Case Studies

Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy’s Wau-Ke-Na Conservation Master Plan

The Wau-Ke-Na (“forest-by-the-water”) preserve, bequeathed by William Erby Smith to the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy (SWMLC), is the largest of the land trust’s preserves.  It includes numerous ecosystems, ranging from forests and fields to streams, ponds, bluffs, and beaches. The preserve’s name harkens to the rich forest along the shores of Lake Michigan that makes up the northern tract of the property.  These woods are home to magnificent specimens of red oak, tulip tree, yellow birch, American beech, sugar maple, hemlock, sassafras, and more.

Value of the Land 

On the Wau-Ke-Na Preserve, fields of prairie grasses and wildflowers provide foraging and nesting areas for rare birds like sedge wrens, bobolinks and eastern meadowlarks.  The 365 acre preserve includes 1,300 feet of pristine beach frontage along Lake Michigan, and encompasses forests, fields, bluffs, streams, and ponds.  These ecosystems are particularly critical to rare bird species including the sedge wren, bobolinks, and eastern meadowlarks.

Conservation Concerns

Conservation concerns within the Wau-Ke-Na project area highlight the land trust’s goals to preserve and restore habitat that support species diversity and resilient ecosystems.  The Conservation Master Plan identified 30 distinct management units, based on eco-types, and specific management techniques for each unit have been recommended as part of the Action Plan.

What’s Being Done 

The land trust’s nature preserve and habitat restoration goals, reflected in their 2008 Management Plan Update, highlight the importance of maintaining the resiliency of these ecosystems.  The primary management goal of the nature preserve is to manage the land to “restore and create habitats that support a rich diversity of native species.”  The land trust’s habitat restoration goals for the property are:

  1. To manage the landscape in a manner that achieves the greatest diversity of native flora and fauna while at the same time offering passive-use recreation opportunities to the public;
  2. To manage the noted remnant plant communities to promote the recovery and long-term sustainability of these ecosystems; and
  3. To transform landscapes that have irreversibly been altered to another type of sustainable habitat.

SWMLC worked with local landowners, neighboring land trusts, and nearby homeowner associations and local government officials in a “charette” to identify conservation priorities for the Wau-Ke-Na Preserve.  This planning process built critical community awareness and support of the land trust’s goals to maintain and improve ecological health of the natural lands in their stewardship.  The SWMLC holds informational workshops and works with a volunteer stewardship team to raise community awareness about their stewardship objectives as well as implement the conservation management plan on the Wau-Ke-Na property.

Plans for the Future

Implementation of the plan is ongoing.  Thirty management units have been identified on the 365 acre Preserve, and the management plan recommends management techniques for each unit. The Wau-Ke-Na short-term restoration goals and management measures include:

  • Control Rainwater from Sheeting Offsite – Measures to be taken include removal of vegetation that is uncongenial to infiltration of rainwater; disable on-site drainage ditches that contribute to dewatering of the landscape; and selective removal of trees and brush within overgrown disturbed habitats.
  • Stewardship of Remnant Habitats – Implement stewardship program for long-term sustainability of the remnant lake plain prairie habitats, lake bluff seeps, and southern mesic forest habitats.
  • Transformation of Landscapes into Native Plant Communities – Reintroduce native landscapes within areas where native communities have been destroyed.
  • Enrichment of Existing & Created Plant Communities – Implement a long-term enhancement planting program to achieve the greatest diversity of native flora & fauna by seeding additional species every few years and adding native shrub and hardwood species within areas that undergo selective clearing.

These program goals will help SWMLC achieve the long-term objective of preserving resilient ecological communities on the Wau-Ke-Na preserve.

Engaging Stakeholders

The core belief in managing natural lands for ecological health was part of the organizational culture of SWMLC from the beginning, and it was encouraged and developed by staff working with volunteers while networking with other resource professionals.  The nine-county community the land trust works with reflects some division regarding views on climate change.  Nate Fuller, SWMLC’s Conservation and Stewardship Director, reflects that “discussions on developing ecological health that is resilient in the face of change cuts through the political obstacles that can be distracting.”  You can “begin with the premise that change is constant – everyone agrees with that” and then “the issue of what is responsible for the change and exactly how fast it is happening becomes a sidebar issue and we can move forward with identifying productive solutions to managing our natural areas.”  To identify and address changing ecological conditions in the Wau-Ke-Na conservation management plan, SWMLC used GPS and aerial image interpretation to develop GIS shapefiles to map baseline conditions of surface water movement and habitat extent, which informed management plan recommendations for the Preserve.

Key Partners

The Conservation Master Plan was funded by a Coastal Zone Management Act grant from NOAA and endowment funds from the Preserve.  Consultants were used to conduct natural features and hydrologic assessments of the site, as well as to conduct a public use design charrette and assemble and analyze information obtained from public meetings to produce a conservation master plan.

Lessons Learned

  • Comprehensive planning is critical. The comprehensive management planning process is a critical tool that helps land stewards identify and support resiliency management objectives.  All the components that were used to construct the plan have been very useful for practical application of the plan.  Understanding what was on the site and the processes in play were essential to guiding priorities and actions.  The public use design charrette built public support for the actions and plan in general.  A third-party produced plan lent credibility to the plan and our organization’s approach to site management.
  • Resiliency is a key component of long-term management efforts. SWMLC garnered important support for management decisions by looking at the preserve from a perspective of ecological health instead of the restoration of historical natural communities.  The restoration strategy is a little nuanced because it embraces the historical conditions in some areas and not in others.  When SWMLC looked at restoring the preserve the land trust was faced with portions of the preserve so fundamentally altered that it was unrealistic to think a soybean field could be converted into a functioning beech-maple-hemlock forest. The fundamental soils, chemistry, and water flow were permanently changed. Here is where the case for management with ecological health over a historic natural community as a goal became obvious. But the remnant habitat still has most of those components in place—while the 40″ dbh yellow birch isn’t there anymore, large hemlocks, beech and sugar maples still dominate the forest canopy.  In these areas restoration towards “historic conditions” via invasive species suppression actually seems attainable.
  • Changing systems requires changing management goals. The Lake Michigan coastline has moderated microclimates that have allowed several northern plant species to stick around on north facing slopes and small cool ravines even as their “home” natural community moved north.  Some of the southernmost documented populations of mountain ash and bearberry remind us that the natural communities have not been static for very long.  Even as SWMLC tries to restore natural communities, the organization is faced with the reality that the target conditions are a moving target.  With this in mind the land trust has shifted its focus from managing towards an end, to rather managing to provide the means to accommodate change: resiliency.