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Issues of the Environment: The drive to improve Washtenaw County's ecological health with expansion of native plant species

Doug Reith
Washtenaw County Conservation District
Doug Reith


  • There are approximately 150 threatened or endangered species in Washtenaw County; nearly 100 are plants. One of the conservation challenges in the county is encouraging the growth of native plant species that are the backbone of habitat for native wildlife. Without support, much of this habitat is overcome by non-native plants, particularly invasive species that replace native ones efficiently. 
  • The Washtenaw County Conservation District has many programs to assist residents through conservation resource distributions, conservation education, and one-on-one technical assistance. The WCCD resource distributions include a spring Tree & Shrub sale, which has sold over 7 million trees since the 1950s, and now their biggest annual event, the Native Plant Expo & Marketplace, which includes plant presales and even more available day of the event. 
  • The 2022 Native Plant Expo takes place at the Chelsea Fairgrounds on June 4th from 1-9pm. The public can browse the plants from native plant vendors and experts will be on hand to offer resources and answer questions.  (Source: https://www.washtenawcd.org/npem-302794.html)
  • Since 2021, the WCCD has made impressive efforts to expand their ecological restoration efforts. WCCD Awardees and their projects include:

  1. Ann Arbor Open School - "Michigan Native Trees for Education & Play"
    The school is planning on planting a variety of Michigan native trees on open grassy areas will have ecological, educational, and recreational benefits.
  2. The Community Food Forest at LesliePark "A project created by the community for the community to meet two primary objectives: ecological regeneration, and strengthening local community resilience, particularly with regard to food independence." They will be planting more herbaceous plants to expand upon their existing gardens. 
  3. Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy - LeFurge Woods Installing a rain garden to address storm water issues and will also reduce overall project costs and provide an exciting visual experience for visitors, as well as an educational opportunity via signage, guided hikes, and volunteer workdays.
  4. Ypsilanti International Elementary School - "YIES Learning Garden"
    Meeting their motto of "stronger together" they plan to install a "pollinator cafe" that would create a space for sustaining our community with new opportunities for students to engage more deeply with their physical and social environment. 
  5. Pittsfield Village - "Sustainable Meadows Project"
    They will be continuing a long effort of replacing a public park space of lawn with a native plant meadow, adding to and improving their previous seedings and plantings. 
  6. Bird Center of Michigan - "Habitat Sanctuary"
    They will be installing a bird friendly garden design. Plants will be chosen to benefit birds released on the Bird Center property as well as surrounding bird populations. Read the Final Project Report here!
  7. University Palisades Homeowners Association - "Native Plant/Wildlife Habitats"
    They are taking the first step in a multi-phase plan to beautify their subdivision while committing to sustainability and reduction of our carbon footprint, with plantings for aesthetics as well as pollinators and wildlife. 
  • Doug Reith, Washtenaw County Conservation District (WCCD) Resource Coordinator, coordinates resource distributions including the Tree & Shrub sales and Native Plant sales, the Native Plant Expo & Marketplace, rain barrel sales, and other programs including the School & Community Habitat Grant and equipment rental. He has worked for NAAP, urban community gardening/farming projects, and as an organic farmer prior to joining the county. He says, native plants are not only important for wildlife, but also for human life. They are well-adapted to the local climate and soils as well as to the naturally occurring historic disturbance processes such as fire, flooding, and wind throw.

Where to see/visit native plant restorations/gardens?

Matthaei Botanical Gardens - Gateway & Great Lake Gardens

Legacy Land Conservancy - Nature Preserves

Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy - Superior Greenway located in Superior Township

County Nature Preserves

2022 Native Plant Expo at the Chelsea Community Fairgrounds - June 4th

The Native Plant Expo & Marketplacehosts several companies specializing in native plants and seeds as well as landscaping companies and non-profit organizations focused on native plant landscapes. There will be ample opportunity to purchase a wide variety of additional plants, seeds and services. The event offers both pre-ordered and day-of sales.

The Native Plant Expo & Marketplace (NPEM) offers residents one convenient location to shop for Michigan native plants from several Michigan native plant growers, learn how to establish and maintain native landscapes and connect with companies specializing in planning native landscapes.

The Native Plant Expo & Marketplace will host many nurseries with EVEN MORE native plants for you to shop! We had over 180 native plant species offered from 6 nurseries in 2021, and they are expanding in 2022. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.washtenawcd.org/npem.html)

Note: the 2022 pre-sale is closed. It was so successful that it had to end early. 


David Fair: Of the approximately 150 threatened or endangered species in Washtenaw County, nearly 100 of them are plants. Now, work has been underway and continues, and progress is being reported to get that turned around. And that's a focus of today's Issues of the Environment on 89 one WEMU. I'm David Fair. We also know that these native plant species so vital to the health of our habitat and support of our wildlife, well, it needs to grow in our community. And the good news is it is. Our guest is working at the heart of these issues. Doug Reith is resource coordinator for the Washtenaw County Conservation District. And, Doug, thank you for making time for us today.

Doug Reith: Hi, David. Yeah, thank you. It's such a pleasure for the Conservation District to be here to talk about the environment with you.

David Fair: When we talk of threatened or endangered plant species in Washtenaw County, what are these threats? Non-native plants? Environmental degradation? Overdevelopment?

Doug Reith: Absolutely. Those are some primary concerns. We've lost a lot of habitat. Fragmentation is a huge issue as we have such varying private land ownership and varying use of land. Our county--our planet--depends on a diverse ecosystem.

David Fair: So many non-native and invasive plants have been introduced to the community. What are the biggest bullies on the block in our area?

Doug Reith: The Conservation District is on both ends of this. Many years ago, we have done plant sales for quite a long time, selling over 7 million trees since the 1950s in our spring tree and shrub sale. And that used to include some of the big boys, such as multi-floral rose, autumn olives, and these had value in terms of hedgerows, wildlife. Black Locust is another one that has great timber value. At the time, they didn't realize what the environmental impact would be. And so, these plants being introduced from other regions have taken on the invasive nature, which is causing harm to either our economy or our environment or human health.

David Fair: To this point, in terms of wildlife habitat, where have we seen the biggest impacts of this invasion?

Doug Reith: It's throughout the county. I hear a lot from around Ann Arbor area. We have heavy clay soils, and buckthorn is really thriving along people's property lines. It's a plant that grows very rapidly and densely and will shade out any other native plants, creating a real monoculture of that. And it's thorny. It's hard to remove. And throughout our county preserves and city preserves, we're battling a lot of these honeysuckles and autumn olives that are early to leaf out and long to stay leafed out. And they just shade out a lot of our understory plants and prevent that regeneration of our diverse plant communities.

David Fair: And how much does that exacerbate problems with providing the appropriate level of nutrition for our pollinators that are so important to every aspect of our lives?

Doug Reith: Absolutely. I think plants like honeysuckle that I mentioned aren't supporting the native pollinators and as well as the buckthorn isn't quite supporting our native bird population. This is because these plants are introduced from another continent, and they evolve with other ecosystems. And so, they're introduced here, and they're not providing that pollinator benefit or food benefit. Birds do eat buckthorn, but it moves through them quickly. They don't get the same nutrition as they would from native plants. And the same with the honeysuckle. It's preventing a lot of the diverse native plants from growing that provide food and habitat shelter to our food webs locally.

David Fair: This is Issues of the Environment on 89 one WEMU, and our conversation continues with Doug Reith. And Doug is resource coordinator for the Washtenaw County Conservation District. Now, the Conservation District has been working hand-in-hand with a number of area schools and community organizations to not only spread the word about the importance of native plants, but to start and complete a number of restoration and native plant expansion projects. How and where is this paying off?

Doug Reith: Absolutely. Since our 2020 millage, we've been able to expand our staff and services to following a resource assessment survey that we do to meet the needs of the county. And one of those programs is the School Community Habitat Grant that we started in 2021. And this is a way for schools and community groups to apply for plant materials and professional consultation, support for design, and maintenance consultation. So, in 2021, we had seven applicants, and we were able to award them all. And they're all very different projects with different organizations. It's a great group. And just a quick note is that there's an open application until June 10th this year, and these can be anything from shade gardens, food forests, rain gardens, pollinator cafes, plant meadows, bird-friendly garden design, and just reduction of carbon footprint by reducing mowing. So, those are some of the examples. And so, these are things that the groups we're working with are doing. And these are all things that private landowners can also engage with in their own space. And not just private landowners, but also residents. Anyone who has some space or local parks access can be engaging with growing more native plants.

David Fair: I think the image that comes to mind for some is one of unruly or unkempt landscapes. That perception certainly comes into play with some of the homeowner's associations in the area. Can native gardens and lawns be not only environmentally beneficial but aesthetically manageable and pleasing too?

Doug Reith: Oh, absolutely. And I think that is a myth that we hear often. You know, we're used to very controlled landscapes, but the native plant community has quite a wide range of sizes, colors, aesthetics, flowers that will be blooming in late fall or spring, ephemerals that bloom before the tree canopies leaf out. A lot of native grasses provide great winter texture and color. It's quite a variety to choose from. There's some chaos in nature, and I think we can learn to embrace that. And it's also that it can be contained in a space with some edging, with some borders, so it can balance out some of our more controlled spaces.

David Fair: We're talking with Washtenaw County Conservation District Resource Coordinator Doug Reith on 89 one WEMU's Issues of the environment. Now, I'm unable to keep even a cactus alive. Now, growing anything successfully is so unlikely. I'm kind of surprised I was allowed to have children. As such, I really don't know much about the differences between native plants and grasses and ones that threaten our habitat. Recognition would be an issue for me. The2022 Native Plant Expois coming up on June 4th from 1 to 9 p.m. at the Chelsea Fairgrounds. What kind of educational opportunities will there be there for people like me?

Doug Reith: Yeah, absolutely. I think, you know, not everyone is a green thumb by nature, but we do exist every day in relationship to the environment and nature around us. We're part of it. And getting one plant and building a relationship with that can be a really meaningful relationship. And we'll have a host of native plant nurseries, locally coming in to sell plants, as well as landscaping organizations, nonprofits, small businesses, and conservancies that are all focused around providing plants and education with native plants and our natural communities.

David Fair: The interest in this is growing, and I think growing significantly. There was a presale involved with this upcoming expo that, as I understand it, has had to be closed down because it's already sold out.

Doug Reith: Absolutely. People are coming around to seeing not just the benefits, but kind of our responsibility to take care of our landscape in a way and provide that diversity that we all depend on. And we provide the pre-sale for those green thumbs and gardeners out there who like to plan ahead and secure some of the plants that they're really looking for. Last year, when we did this event, we had over 180 species that were being sold by the nurseries. And so, this is scaled up even more. So, a lot of opportunities to buy different plants. You don't need to know the plants. We have a lot of folks there who are going to be experienced to help educate around that. We also have a partnership with the Water Resources Commissioner's Office in the county and their master rain gardener program, which is a great way to learn about native plants and learn how to develop a rain garden on your property, as well as the Huron River Watershed Council, which has been doing great work to help manage stormwater runoff, which is a huge threat to the Huron River Watershed Council. So, there'll be a lot of opportunity to learn, buy plants, get to know other people who are on the same page of learning about native plants.

David Fair: So, when we consider the progress that has been made and the restoration of expansion programs that will carry us forward, weighed against the repercussions of what we might face in the years and decades to come without continuing progress, try and paint me a little word picture of how you envision Washtenaw County in the next couple of decades.

Doug Reith: Absolutely. I think--and an analogy might paint a picture--is that every time we our planet is kind of like an airplane and in flight. And as we lose species, we're losing parts of that airplane. And at some point, the systems on which we rely are becoming less stable. And so, Washtenaw has so many great nurseries and organizations that are doing conservation work, and we can really kind of turn this around to be keeping our local systems healthy. And that goes for our national systems. But also, I think there's great human health to be found in having a more healthy environment and relationships between people and people with the natural community that we live in.

David Fair: Doug, thank you very much for sharing not only the information and perspective, but the passion with which you speak. I appreciate it.

Doug Reith: You know, it's really important to me. I had a daughter just last year. Her name's Phoebe. And I just want to know that those future generations can grow in a world where they can appreciate, you know, the spring ephemeral and the late winter witch hazel and have those natural spaces that are still around. And this isn't going to happen without our work. And really, our communication and our relationship with nature is going to benefit us and our surrounding environment in so many ways.

David Fair: That is Doug Reith, resource coordinator for the Washtenaw County Conservation District and our guest on Issues of the Environment. Again, for more information on the upcoming Native Plant Expo in Chelsea and efforts to enhance and expand native plant species throughout the community, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the Office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. And you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM and HD one Ypsilanti.

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