89.1 WEMU

Issues Of The Environment: Preserving Land In Washtenaw County One Decade At A Time

Oct 28, 2020

Wetland
Credit Natural Areas Preservation Program / storymaps.arcgis.com

A countywide ballot issue will be decided next Tuesday, and it deals with land preservation.  A 10-year, quarter-mill tax renewal would sustain the Natural Areas Preservation Program (NAPP) for another 10 years.  For this week's "Issues of the Environment,"WEMU's David Fair talks with Washtenaw County's park planning and NAPP supervisor, Ginny Trocchio, about what the preservation program has meant to the county in its first 20 years, and what lies ahead--pass or fail--on Tuesday. 

Overview

  • On November 3, 2020, voters of Washtenaw County will be asked if they want to renew and restore the 0.25 mill, ten-year Natural Area Preservation Program millage.  Just like the millage approved by voters in 2000 and renewed in 2010, funds collected would be invested to preserve land throughout Washtenaw County.  NAPP purchases unique natural areas to ensure their preservation for the benefit of all County residents, plants, animals and people.  The Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission (WCPARC) manages the program.
  • The Natural Areas Preservation Program (NAPP) was established in 2000 by the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners through the passage of Natural Areas Ordinance No. 128, and funded with the County-wide NAPP Millage, a 10-year ¼ mill tax.  In 2010, voters chose to renew the millage, and it is on the ballot for renewal again in November 2020.
  • NAPP is best known for its 34 public nature preserves and their 40+ miles of hiking trails.  Check out just a few of the preserves added in the last 10 years, several of which were added in the past 10 years, including Watkins Lake State Park and Preserve (Est. 2015 - 378 acres), Sharon Mills Preserve (Est. 2015), Whitmore Lake Preserve (Est. 2013 - 235 acres), and Freeman Preserve (Est. 2013 - 59 acres).  In addition to land preservation, NAPP’s robust volunteer program helps to maintain the park by removing invasives and inventories of plants and wildlife.  NAPP’s naturalists run public education programs that are consistently full. 
  • Some of the challenges NAPP faces:  Garnering interest in areas that the program has not currently preserved land (SE in particular); Managing numerous nature preserves across the county; In reference to agricultural conservation easements, drafting them to be strict enough to protect the land, but flexible enough to account for changing agricultural landscape over time.  For instance, just 10 or so years ago, hoop-houses were non-existent, so they needed to evaluate conservation easement language to allow for non-permanent buildings.  Also, the average age of farmers across the region is increasing.  Conversations are ongoing with land preservation professionals on how to support the next generation of farmers and ensure that there is available and affordable farmland to keep agricultural viable as a part of Washtenaw County’s economy.
  • Ginny Trocchio, Superintendent of Park Planning and NAPP | Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation Commission, has worked with NAPP for over 4 years.
  • What’s next?  The current world conserved land goal is 17%; Michigan and the United States are currently at 14%.  The United Nations is gathering countries to work toward a new 30% preservation goal by 2030 for the globe, with a call to "protect the best and improve the rest." A US Senate bill was recently introduced to meet the 30% goal as well.  Applications for potential conservation land continue to exceed resources.

NAPP Millage

On November 3, 2020, voters of Washtenaw County will be asked if they want to renew and restore the 0.25 mill ten-year Natural Area Preservation Program millage. Just like the millage approved by voters in 2000 and renewed in 2010, funds collected would be invested to preserve land throughout Washtenaw County. 

The Natural Areas Preservation Program (NAPP) was established in 2000 by the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners through the passage of Natural Areas Ordinance No. 128, and funded with the County-wide NAPP Millage, a 10-year ¼ mill tax.  In 2010, voters chose to renew the millage, and it is on the ballot for renewal again in November 2020.

NAPP purchases unique natural areas to ensure their preservation for the benefit of all County residents, plants, animals and people.  The Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission (WCPARC) manages the program, identifying and caring for lands with special ecological, recreational, and educational benefits.

The program goal is to identify lands which, through long-term preservation, will:

  • Protect and preserve the natural, ecological diversity/heritage of Washtenaw County
  • Complement the existing network of publicly and privately protected lands
  • Maximize the public benefit

Nature Preserves

NAPP is best known for its 34 public nature preserves and their 40+ miles of hiking trails.  Check out just a few of the preserves added in the last 10 years:

Watkins Lake State Park and Preserve

Est. 2015 - 378 acres

Watkins Lake State Park and County Preserve is the only Michigan state park jointly owned with another agency.  The park/preserve was also awarded membership to National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program through the National Park Service.  Watkins Lake itself is an MDNR-designated Waterfowl Refuge due to significant migrating and breeding bird habitat.

Sharon Mills Preserve

Est. 2015

Just across the road from Sharon Mills County Park, this preserve's trails capitalizes on is bisected wetlands following the Kuhl Parks drain, a tributary of the River Raisin, and to the northern border 23 acres of grassland, intermixed with small forested or shrub covered wetlands.  

Whitmore Lake Preserve

Est. 2013 - 235 acres

Whitmore Lake Preserve's trails let visitors explore diverse habitats, including, meadows, mixed hardwood forest, and wooded wetlands, with scenic views over a large marsh and small lakes.

West Lake Preserve - Expansion

Est. 2008 - 56 acres added 2017

The expansion of one of NAPP's most popular preserves added new vistas, restoration opportunities, and new trails to see it all.

Freeman Preserve

Est. 2013 - 59 acres

Mature forest rises and falls with the land's considerable topographic variation.  Some wetlands and Kirk’s Brook, a tributary of Fleming Creek, flows through it.

The Freeman Preserve's trails are connected to the trails in City of Ann Arbor's neighboring Marshall Nature Area, and NAPP is working on an acquisition that will make a trail loop with UM's Horner-McLaughlin Woods and NAPP's Goodrich Preserve.

Conservation Easements

Conservation easements are permanent development restrictions on private land that protect the land's natural areas and/or agricultural viability in perpetuity, while keeping land on tax rolls.

WCPARC holds 24 conservation easements totaling 3173 acres and has financially contributed to 27 other conservation easements totaling 1880 acres held by other entities (i.e. Greenbelt, township preservation program, etc.)

The majority of open space loss in southeast Michigan is due to conversion of agricultural land to low density residential housing.

Conservation easements on agricultural land were allowed in NAPP starting in 2010 with the first millage renewal. These types of conservation easements now account for the majority in Washtenaw County.

Many of NAPP easements on more traditional natural areas are on nature preserves owned and operated by local conservancies.  Establishing two simultaneous methods of protection holds the preserve operators accountable to land management expectations and generally further guarantees permanent land protection.  It works both ways: some NAPP preserves have conservation easements on them too!

Stewardship and Programming

Stewardship of nature preserves includes:

  • inventorying significant natural resources
  • conducting botanical inventory data
  • conducting prescribed burning
  • maintaining safe trails and parking lots for optimal public access
  • removal of invasive species
  • and the promotion of passive recreation uses on the preserves, including public education opportunities, or programming

NAPP Highlights

Check out some of the stewardship and programming highlights from the last 10 years.

Land Management

Over 150 acres of forest, wetlands, and prairie restored at Watkins Lake State Park and County Preserve, Sharon Mills County Park & Preserve, Northfield Woods Preserve, and Rolling Hills.

395 acres-worth of prescribed burns between 2015 and 2019.

130 botanic surveys of its preserves uploaded, which are available to the public online.

NAPP added a new permanent Stewardship Technician position to keep up with preserve acquisition.

Storybook Trail

With funding from the 5 Healthy Towns Foundation, NAPP and the Chelsea District Library installed a storybook trail in 2019 at NAPP's Baker Woods Preserve: a children's book is displayed in 20 frames along the 1/2-mile forest trail. The book is changed seasonally by the CDL staff. Hundreds of people visited in 2019.

Volunteers

In 2019, NAPP took a different approach with volunteers by implementing Stewardship Saturdays.  Staff invite the public to join them the 2nd Saturday of every month to a designated park or preserve.  Under the leadership of Stewardship staff, the group completes a needed project that furthers stewardship efforts.  This helped more than double volunteer participation from 2018.

Programs

Our naturalists lead free hikes, tours, and activities multiple times per month, spanning age groups and interests.

In 2017, 5,800 people attended NAPP programs, an all-time high. WCPARC hired an additional naturalist to keep up with the public interest in programs.

Preschool hikes and archery classes are two programs added in the last 5 years that have exploded with interest.

Every single children's program held since COVID-19 began has been full.

Partnerships

The Natural Areas Preservation Program constantly works together with similar programs and organizations with spatial overlap to share funding, problem-solve, manage land, or direct landowners to the best program for their land:

  • Ann Arbor Township Farmland and Open Space Preservation Program
  • Augusta Township Farmland and Open Space Preservation Board
  • City of Ann Arbor Greenbelt Program
  • City of Ann Arbor NAP
  • Huron River Watershed Council
  • Legacy Land Conservancy
  • Leslie Nature and Science Center
  • Michigan Operation Freedom Outdoors
  • Salem Township Land Preservation Program
  • Scio Township Land Preservation Program
  • Sierra Club
  • Superior Township
  • USFWS
  • Webster Township Farmland and Open Space Preservation Program
  • ...and more!

Grants and Fund Leveraging

NAPP has pulled in $4,209,391 in grant funds for acquisition.

77% of NAPP's agriculture-focused conservation easements were grant funded.

43% of NAPP's total acquisition projects involved funds from local partners or grants.

What's Next?

There's more land to protect.  The current world conserved land goal is 17%; Michigan and the United States are currently at 14%.  The United Nations is gathering countries to work toward a new 30% preservation goal by 2030 for the globe, with a call to "protect the best and improve the rest."  A US Senate bill was recently introduced to meet the 30% goal as well.

How much is 9000 acres?

9000 acres is about 14 square miles OR:

  • half the size of Ann Arbor
  • 18% smaller than Pinckney Recreation Area
  • 2% of Washtenaw County

All protected land in the county, including traditional developed parks, only covers about 48,500 acres/75 sq miles OR

  • slightly more than two full-sized townships
  • 10% of Washtenaw County

High Demand

NAPP receives more applications for protection than the program has money for. There has been at least one nomination from every township and some municipalities in Washtenaw County.

Assessment and Prioritization Mapping

To help identify and evaluate other unprotected land that might fit NAPP goals and benefit from protection, staff developed a spatial analysis in 2015 called the Natural Areas and Agricultural Land Assessment and Prioritization Mapping project.

The analysis revealed land that has great potential ecological or agricultural quality and fits within a landscape system, thousands of acres of which are still unprotected.  It is used as one of the "tools in the toolkit" of land acquisition decisions.

Focus on Distribution of Funds

Meager amounts of land have been protected in certain areas of Washtenaw County, due mostly to lack of applications from those areas.  To encourage applications and more equal spatial distribution of land protection, NAPP will engage in outreach to landowners in there lesser funded areas, based on the prioritization described above.

See how much land is protected in your area in the interactive map below (turn on conservation easements under the layer "Restricted Public Access Areas"), or download a pdf facilities map of your jurisdiction of interest.

(Source: *directly quoted* https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/429f6df1b5c643eeb6c9150eb4b53947)

How is NAPP similar or different than other land preservation programs in the County, such as the Greenbelt?

Washtenaw County is fortunate to have several land preservation programs operating in the County, each with their own unique niche.  The County’s program is focused on the preservation of unique natural resources found in the County and evaluates properties through the lens of natural resource protection, while other programs are more focused on land use planning or curbing sprawl.  As such, NAPP works throughout the County: rural areas as well as urban fringe areas.  That being said, the end result for all the programs is preserving land.

How does the program determine which natural areas should be preserved?

The Board of Commissioners has appointed a 7-member Natural Area Technical Advisory Committee (NATAC) to review and make recommendations to the Parks Commission on potential lands to preserve.  NATAC includes members with expertise in ecology, botany, wildlife biology, aquatic ecology, land conservation and real estate.

Are natural areas the only lands the Natural Areas Preservation Program seeks to preserve?

In addition, the County program also helps to protect active agriculture land throughout the county.  Recognizing that prime agricultural soils are a significant natural feature in the county that needs to be protected, when the millage was up for renewal in 2010,  25% of the revenue was allocated to the preservation of agricultural land.  Those dollars are often leveraged almost 1:1 with federal grant dollars, or other local dollars.  The Agricultural Lands Preservation Advisory Committee (ALPAC), appointed by the Board of Commissioners, helps review nominations for natural areas with active farm land.  ALPAC is comprised of farmers, real estate representatives and conservation organization representatives.

What are the Agricultural Lands Preservation Advisory Committee goals?

It is the goal of the Committee to preserve Washtenaw County's farming economy by identifying those parcels of land that, through permanent preservation will contribute to:

  • Preservation of working farms, particularly those including prime and unique soils
  • Preservation of working farms that support the ecological integrity of wildlife habitat or important natural habitats
  • Complement the existing network of publicly and privately preserved lands
  • Maximize the public benefit

How are agricultural lands protected under the program?

Agricultural land is protected through the purchase of conservation easements, which allows the land to remain in private ownership.  The conservation easement outlines permitted and restricted land uses on the land in perpetuity to ensure the agricultural soils and land are protected for future generations of farmers.  The conservation easement typically allows for minimal building or renovations to buildings for agricultural purposes, to account for change agricultural practices.

If a landowner is interested in preserving their land, what is the first step they should take?

There is an application form, found on the county’s website.  This is the first step to give staff the basic property information to begin the review the property.  Staff would then set up a meeting with the landowner to discuss their property and interest in preserving their land to find out the best avenue.  For natural areas, NATAC conducts site visits spring through fall.  For agricultural properties, ALPAC has a rigorous scoring system that will be used to rank property applications.  Every fall, both NATAC and ALPAC prioritize properties to pursue for the following year.  The process can take over a year, depending on additional funding partners or grant cycles.

Ballot Language 

The following ballot language that will appear on the November 3, 2020 ballot:

“Shall the limitation on taxes which may be imposed each year for all purposes on real and tangible property in Washtenaw County be increased as provided in Section 6, Article 9 of the Michigan Constitution and the Board of Commissioners be authorized to levy a tax not to exceed one fourth of a mill ($0.25 per $1,000 of state equalized valuation) on the taxable value of such property for a period of ten years beginning with the levy made on December 1, 2021 (which will generate estimated revenues of $4,407,196 in the first year) for the purpose of purchasing natural areas in order to preserve them, paying the costs of operating a land preservation program and paying the costs of maintaining the land purchased?  Of the 0.25 mill, 0.2341 represents a renewal of that portion of a 0.25 mill authorization previously approved by electors as reduced by operation of the Headlee Amendment, and 0.0159 represents new millage in the amount equal to the amount reduced by operation of the Headlee Amendment.”

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu