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Issues of the Environment: Legacy Land Conservancy adds more Washtenaw County acreage to its conservation efforts

Legacy Land Conservancy Logo
Legacy Land Conservancy
Legacy Land Conservancy Logo


  • In 1971, a group of Ann Arbor community leaders were concerned about the potential development of what is now the Bird Hills Nature Area, important land adjacent to the Huron River. On May 10, 1971, they officially banded together to form Washtenaw Land Conservancy (WLC), the state’s first nonprofit organization dedicated to the voluntary protection of local landscape. WLC successfully acquired the parcels through a combination of gifts and donations, and fee simple acquisition, keeping Bird Hills in public trust with the City of Ann Arbor. 
  • Known as the Legacy Land Conservancy, the local non-profit has been protecting land throughout the “Emerald Arc” for 50 years. In that time, they have: 

    • Protected nearly 10,000 acres of land in the greater Washtenaw and Jackson areas with the support of individual donors, foundations and volunteers, and the partnership of local, state, and federal agencies.
    • Worked with 75 landowners to protect over 4,000 acres of private land through conservation easements.
    • Protected over 300 acres as public nature preserves that include over 9.5 miles of trails.
    • Completed 48 projects with partners resulting in 5,288 acres protected. Legacy was founded on and helped to create a partnership of preservation alongside other conservation organizations like Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation, the Ann Arbor Greenbelt Program, Huron River Watershed Council, and Ducks Unlimited.
    • Monitored over 100 conservation easements and manages 7 public preserves.
    • Worked with over 742 volunteers and recorded more than 34,558 volunteer hours.
    • Become one of the first accredited land trusts in the nation in 2009. In 2014, and again in 2020, Legacy was re-accredited by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission.
  • Legacy preserves provide places of solitude and refuge for our community to safely engage with the natural world – a benefit that has become increasingly important during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • One of the strengths of the LLC is their commitment to maintaining and managing the properties in the conservancy. Volunteers remove invasive species, staff conduct ongoing assessment surveys, and holds seven preserves open to the public for hiking and enjoyment. 
  • In June 2022, the LLC permanently protected 90 acres of forest, prairie and wetlands, including 3,850 feet of frontage along the River Raisin, in western Washtenaw County. In a unique joint effort of three different sets of landowners—John and Carol McCullough, Byron and Freida McCullough, and David and Jennifer Helmer—the McCullough-Helmer Project consists of three conservation easements in the Sharon Hills area of Manchester. The properties contain restored open prairie, multiple wetland areas and steep wooded slopes leading down to the River Raisin.
  • Diana Kern has been the executive director of the Legacy Land Conservancy since 2018.

Most recent news: Multiple Properties Conserved, Protects Water Quality within River Raisin Watershed

Manchester, Michigan – June 29, 2022 – Legacy Land Conservancy has permanently protected 90 acres of forest, prairie and wetlands, including 3,850 feet of frontage along the River Raisin, in western Washtenaw County.

In a unique joint effort of three different sets of landowners—John and Carol McCullough, Byron and Freida McCullough, and David and Jennifer Helmer—the McCullough-Helmer Project consists of three conservation easements in the Sharon Hills area of Manchester. The properties contain restored open prairie, multiple wetland areas and steep wooded slopes leading down to the River Raisin.

The landowners are extremely pleased to protect their properties’ highly invaluable natural wetland areas and ensure the quality and quantity of water resources within the River Raisin Watershed via conservation easements with Legacy, which offers permanent protection of privately-owned land.

The three families were inspired to collaborate and protect their properties in 2016 when they observed the establishment of the Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation Commission’s (WCPARC) River Raisin Preserve just up the river from their land.

“Seeing the nearby land preserved years ago motivated us to find a way to protect our land too,” landowner John McCullough said. “Thanks to Legacy, WCPARC, and their partners, our vision is now a reality and the land we love is protected forever.”

The McCullough-Helmer Project is partially funded by a Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, & Energy (EGLE) Non-Point Source Pollution Grant—a grant that aims to restore waters impaired by Nonpoint Source (NPS) Pollution and protect high quality waters from degradation. NPS pollution is a leading cause of pollution in waterways. It is a combination of pollutants from a large area rather than from specific sources such as discharge pipes at industrial and sewage treatment plants. As water runoff caused by rainfall or snowmelt moves over and through the ground and accumulates contaminants from sources like gardens or parking lots, it is emptied into streams or rivers.

Permanent protection of the land within the McCullough-Helmer Project is an essential part of reducing NPS pollution. Its large swath of exceptional wildlife habitat, open space, riparian area and open river along the River Raisin helps ensure there is quality water filtration and ample flood plain to maintain a healthy river downstream through more urban areas, like Monroe, and contributes positively to the overall health of the River Raisin and Lake Erie.

“Land protection in the Upper River Raisin sub-watershed remains a high priority for the continued health of the larger watershed and Great Lakes Basin” explained EGLE watershed project manager Julia Kirkwood. “Keeping the forests intact and preserving the natural land cover ensures these lands will provide significant water quality benefits in downstream areas.”

The project also adds to existing protected lands in the Sharon Hills greenway area and along the River Raisin, building on river protection momentum and benefiting water quality in the corridor. Its 3,850 feet along the river joins the string of protected lands and 43,000 feet of protected river frontage from Sharonville State Game Area, to the Nan Weston Preserve, to Sharon Mills park, to the WCPARC River Raisin Preserve, and down to Legacy’s Mann easement and WCPARC’s Leonard Preserve.

Additional funds to purchase the conservation easement from the landowners were secured in partnership with WCPARC. “Land protection is a group effort,” Legacy Executive Director Diana Kern said. “Legacy is fortunate to work with amazing landowners and partners in order to protect land and help safeguard clean water in the River Raisin Watershed and surrounding waterways.”

About Legacy Land Conservancy: Founded in 1971 as Michigan’s first local land trust, Legacy is a nonprofit conservation organization that protects land in southern Michigan. Legacy’s mission is to secure for current and future generations a land base for nature, agriculture, fresh water, and recreation in Jackson and Washtenaw counties and beyond. Legacy has helped to protect more than 9,000 acres of land (including seven nature preserves open for all to enjoy) that enhance our community’s quality of place by safeguarding water quality, conserving working farms, and protecting places to play. In a testament to 50 years of successful voluntary conservation, Legacy is accredited by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission for adhering to a set of standards designed to ensure the organization’s work will endure forever. Legacy is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. For more information, visit www.legacylandconservancy.org.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to a land conservancy edition of Issues of the Environment. I'm David Fair, and as our community continues to develop, there's been strong focus on purchasing and preserving land for the betterment of the ecosystem and to contribute to the health of the overall environment. And it helps our individual and collective experiences in and with nature as well. As of the end of June, you can put another 90 acres of preserved land on the western side of Washtenaw County in the books. Our guest today is Diana Kern, and she's executive director of the Legacy Land Conservancy. And thank you so much for the time today.

Diana Kern
Diana Kern
Legacy Land Conservancy
Diana Kern

Diana Kern: Oh, glad to join you. Thanks for having me here.

David Fair: The latest land preservation that I just referenced has multiple properties involved and will better protect water quality along the River Raisin in western Washtenaw County, and that includes just under 4000 feet of water frontage. For those who haven't been over to that part of the county in Manchester, will you describe what exactly is being saved for the future?

Diana Kern: Sure. What Legacy tries to do is we work with individual landowners, and there are many landowners across the county and also in Jackson County and Lenawee County that have particularly wonderful land that maybe it's been in their family for a long time, or that they recognize as significant conservation values. Maybe because of the ecosystem or it's along the rivers. And they'll talk with us, and we will craft a conservation easement. And that conservation easement gets placed on that land, which then protects that land forever. So, the conservation easement actually stays on the land. So, even when the landowner then sells in the future, the new landowner will be assuming a conservation easement. And then, all of the different types of things that would be included, including things like, you know, not cutting down trees or not adding yard waste along the river, or anything else that may be outlined in that document, which is the conservation easement. And individual landowners continue to own the land but is protected under a conservation easement.

David Fair: And when they decide to sell, as you mentioned, have you found that over all the years the Legacy Land Conservancy has been doing this that impacts property values one way or the other?

Diana Kern: Well, generally. And the positive thing for farmers because we actually helped many, many farmers also place conservation easement is that when you think about it this way, you know, a landowner has a bundle of rights when they own property. And what they're doing is they're giving up one of those bundles or giving up the right to develop that or to sell it to a developer. So, therefore, in some cases, the entry rate to purchasing that land in the future may be lower, which is a positive, and for people that need more affordable housing in our counties and especially for farmers, because that development right is off the table. So, therefore, it generally will appraise for a bit less.

David Fair: Clearly, a number of entities have to be involved to get the grants and additional funding necessary to put these kinds of plans in action. And that indicates larger goals and vision than simply another 90 acres. What is the larger preservation goal in that part of the community?

Diana Kern: It's really wonderful to work with all the municipalities and the communities because they do master planning work. As part of that master plan, they do talk with various nonprofits and groups across the county to look at what is their goal for conserving land and where is that land best going to benefit our water quality or our natural habitats or habitats for species that we are continuing to see dwindle, like our butterflies and things of that nature. So, you'll see that in each county that will vary. But, for Legacy, we've identified in the counties that we operate in a bigger goal of 25 to 30,000 acres of land that we'd like to see under conservation value in the upcoming years. So far, Legacy has helped to protect about 10,000 acres of land, and there are others that do this work besides just Legacy that are helping to protect those really important pieces of land.

David Fair: This is Issues of the Environment on 89 one WEMU, and we're talking about the preservation of green and open space with the executive director of the Legacy Land Conservancy, Diana Kern. I want to clarify. When an agreement like this is made with an individual property owner, is it a deal in perpetuity? Can it actually be reversed at some point?

Diana Kern: It cannot. It is in perpetuity, and it stays on the land forever. And that's why it's so important that land trusts like Legacy are financially strong nonprofits, because we have to be here forever to be the stewards of that land. So, even as that land passes on to landowner to landowner, we actually hold the conservation easement. We go out annually. We go out every year. We do photo monitoring with volunteers to put in hundreds of hours for us to make sure that that land is maintaining its conservation value. Things are not being violated, so, therefore, you know, trees are not being cut down or there are no violations that would lower that value of the conservation. So, that's why we exist, and it is forever.

David Fair: So, how much does it cost on an annual basis to do all of that monitoring, making sure the maintenance, and other such things are taken care of as agreed upon?

Diana Kern: Well, for Legacy--and we've been around 50 years, and we were one of the longest standing land trust in the state of Michigan ever accredited--for us, our average budget is about $1.2 million, and that covers all of our costs. Legacy also has seven nature preserves that we own and manage. In that case, those are open to the public. And so, that's between all the monitoring of over the, you know, about 100 easements that we monitor every year. Yes. About $1.2 or 1.3 million.

David Fair: That's a pretty significant investment in taking care of all of the grander visions for land preservation and all of the entities that are going to be involved. How valuable is volunteerism and fundraising outside of the grants that you can write and receive?

Diana Kern: It's critical. It's how we get most of our work done. Our donors, whether they're large or small donors, our partners, and the volunteers that we have are the, you know, the heartbeat of Legacy and how we're able to do what we do. We probably have work with over 700 volunteers, with over 35,000 hours of volunteer time in the last many, many years here. And we need to continue that. So, we need folks that are interested in the land, like to get out and walk, are comfortable using a little bit of technology to help us. And it's critical. So, I'm always looking to talk with people who are interested in environmental protection and conservation easement and letting them know, "Hey, you know, we know that your dollars are important when you make donations. And we hope you'll consider land conservation as part of something that you want to engage in and be part of."

David Fair: Once again, we're talking with Diana Kern on WEMU's Issues of the Environment. She serves as executive director of the Legacy Land Conservancy. And, as Washtenaw County makes all the effort it can to achieve carbon neutrality, how important a component are things like this that we don't talk about as much: land preservation and conservancy?

Diana Kern: Yeah. Thank you for bringing that up. It's probably one of the things that's really overlooked. Between people like us--the Washtenaw County Parks Land Protection Program, the Greenbelt River Watershed Council, Ducks Unlimited--there are a lot of people that are protecting land. And every time a tree is not cut down or a prairie is not destroyed, carbon is sequestered, and, therefore, we don't have carbon release. There are lots of models that actually we use and others use that can demonstrate how much carbon is kept in the land and sequestered through all this work. So, it's a critical, critical part of climate resiliency. It's the work that the land trust and land partners do.

David Fair: What was once the Washtenaw Land Conservancy is now the Legacy Land Conservancy. And, again, as mentioned, this has been going on for over 50 years now. As we gain better understanding of the threats to our environment and to the health of our air, land, and water, how were you designing the strategy for placement of conservancy?

Diana Kern: Yeah. It's very important. If you can build continuously, you know, areas of protected land, you're really helping the environment significantly. You're also helping...you know, everybody knows that we have overpopulation of deer. Every time we do developments that are one-off, we're moving and pushing wildlife in directions that are not necessarily good. So, doing this type of planning where we're looking in advance about where we should be protecting land is a benefit to everybody. And we like to say Legacy, as well as all other, you know, pretty much all people that are protecting land, there's land that should be conserved, and there's land that should be developed. And not enough effort goes into bringing everybody to the table to talk about which land should really be preserved.

David Fair: As you mentioned earlier, you have your eye on a lot more land in the area. Are there any potential new deals in the works that you can discuss right now?

Diana Kern: Sure. We actually are well aware of about five more conservation easements that will be helping to place in Jackson County and Washtenaw County. One is called a fen, which is a water feature. It's F-E-N. And we'll be closing on this 90-acre habitat sometime, hopefully, late July or August. And this is a significant save for everybody in the community. Our pipeline, however, of projects goes out for three or four years, so it's just a matter of working to close on all those as we raise the money. We also have another preserve that should be being closed on, and we have a gift from a landowner of a wonderful parcel of land. It's a larger parcel of land in Washtenaw County, which we can talk about soon. But we will be closing on it sometime this year, hopefully, and that will add another recreational outdoor nature preserve to our county.

David Fair: Sounds like there's going to be more occasion for us to have a conversation. Thank you so much for the time today, though. I appreciate it.

Diana Kern: Oh, I appreciate you, and I appreciate everybody. And thank you very much, WEMU, for your support.

David Fair: That is Diana Kern, and she is executive director of the Legacy Land Conservancy. To find out more about the most recent purchase and ongoing efforts at land preservation, visit our website at WEMU dot org. And they'll have all the information and links you need. 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 your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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