigan Conservation Commission from 1940-46 and led the successful effort to acquire the Pointe Mouillee Shooting Club in 1945.  The 2,600-acre marsh was the largest wetland area remaining in Western Lake Erie and would become a publicly-owned wetland forever. 

Bengel also became active in Ducks Unlimited and supported waterfowl restoration at home and in Canada.  But his crowning achievement came in 1979 when he led a small group of waterfowlers to found the Michigan Waterfowl Foundation, renamed the Michigan Wildlife Habitat Foundation, renamed the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy.   

The Conservancy has now been fulfilling Russ Bengel’s vision for Michigan’s wildlife for 30 years.  As we celebrate three decades of achievement we should also remember some basic principles on which he founded the organization on.  First, spend he Conservancy’s money on capital improvements – increasing the habitat inventory.  Second, make all of our work additive – don’t use our money to supplant state or federal wildlife dollars.  And lastly, don’t sit on the money he gave us – spend it on good work and more money will come.  While we have spent Conservancy money on some terrific projects over many years, raising new money has been a constant challenge.  But the Conservancy has been true to the original operating principals that Russ Bengel described in 1982. 

Things were so much simpler in 1982 when the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy was created.  Habitat issues really had only one dimension – the loss of millions of acres of productive wildlife habitat.  Problems that were so narrowly focused were much easier to address.  We just worked to fix the acres in question or tried to create more habitat by planting, enhancing, or changing site conditions.   

Invasive exotic species are another issue that habitat conservationists did not consider two decades ago.  Examples like the carp, house sparrow, and lamprey are commonly known to all.  But the new wave of exotics is coming rapidly and the implications much more ominous.  Today’s exotics aren’t just higher order plants and animals, but viruses and microscopic organisms that can hide in a thimbleful of water. 

Our Great Lakes are under siege today, with a new species arriving in the belly of a ship about every seven months.  It is reported that the Great Lakes currently harbor 183 exotic species. 

Terrestrial exotics have also become an immense problem in our state.  Invasive plants pose a threat to wildlife as significant as that of habitat destruction.  And these terrestrial exotics are smothering the landscape at a rapid pace.  The Conservancy plans to respond by educating and training our citizens to recognize and eliminate exotic organisms in their communities. 

The future challenges that face wildlife are hard to predict.  We know only that there will be many, and some will be completely new to us.  To succeed we will have to stay creative, efficient and nimble.  But most of all we will have to be open to changing the way we operate, because what is being thrown at us is constantly changing.  The Conservancy will be up to the task because we are not committed to a single way of looking at problems.  With the support of Michigan’s citizens we are confident that the movement begun by Russ Bengel in 1982 will succeed in sustaining the wild creatures that enrich our lives for all time.