One Huge Green Hub
Piecing Together the Conservation Puzzle in Barry County
“I loved it at first sight.”
“I loved it at first sight,” Phyllis Freese said of the Barry County property that she and her family recently protected with Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy (SWMLC). Phyllis has now moved into Hastings to be closer to family, but fondly recalls watching fawns play in the front yard and hummingbird battles at the feeder with her late husband Bob. “It was my favorite place that I ever lived. It was peaceful. It was home.”
SWMLC was able to buy Phyllis Freese’s property when she and her family kindly agreed to a reduced-price sale – and with the generous support of SWMLC’s conservation partner, Tyden Ventures. The *Freese property adds another 90 acres to nearly two square miles that have been collaboratively protected so far, including SWMLC’s Fenwood Nature Preserve, Heath Road Preserve, and Hidden Pond Preserve, as well as the 371-acre Schoneboom property that was purchased by the DNR’s Wildlife Division with SWMLC’s coordination, and which contains a substantial segment of the headwaters of Glass Creek.
Beyond the Freeses’ yard, the land rises gently through an old farm field to a woods where big oaks invite bearhugs and ancient beech trees ask for a second look. The forested slopes lead down to a shady floodplain that’s rich with liverworts and sedges. Podunk Creek meanders through the heart of the property on its way to joining Glass Creek, which is recognized as the highest quality stream in the Thornapple River Watershed and part of the Grand River basin.
On the other side of the creek, a two-track stitches its way to a field bordered by ‘sentinel oaks’ and a large area where a pine plantation was harvested a few years ago. To the northwest, the Freeses’ 90-acre property is embraced by the vast Barry State Game Area (BSGA), a huge green gob of natural habitat where wildlife can thrive.
Recognizing the importance of increasing protected land in and around the Barry SGA and Yankee Springs Recreation Area, SWMLC began working with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and several conservation partners to create the Barry State Game Area Conservation Plan. Starting in 2009, the partners began implementing the plan with the ambitious goal of adding another 10% or 2,000 acres of greenspace and high-quality habitat to the Barry SGA. Protecting migratory songbirds and the Glass Creek watershed were two of the highest priorities.
Some creatures can tolerate human company and live in the small scraps of habitat humans leave behind. But others, like cerulean warblers (officially listed as ‘threatened’ in Michigan) are sensitive to human disturbance and need more space in order to thrive. Large, unbroken tracts of land like the Barry SGA provide this sanctuary.
“It’s always good to avoid forest fragmentation, as nest parasites like the brown-headed cowbird use forest edges and utility corridors to access songbird nesting areas,” states Doug Klein, Citizen-at-Large on the Barry County Parks Commission and avid birder with the Barry County Bird Club. “Cerulean warblers are undoubtedly parasitized by cowbirds. Having more cerulean warbler nesting habitat protected from logging is important, as these songbirds are declining across eastern North America. This newly-protected property is adjacent to other known nesting areas.”
SWMLC Stewardship Director Mitch Lettow states, “SWMLC’s current approach, as defined by our 2020 Resiliency Strategic Conservation Plan examines our entire nine county region and focuses our work on protecting and growing hubs and corridors.” He explains, “’Hubs’ are large blocks of protected land that are especially rich in biodiversity. Linking them together are ‘corridors’ – a series of natural connections through which plants and animals can travel to find mates, food, or more favorable conditions.”
“Think of hubs as thriving plant and wildlife ‘cities’ and corridors as the ‘highways’ that connect them. The almost 25,000-acre “Barry Hub”, which contains Barry State Game Area and Yankee Springs Recreation Area, is connected to the 10,000-acre Fort Custer Hub on the Kalamazoo River by the Augusta Creek Corridor that runs north-south along the east side of Gull Lake,” said Lettow. “Our big vision over time is to work with landowners in these corridors to conserve their land or consider management that supports wildlife to create these corridors.”
SWMLC is currently conducting site surveys of the Freese property to better understand the plants and wildlife that live there, then will develop a management plan that protects the high quality of the Podunk Creek corridor, an idyllic stream at the heart of the property, winding through towering oak trees and moss covered banks.
Just this past week SWMLC and its partners at Michigan DNR Fisheries Division conducted a fish survey of a short section of Podunk Creek.
Photo, Mitch Lettow
Recently, SWMLC and our partners at Michigan DNR Fisheries Division conducted a fish survey of a short section of Podunk Creek. While the survey didn’t turn up any “lunkers,” within an hour, the survey captured 145 individual fish representing 18 different species with flashy names like “rainbow darter” and “central stone-roller.” The diversity of fish is a nod to the wild and true nature of the creek. Left on its own, creeks will wind back and forth, with large trees falling in the water and creating structure along the U-turn bends in the river creating undercut banks, gravelly “riffles,” silty deposits with submerged plant life, and all the features that create a diversity of aquatic habitats.
“SWMLC is fortunate to collaborate with caring, like-minded people like Phyllis Freese and her family – and with other organizations working in and around the Barry SGA and Yankee Springs Recreation Area,” said Lettow.
Considering the beauty of the property and its significant location near the State Game Area, Phyllis’ daughter, Carol Lewis remarked, “The best thing to do was to protect it with the land conservancy. Seems like I pass another new housing development every time I go to Grand Rapids. There have to be some natural areas that doesn’t happen to.”
Lettow concluded, “Our work is expanded and amplified by our shared efforts, we set good examples for one another, and we savor one another’s victories, large and small.”
We are so fortunate to collaborate with caring, like-minded people like Phyllis Freese and her family – and with other organizations working in and around the Barry SGA and Yankee Springs Recreation Area.
Barry State Game Area Conservation Plan Partners
Barry Community Foundation, Barry Conservation District, Barry County Bird Club, Battle Creek Outdoor Education Center, Circle Pines Center, Gun Lake Tribe, Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, Michigan Audubon Society, Michigan DNR, Fisheries Division, Michigan DNR, Parks & Recreation Division, Michigan DNR, Wildlife Division, North Country Trail – Chief Noonday Section, Pierce Cedar Creek Institute, and Tyden Ventures.
PLEASE NOTE: in order to lessen human impact on the sensitive habitats of this preserve, public access to the Freese property is limited at this time, and may only be gained with permission. Thank you for your cooperation.
Thank you for your cooperation.
Story, SWMLC Staff • Photos, Mitch Lettow • Drone photo, Keto Gyekis