In 1923, after a 20-year career mining copper in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Michael Borkowski and Pelagia Litwin Borkowski paid $1,700 for 80 acres in the heart of Northern Lower Michigan. With the help of family, they worked the land and it became their lifeline through subsistence farming. It continued to be passed down through the generations as a summer refuge, a retirement home and, for some, a final resting place.
Peggy Kusnerz is the great-granddaughter of Michael and Pelagia and the last living relative in the Borkowski lineage to own the land. Passed down through four generations, Peggy is determined to keep the family legacy alive by ensuring the land will be cared for long after she is gone.
“I owe a lot to this land,” she said. “I’ve been visiting it since I was 6 months old, so the land is just really in me. It’s my home. I know where I come from in this place.”
But Peggy knows the property is not the same as it was before. Its fields, once worked and productive, had become a purple sea of spotted knapweed; its woods, a harbor for other invasive species that disrupt the native habitat and food source for the songbirds which drew her in as a child. For now, Peggy’s land does not fit her family’s legacy but she is not one to sit idly by.
Peggy came to Huron Pines wanting to protect her property from division and development, and to see that it is restored as a vital part of the ecosystem. It was also important to her to let it serve as an example to others of how permanent protection and deliberate management can achieve those goals.
”Seeing that commitment to the work of land conservation just makes me feel great, especially the young women that are on staff,” Peggy said. “You have to remember that I lived in a time when women couldn’t get a mortgage, and women had a tough road. Observing the women in the field here working at a thing they have passion for just tells me that things are going to be okay.”
Sustainability Through Diversity
One approach to restoring Peggy’s property is through our budding native seed program.
Starting in the summer of 2021, members of our Restoration Team visited remote sites around Northern Michigan — remnants of once-dominant prairie landscapes teeming with native wildflowers and grasses — and collected seed to propagate and rebuild natural plant communities in places which lack a similar biodiversity.
Peggy’s field was cleared of invasive species by our staff to make way for plantings of this native seed in October 2021. This will allow the area to be restored more quickly and with more plant diversity, boosting its resilience to change. More planting will come this spring once we see what blooms successfully in the early stages of this multi-year effort to transform the landscape.
The long-term commitment to the land requires Peggy and Huron Pines to think about the future of the landscape and changing climate conditions. She recalls stories her mother told of seeing frost on the ground every month of the year when she was growing up and, though the winters in Otsego County are still harsh, summers are hotter without much relief or rain for weeks or months at a time.
“Diversity is the most important part of climate resilience,” Conservation Stewardship Director Steve Woods said. “We’re taking a field that had a small number of almost entirely nonnative species and are transforming it into a place with 50 species of native plants. This means that, under any condition, there will still be food and shelter for wildlife. If we can convert degraded sites into habitats with high diversity, it will make a positive impact on the landscape as a whole.”
“If my property can be a healthier place to live for all species or a place of refuge, let’s make that happen,” she said.
Show and Tell
As our restoration efforts continue on her property, Peggy has offered to let it be used as a teaching tool to demonstrate to other landowners how a similar partnership with Huron Pines can breathe new life into their property and the surrounding landscape.
“We hope other landowners will adopt her stewardship ethic of not just ‘living’ on the land but taking an active role in its sustainable management,” Woods said. “This work is consistent with the vision for Huron Pines — conservation driven by engaged, empowered communities — and this is exactly what that looks like.”
“It’s so easy to talk about some of these concepts and subjects but if you can show someone a beautiful field and healthy forests, and that there are people who can help them get there, then you are halfway to action,” Peggy said.
Peggy’s eagerness to teach and share is the glue of this valuable project. With permanent land protection in the future as the driver, Huron Pines staff will build community and landowner education into our work here very easily.
“Peggy has become a friend, donor and champion for the organization’s vision. This is what brings my everyday work to life,” said Heather Huffstutler, Land Protection Director. Working with Peggy to reach her goals for her family legacy, Heather will help determine the right path to permanent protection of this land for future generations.
As those plans are finalized, we’ll continue to enjoy the peace here, the renewed diversity being built and a quick walk through the labyrinth Peggy and her late husband, Michael Sanders, built. The sense of place created by Peggy and her vision for healthy soil, undeveloped land and supporting a vibrant community are undeniable.
This piece originally appeared in our 2021 Annual Report, published April 2022.