Case Studies

Data-driven Planning – Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy

Value of the land and habitat

For more than 25 years, the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy (GTRLC) has worked to permanently protect natural, scenic and farm lands in a five-county service area in northwest Michigan. Using a variety of methods, the conservancy has protected nearly 39,000 acres that include many diverse habitats, from increasingly rare Great Lakes coastal marshes to equally uncommon wooded dune and swale complexes. Farmland protection has also been a key focus, with thousands of acres of high-quality fruit and other farms under conservation easements.

Conservation concerns

The GTRLC’s mission is to protect natural, scenic, and farm lands – and advance stewardship – now and for future generations. While there are many challenges to long-term resource stewardship, including development pressures and changes in land use trends, shifting climate patterns also are a game-changer for the conservation community. Climate change impacts – including changing precipitation patterns, drought and flooding – have already been observed in the Midwest. These impacts present challenges for natural resources managers and others involved with conservation.

Current management planning

Although climate change impacts pose management challenges, they also present opportunities. True to its commitment to supporting cutting-edge stewardship efforts, GTRLC has taken steps to remain ahead of the curve. GTRLC works to stay appraised of best management practices and trends, including emergent funding opportunities such as carbon credits and payments for ecosystem services. These emergent markets may provide new sources of revenue and alternate management frameworks as they continue to develop, although the Conservancy recognizes that such processes can take time and are not always appropriate for regional resource stewardship projects. Having the information to make these determinations is critical. For example, while GTRLC has completed a certified forest management plan for a 3,500 acre project, the value of carbon is not yet high enough to justify enrollment in a credit exchange.

GTRLC is poised to verify and sell offsets when the time is right. Meanwhile, the Conservancy is investigating opportunities for sequestration funding through grassland preservation and habitat enhancement projects, and is considering the emissions-reducing benefits of incorporating agricultural best management practices into ecosystem-wide management planning. For example, GTRLC is demonstrating on their land that native grasses planted for wildlife habitat can be hayed and pastures can be grazed rotationally by cattle to reduce CO2 emissions that would otherwise be created by tractor mowing or by transporting feed grown in other parts of the state or country. Incidentally, grass-grazed cows also produce less methane, reducing emissions of a particularly potent greenhouse gas.

GTRLC is also engaged in active stewardship efforts that include replanting formerly fallow fields with native vegetation, providing habitat benefits and ecosystem services including carbon sequestration and water quality enhancement over time. GTRLC believes that good conservation work on their land, along with demonstrating and sharing that work for others to adopt, is a good formula for making a difference in sustainable practices that protect land, soil and water – and that ultimately impact climate change.

Process of building resilience

Creating resiliency is intrinsically part of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy’s broader scope of work. Just as GTRLC manages their land for resilience through practices aimed at maintaining diversity of species and ecological interactions, GTRLC also works to create resilience through a diversified approach to land protection that includes regional and landscape level planning as well as diverse tools.  GTRLC protects land by:

  • Working with landowners to permanently protect private land through voluntary conservation easements;
  • Acquiring high quality natural lands by purchase or donation to create Conservancy owned lands which are open to the public.
  • Assisting local units of government in creating or expanding public parks and natural areas that result in enhanced public access to nature and improved recreational opportunities; and
  • Providing technical assistance to local units of government with the administration of farmland protection programs.

Sustainable land use at the regional level can restore and preserve ecosystem services that are valuable and serve a role in combating climate change. For example, protecting land saves ecosystems that sequester carbon. If these properties were developed instead of protected, they would be carbon sources instead of valuable carbon sinks. As mentioned previously, improving farm management with cover crop plantings, rotational grazing and other practices provides alternatives to more fossil-fuel intensive conventional practices. While these may appear to be small steps, and although the sequestration or avoided emissions of these actions are not well measured, small changes can be especially meaningful when they are increasingly adopted by the conservation community, starting locally, then regionally and globally. By applying these management practices, GTRLC is contributing to a growing body of evidence that demonstrates less-intensive resource use can support the resilience of ecosystems and the communities that depend on them. Additionally, GTRLC is developing their own knowledge base and engaging in critical conversations in order to support long-term resource management planning. GTRLC is also heavily engaged in communication of the importance of this type of work with potential partners, gaining buy-in from the community, and positioning its work to be highly attractive to foundations and other funding sources.

Plans for the future

GTRLC is committed to continuing to identify and engage in innovative and effective land conservation. At the board level, strategic planning is refocusing on establishing “people-forward” policies to create community resilience. Staff is also working to reassess conservation priorities. Like many land trusts, GTRLC has been creating atlases to identify high-value conservation targets. Now, this land trust is considering opportunities to implement best management practices in impacted watersheds to achieve goals such as improving water quality and enhancing other formerly degraded conservation values. This expansion of focus holds great promise for development of programs that create, protect, and enhance ecosystem services including carbon sequestration, localized food production, and more. GTRLC is committed to continuing to lead efforts to promoting best management practices in land management and crafting flexible easements to support the achievement of multiple management goals.

By broadening focus from land conservation to stewardship demonstration and having a larger role in community sustainability, conservation groups can stay nimble and be ready to address local issues.  For example, at Arcadia Dunes, the C.S. Mott Nature Preserve, GTRLC is engaging in active forest management and grassland restoration to sustain resilient systems and support long-term stewardship models that can be replicated by private individuals and other land trusts. GTRLC has also been working with neighboring working farms to identify opportunities to align needs and advance stewardship. By reaching out to a wide range of potential partners, GTRLC has identified opportunities to connect a wider community to regional conservation efforts.

Engaging Stakeholders

Outreach and education are critical elements of conservation work. GTRLC offers education-focused hikes to build community awareness and engagement in Michigan’s diverse landscapes, and supports targeted education when reaching out to potential partners. The Conservancy also invests in volunteer education as a key piece of their stewardship model. Their website features several field guides and maps of trails and preserves. As the Conservancy’s scope expands, they will continue to work with willing partners to share information about the region’s natural resources and best management practices.

Key Partners

  • State and Federal Agencies
  • Conservation Districts
  • Other Non-Profits
  • Businesses
  • Numerous Private Foundations
  • Individual Donors
  • Volunteers

Lessons learned

  • Adaptive management is critical.  Experimenting and gathering information is critical to overcoming challenges, identifying opportunities, and for working to improve existing practices. Informed and adaptive planning can build credibility and more effectively support multiple conservation outcomes.
  • Leverage opportunities. Talk to other groups doing similar work and you may find unexpected connections. Connecting with local and regional partners provides opportunities to share important information and ideas and leverage limited resources to further mutual goals.