A Systematic Rehabilitation Approach
How a group of determined property owners are working together to restore habitat.
Guest writer, Mike Maloney
President, Prairie Club
I first visited Camp Hazelhurst in 1999. My wife was writing a book about the Prairie Club and the executive director invited us to stay at the camp for the weekend. It was immediately obvious what a special place it was! We walked down narrow, sandy roads that traversed through the forest and across a ravine. Quaint cottages are interspersed along the roads, each one unique. Then we found our way to the main attraction. After a short walk across and down the dunes, we came upon the Prairie Club’s lovely private beach along Lake Michigan. Twenty years later, we own one of those cute cabins and we are active in conservation at the camp.
Camp Hazelhurst is in Harbert, MI, between Cherry Beach and Warren Dunes State Park. The Prairie Club purchased the 65-acre property in 1930 after the club sold its Tremont Camp, which then became the core of the Indiana Dunes State Park. Camp Hazelhurst is a forest and dune ecosystem. Prairie Club members have used the camp for rest, relaxation and the love of nature for almost 100 years.
Like many properties in Southwest Michigan, Camp Hazelhurst has significant issues with invasive plant infestation and loss of native species. Over the years, we have organized landscape workdays where a bunch of Prairie Clubber’s gather for 3-4 hours on a Saturday to improve our natural areas. Garlic mustard pulls are a favorite. We have also planted dune grass, removed oriental bittersweet vines from our trees and cut buckthorn and other invasives. We have also periodically hired a herd of goats to munch away at the invasive (and native) plants in areas around the camp. From Sharon Lemler, Hazelhurst Camp Chair, “Our goat colleagues were amazing – creating open spaces for clear views, fresh breezes, sunlight, and lots of inspiration!” However, we didn’t have a systematic approach to tackling the problem.
That started to change in 2019.
We decided that we needed a better approach for landscape conservation, and we decided to develop a conservation plan for 10 acres of high-priority natural areas within the camp. As Doug Elrick, Prairie Club President said, “The Prairie Club and its many members have long and gladly supported conservation efforts at Camp Hazelhurst and surrounding areas for the benefits it brings to all citizens.”
Realizing that we lacked the expertise, we wrote a Request for Proposal (RFP). Through a competitive process, we selected Randy Counterman and his company, Natural Landscapes LLC to work with us. Randy said, “Sitting amongst the members of the Camp Hazelhurst Conservation Committee during the interview process and enjoying a delicious scone supplied by the local Swedish Bakery, I knew right away that this was a project that I wanted to be involved with. The devotion to the Camp was obvious. And because of that, I knew the project had an excellent chance to succeed.”
First, Randy described the plant species currently in our landscape by defining data collection points across the in-scope areas. He then identified the plants located at these points. Three layers of vegetation represent the condition of the site, ground cover layer, shrub, and canopy layers. Randy identified native species that should be encouraged to spread and non-native, invasive species that should be eliminated.
The assessment indicated that we had a significant issue with invasive species like buckthorn, oriental bittersweet, and jet bead. But it also uncovered that we had a viable native plant stock if it could be encouraged to thrive. Once the assessment was complete, Randy worked with us on an approach for restoration and management. We defined the techniques to be used to repair degraded areas and remove invasive plants. Randy also helped us develop budgetary guidance for our Board of Directors, including the labor required for rehabilitating our natural areas and a cost estimate for professional assistance.
The conservation plan is only the beginning. The following diagram illustrates the steps we are taking on our 10-year effort to rehabilitate and restore Camp Hazelhurst’s natural areas.
We are now in progress with the rehabilitation phase. We continue to organize traditional landscape workdays, but we will likely hire natural area restoration professionals to tackle the most degraded areas. Once an area is cleared of invasive species, we move to the maintenance phase. It is much less time-consuming and cost intensive to keep a natural area healthy than it is to rehabilitate one that has been degraded. To use an analogy, imagine that you have just spent three days cleaning ten years of accumulated junk out of your garage. It looks great! If you keep it tidy, it will stay looking great. But if you ignore it, in three years, it will be looking like a junk pile again.
We use landscape workdays for maintenance as well, but we are increasingly using a new approach. We call it our “Adopt a Natural Area” stewardship program. Individuals or groups of Prairie Clubbers “adopt” a natural area and maintain it on their own time and without supervision. This approach is well suited to areas that have already been rehabilitated. We have two “lessons learned”. First, we found that we needed a volunteer coordinator to make the Adopt a Natural Area program effective. Second, our volunteers like to work together. Adoption by a family or a group of friends is more common than adoption by an individual
Finally, we are implementing a monitoring program to give us early warning if a natural area needs work. That information feeds back to the planning process. Restoration will not happen overnight. We expect to be at this for at least 10 years.
To sum up, we found that traditional landscape workdays are not enough to handle an area the size of Camp Hazelhurst. A systematic approach, starting with a good conservation plan, is essential. With the right plan and the right approach, we can institutionalize a process for restoring and maintaining the health of our natural areas for the next generation.
Sunset over Lake Michigan from Camp Hazelhurst Beach.