Private groups that work to protect the environment do not get the accolades they deserve.
Too often, when people think of environmentalists or environmental protection, they think of the government and all of its lobbyists, lawyers, and legislators. And why not? The state is influential for good or ill and its efforts often make for a convenient, controversial news story.
That is why few citizens of Michigan are aware of the many kinds of private, nonprofit and even for-profit organizations engaged in protecting the environment. By choosing the private route to environmental protection, these organizations repudiate politics and coercion and instead rely on voluntary association and persuasion.
What follows is a list of some of the kinds of organizations that are quietly shaping the future of Michigan's environmental landscape.
Land Trusts. According to the Michigan chapter of The Nature Conservancy there are 40 private trusts in 24 Michigan counties dedicated to land preservation and management. Some trusts have specific areas of expertise (improving bird habitat, for instance), but ultimately the majority of their work involves preventing land from being used for roads, buildings, and similar improvements. Together, these trusts have managed to create 460 hunting preserves on more than 53,000 acres of land. In addition, they have obtained 50 property "easements" totaling more than 16,500 acres. An easement is a contractual agreement that supercedes development rights, save those specifically allowed by the easement.
Nationwide, punitive estate taxes appear to be the driving force behind easement gifts to nonprofit organizations such as The Nature Conservancy. Farm families are hardest hit by estate taxes because of the tremendous value of their land. When a death occurs, families find themselves in the unenviable position of selling the farm to pay estate taxes, which start at 37% for any land worth more than $650,000. The value of an easement deeded to a charitable land trust is often enough for people to escape the estate tax altogether and enable them to preserve their property in its natural state.
One of the oldest and most successful Michigan conservancies is the Little Traverse Conservancy in Harbor Springs. Created in 1972, it has accumulated more than 12,000 acres of forest and wetlands. Executive Director Tom Bailey notes that "it is comforting for many people to know that above the din of public policy debate over the environment, concerned citizens and private property owners are busy putting their money where their mouth is to protect the land they care about."
Watershed Initiatives. A watershed initiative can be run by private, nonprofit, or public organizations (or a combination thereof) that seek to protect the water quality of streams, rivers, lakes and water basins. Watersheds reduce runoff from "nonpoint" source pollution, such as chemicals, fertilizer or road salt not directly dumped into a water source, but instead passed into them underground.
In Michigan there are 16 major watershed initiatives and a smattering of smaller ones. Their number fluctuates because many initiatives are project specific, meaning that when the project is complete the initiative is ended.
Nonprofit Nature Preserves. The two notable Michigan nonprofit preserves are the Kalamazoo Nature Center and Last Hope Animal Preserve in Corunna.
The Kalamazoo Nature Center is a 1000 acre, 40 year-old preserve designed by architect Alden B. Dow. It maintains a large collection of "birds of prey," such as owls and hawks; a butterfly house; an 11-acre arboretum; and a barn where young animals can be viewed. The preserve also hosts concerts, guided hikes, and instruction in everything from ecology to arts and crafts.
The Last Hope Animal Preserve takes in abused and neglected exotic animals, specifically big cats, such as lions and tigers. It also works to educate the public on the plight of exotic animals and encourages legislation to protect the animals from abuse.
For-Profit Hunting Preserves. There are roughly 20 major, commercial hunting preserves scattered throughout Michigan that together maintain thousands of acres of land for the purpose of hunting common deer and grouse, and exotic animals including Russian Boars.
For example, Sugar Springs Sporting Clays & Shooting Preserve, Inc. of Gladwin is located on "440 majestic acres" and offers everything from clay shoot competitions to guided bird hunts.
As commercial enterprises, preserve owners have an economic incentive to protect their land from environmental degradation. Their very livelihood depends on diligent environmental stewardship.
The institutions listed here are just a small sample of the many private efforts to protect and improve Michigan's environment.
While government-mandated efforts to protect the environment do not appear to be on the wane, private efforts are proving that government has neither a monopoly on concern for the environment; nor on the means or motivation to do something about it.