Conservation Partnership in Action!

Working with Michigan Department of Natural Resources to create the new Paw Paw River State Game Area

Protecting this big, beautiful, untamed land is a great example of how essential strong partnerships can be for conservation in southwest Michigan.

UPDATE: MAY 15, 2024
The Michigan DNR announces the opening of the new Paw Paw River State Game Area!
Read their press release here.

Some of SWMLC’s land protection projects are headline-grabbers that rally the community and make us feel both proud and humble, projects like LaGrange Valley Wetlands or Armintrout-Milbocker Nature Preserve. But we also protect land and wildlife in quiet ways that fly under the radar – while still making a big impact on nature in southwest Michigan.

Blue-spotted salamanders (Ambystoma laterale) are often found in  swampy woodlands like those found in Paw Paw River State Game Area.

And impact is important, because the conservation task at hand in our region is huge. Natural land, waterways, and quality habitats are being lost at a rapid pace, pushing conservationists like us to work harder, bigger, faster. There’s more to do than any one organization can handle. “It just seems silly (and impractical) for each of us to try to go it alone when we can join forces and not only make good things happen, but be more effective in our mission,” asserts Mitch Lettow, SWMLC Stewardship Director.

Vernal pools are often form when water fills the pits created by uprooted, wind thrown trees In floodplain forests. Without predatory fish, these vernal pools teem with tiny life such as fairy shrimp and baby salamanders.

That is why we’re extremely pleased about our recent conservation collaboration with Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to protect a 350-acre property in Waverly Township, Van Buren County that will become the new Paw Paw River State Game Area, the first of its kind in that county.

SWMLC acted as facilitator, intermediary, and co-strategist in a series of conversations between the DNR and the land owners over several years’ time, and covered some costs for which we will later be reimbursed. The project was completed in February and the property will soon open to the public for hunting, fishing, and paddling.

Aerial view of the Paw Paw River Mainstem winding through low floodplain forest and shrubby marshland.

The property is rough, wet, wild. Towering oaks and beeches greet visitors upon arrival, but the welcome mat is quickly snatched away by a dense fortress of moisture-loving shrubs, low-hanging branches, fallen trees, knee-deep mud, and mosquitoes that prevent hikers from ever reaching the Paw Paw River Mainstem that creates its southern border. It’s not heavenly for humans, but its rich habitats are a paradise for wildlife, from turtles to deer to cerulean warblers.

Soft, mucky ground has spared some huge trees within Paw Paw River State Game Area.
Paw Paw River State Game Area is characterized by low floodplain forests and shrubby marshland.

“It’s one of those places that deserves not to be touched by development,” remarked Kaleigh Winkler, SWMLC Land Protection Director. And now it won’t be, thanks to this effective conservation collaboration between a local non-profit organization and state government. In a press release, Mark Mills, Southwest Regional Manager for the DNR Wildlife Division said, “We are thrilled for this land purchase, as it reinforces our dedication and the dedication of our partners to wildlife conservation and access to public recreation.”

Dense thickets of moisture-loving small trees, shrubs, ferns, cattails, and other vegetation make for a very strenuous hike.
Summer on the banks of the South Branch of the Paw Paw River at Fairway to Heaven CE.
Fairway to Heavens moist habitats are a botanist's delight, home to many species of sedges and ferns.
The South Branch of the Paw Paw River is magically unspoiled and beautiful, even in November!
Lizard's tail (Saururus cernuus) is a floodplain forest plant that can grow up to 3 feet in height.

This property is strategically located within a ‘conservation hub’ (an area of critical focus) as determined by SWMLC’s Climate Resiliency Plan, Nature’s Network. It’s only a few miles away from other protected lands (see map below), including SWMLC’s similarly wet and wild refuge preserves Sora Meadows (65 acres), Dayton-Willard (41 acres), and Paw Paw River Preserves (258 acres). Even closer are several private properties that are protected by SWMLC conservation easements (CE), including Vogtmann-Leet (41 acres), Fairway to Heaven (45 acres), Jazz (56 acres), and Eureka (342 acres) CEs. Eureka CE is sandwiched between the new state game area and Jazz CE, creating 3.82 miles of natural riverbank and nearly 750 combined acres of protected land!

♦ SWMLC’s refuge preserves have limited access and are only open to the public by special arrangement. Conservation easements are privately owned lands that are protected by SWMLC but not open to the public.
This map shows the location of the new Paw Paw River State Game Area property relative to other nearby conservation lands.

Connecting and conserving land in this important conservation hub protects floodplain forest habitat and offers essential safe travel zones for animals, and places for plants to spread into. It also improves water quality by preventing water pollution caused by silt and chemical runoff, preserving the habitats’ flood-absorbing role, and recharging ground water supplies.

In a press release, DNR Wildlife Biologist for Van Buren County, Don Poppe said, “The establishment of the new game area provides an immediate benefit to wildlife and ensures stability during an unpredictable future. If development occurred on this parcel, we would expect it to impact the river, fish, wildlife, vegetation, and natural aesthetic. With this purchase, we can ensure that current and future generations of humans and wildlife can continue to depend on this area as a natural oasis amidst development.”

It's easy to lose a boot in the muck at Paw Paw River State Game Area!

SWMLC is excited to have been part of this collaboration to protect this vital piece of wild southwest Michigan.

YOUR support makes this work possible. As a SWMLC supporter, your desire to conserve special, natural places in Michigan has protected over 19,000 acres since 1991. Together, we are making a difference.
Photos: Kaleigh Winkler and Amelia Hansen     |    Drone photos: Keto Gyekis     |   Story: Amelia Hansen
Photos: Kaleigh Winkler and Amelia Hansen
Drone photos: Keto Gyekis
Story: Amelia Hansen