How Communities are Driving Conservation

Our vision for the future of natural resource protection is conservation driven by engaged, empowered communities. Decades of experience have taught us that the most sustainable environmental impact is born out of collaborative partnerships, whether they are with a city council, a watershed coalition or a classroom of high school students. When we bring together conservation knowledge and local perspective, we can build shared goals to address community and environmental needs.

In 2020, we brought together community residents in Alpena, Cheboygan and Rogers City to lay the groundwork for projects seeking to protect and improve water quality along the Lake Huron coast. 

At these community visioning sessions, data sets were combined with personal knowledge to drive green infrastructure planning for each city. Participants learned about the negative impact that excess stormwater runoff can have on water quality in the area’s streams, lakes and wetlands.

Participants study a stormwater map of Rogers City during a March 5 green infrastructure workshop led by Community Program Director Abby Ertel (right).

This was demonstrated at a workshop in Rogers City where participants pored over a stormwater map of the city, pointed out areas of concern based on their personal experiences and brainstormed potential solutions together.

“As the group rallied around their common passion for Lake Huron you could feel the energy rising in the room,” Water Program Director Samantha Nellis said of the March meeting in Rogers City. “By the end, not only had we identified specific projects to collaborate on but some of the participants were congratulating each other. The connections we have to nature are complex but we can accomplish so much by working together.”

These meetings are also critical for securing future funding. Management plans are one step in the ongoing process of identifying problems, developing solutions and attracting the help needed to improve the quality of life in an area. Through the years, Huron Pines staff have been able to use those plans to leverage funding so that every local dollar brings in $10 of investment from outside the region.

“The success we see now with our river restoration program was born out of watershed management plans and inventories we conducted over 20 years ago,” said Executive Director Brad Jensen. “That work has paid off with the completion of millions of dollars in restoration projects. Taking the same approach with land protection, stormwater runoff and invasive species is part of how we’ll continue making Northern Michigan a better place in the years to come.”

Funds from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Sustain our Great Lakes Program will support the engineering, design, construction and materials for green infrastructure projects along the coast in 2021 and beyond. Additional funds from the Saginaw Bay Watershed Initiative Network will support projects in Au Gres specifically and help launch a pilot program to showcase and formalize community commitment to Lake Huron protection.

“The connections we have to nature are complex but we can accomplish so much by working together.”

Samantha Nellis, Water Program Director

“We have a lot of momentum building along the coast with the initial funding in place to connect physical project work back to the community,” added Abby Ertel, Community Program Director. “We love putting projects in motion and seeing those successes. What we love even more is seeing local leaders and residents pick up the banner for natural resource protection and inspire community action.”

Forever Starts Today

The Lake Huron Forever initiative focuses on the intersection between people and place. A healthy Lake Huron depends on a healthy landscape defined by thriving native plants and wildlife. With a changing climate, aging municipal infrastructure and increased public use, the land across Northern Michigan requires stewardship and protection. It needs people to take action. We all play a part in keeping Lake Huron protected, whether it’s by brushing our boots to prevent the spread of invasive species or planting native gardens to filter stormwater. Here are two places where community and environment are coming together to make a positive impact.

With 294 unique species, Cheboygan’s Duncan Bay is one of the most ecologically diverse communities in Northern Michigan. Its wetlands serve as a giant filtration system to improve the quality of water that enters the bay and Lake Huron.

The sandy shoreline of Duncan Bay Preserve near Cheboygan.

Huron Pines secured funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for the purchase and maintenance of over 3,500 feet of Lake Huron frontage on Duncan Bay in 2017. That property is now protected forever as part of the Little Traverse Conservancy (LTC) preserve system. Huron Pines continues to partner with LTC to steward the property.

In 2020, Huron Pines removed invasive honeysuckle, Scotch pine, common and glossy buckthorn and Japanese barberry to support wetland restoration. Removing invasive plants is essential to support the habitat of native species including the over 2,000 plants that were installed at the property by Huron Pines in 2019.

Reducing polluted stormwater runoff before it can reach Duncan Bay is one way the Cheboygan community is getting involved in maintaining the health of their water and natural resources. In 2020, Huron Pines presented to the The Duncan and Grass Bays Watershed Plan Advisory Committee and partnered with Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council on a workshop for their series addressing stormwater management in Cheboygan.

At the southern end of our service area, Huron Pines supported the efforts of Au Gres-Sims students to design and install a bioswale at Riverside Park. The 600-square-foot garden captures and filters stormwater runoff with the help of native plants.

Volunteers install a native-plant bioswale at Au Gres Riverside Park. Designed by students of Au Gres Sims Schools, the gardens capture and filter stormwater runoff before it can enter nearby Lake Huron and serves as an example in a highly visible area of what others can do on their own landscape.

“They started with a rain garden on school grounds in 2019 which was a huge accomplishment,” said Samantha Nellis who supported the students in their efforts. “This new project was an even bigger undertaking requiring more complex design, community input and partnership with the city. Months of planning, learning and collaborating, led to this real-life example of green infrastructure in action. It’s really powerful that the students and community members can see their conservation efforts at work every time they visit the park.”

This piece originally appeared in our 2020 Annual Report.

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