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Monday, 09 April 2012 16:31

Conservancies reevaluate role in future development of sustainable communities

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Conservancies reevaluate role in future development of sustainable communities Courtesy photo
WEST MICHIGAN — In West Michigan, natural resources — especially those associated with water — are essential to the economic health of the region.

As the area continues to develop, land conservancies are taking a hard look at how they plan to stay relevant and engage the communities they work in.

The goal of conservancies is to protect and manage portfolios of unique and important land that are vital to maintaining a vibrant quality of life. However, funding issues, member support and maintaining relevance are some of the big questions facing conservancies as they contemplate their role in the region’s future.

Peter Terlouw, executive director for the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy, which recently celebrated its 20-year anniversary, said the organization is reevaluating its long-term role by developing a new strategic plan. The conservancy works in Allegan, Barry, Berrien, Branch, Calhoun, Cass, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph, and Van Buren counties.

“A large part of that is organizational improvements and sustainability — creating permanence of the organization,” he said. “We do a pretty good job of partnering with other conservancy groups and nonprofits, but our next step as an organization is how do we become a valued partner in how the areas we work take shape — making sure our role is understood and accounted for.”

First and foremost, SWMLC is committed to protecting the land base and its value so it doesn’t get lost to development, Terlouw said. To date, the group has secured more than 10,000 acres. While SWMLC doesn’t necessarily compete with developers and private companies for “prime” real estate, it does run into challenges in securing the funding to protect those unique tracts of land, he said.

By securing private donations, conservation easements and grants, conservancies purchase property or development rights and hold them in perpetuity. Often the parcels are turned into preserves or made into recreation areas for public use.

Terlouw said the Obama administration rolled out almost $500 million for natural resources protection projects a couple of years ago, with some money coming through the EPA as well. The Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service often make funds available for habitat work, but 80 percent of the financial support SWMLC receives comes from private entities.

“It’s funny, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t know we’re and 501 (c)(3) nonprofit,” he said. “We’re still a little bit of an outlier. We’re not really in the mainstream of nonprofits.”

While the SWMLC gets by on its share of government and private support, Terlouw does acknowledge that what continues to sustain the organization is what is generally an, older, white, affluent demographic.

“Being relevant beyond out little clique that has historically populated (conservancies) is part of our effort, and we’re starting to do some of that,” Terlouw told MiBiz.

The SWMLC hopes to establish more outreach to younger populations in universities and in urban communities and to extend its reach more in the business community.

Land Conservancy of West Michigan Executive Director Vaugh Maatman agreed with Terlouw’s statement, citing that the Sierra Club, likely the most well known environmental organization in the U.S., surveyed its members and found their average age is in the mid-60s .

“There is a challenge for conservancies to connect with younger people and get them involved,” Maatman said. “I think the issue of our relevancy to the communities that support us is going to be a driving factor in where we want to go.”

Maatman said all conservancies in the state are looking at how they affect the quality of life and economic viability of a particular area. He said finding out where conservation, green space and employment in Michigan connect is an important effort that has come out of research done at the Michigan State University Land Policy Institute.

The research looked at the issue of green space and what issues played into the decisions of where entrepreneurs locate their companies or how they could use the area and its natural resources to attract qualified employees to their business.

“People want to be where there are both employment centers and natural features,” Maatman said. “I don’t know if conservation organizations have completed the conversation: What does it mean to protect land from development? Yes, we need green space, but there are spaces we need to think about protecting for the people of this state.”

He said in places like West Chester County, N.Y., conservancies are already a bit ahead of the game in that one has partnered with the locally grown food movement, which supplies to the local restaurants.

For Maatman, whose organization has protected approximately 8,000 acres in Allegan, Kent, Ottawa, Newaygo, Muskegon, Oceana, Mason and Lake counties, it comes down to the choices of what to protect. He said conservation groups would never leave behind a rare piece of land that needs to be protected, but on the other hand there may be an equally important pieces of land that could be protected closer to a community that could make use of it.

“There will always be tension between protection and conservation and development,” he said. “We are the organization that wants to find a balance with those things.”

Both Terlouw and Maatman see things changing in the way conservancies operate, especially when it comes to finding a place within the economic growth of the region.

“We are just starting to have that conversation,” Maatman said.

According to Terlouw, the land management is a critical component for conservancy work. He sees the organization transitioning, at least in the short term, from being in an acquisition mode to more of a management mode, as financial decisions in deciding what to protect become more critical.

Read 1386 times Last modified on Saturday, 11 August 2012 10:03

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