Michigan must build carefully to protect its lush, green spaces

This story is part of an exploring series Michigan’s housing, infrastructure and greenspace amid climate change.

It’s a tale of two old golf courses.

One will be protected forever as a nature preserve near Lake Michigan, in the heart of a wetland, complete with spawning brook trout and an eagle’s nest towering in the trees.

The other is on its way to becoming a cluster of new duplexes and apartment buildings, a tidy bunch of blue and gray buildings with white trim along a main commuter road with lots of wide, open spaces around.

Each use fulfills important goals for a sustainable future in Michigan.

“We’re not trying to save it all. What we’re trying to do is not kill the goose that lays the golden egg, and save the very best places,” said Glen Chown, executive director of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy.

Related: Michigan is a climate haven in a warming world. Will everyone move here?

The two greenspaces near Traverse City exemplify the kind of land use questions experts say Michigan communities will increasingly face as the world warms and people move into the Great Lakes region to escape more dramatic effects of climate change.

Where should the land remain covered in trees and other plant life, the very things that help make Michigan so appealing? Where should housing be built for what may become waves of climate migrants? Where should natural landscapes be restored in urban areas?

Conservation experts said a sustainable future is about making these careful choices and making them soon.

Greenspace vs. Housing

Greenspaces critically mitigate the global impact of greenhouse gas pollution by pulling carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and sequestering it into plant matter and soil.

“We have warmed the planet already 1 degree, we can’t undo that right now,” said Jonathan Foley, executive director of Project Drawdown, a nonprofit scientific group that ranked the protection and restoration of temperate forests No. 12 in worldwide importance for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“We’ve lost countless species and we’ve degraded countless ecosystems around the world, that’s undeniable. But tomorrow begins today.”

Experts predict more than 300 million acres of temperate forest – woodland found between tropical and far northern boreal regions – could be restored from degraded land around the world. When combined with surviving temperate forests, these trees and plants can potentially pull from the atmosphere the equivalent of 27 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2050.

To forever protect 7,500 acres of green space across northwestern lower Michigan from development, the Grand Traverse conservancy recently wrapped up a $93 million campaign.

In 2019, it purchased the abandoned Mitchell Creek Golf Course along Three Mile Road, where nature had for a decade worked to reclaim the fairways and putting greens, with plans to relocate its offices into the renovated clubhouse and continue environmental restoration work at the 166- acre parcel with 6,000 feet of stream frontage.

That’s vastly different than a residential neighborhood, large wedding venue, or paved auto racetrack – all of which were considered.

None of those options would have been good for the stream, which eventually flows into the East Arm of Grand Traverse Bay and supplies Traverse City and surrounding townships with drinking water.

But up the road and around the corner is a second golf course with a different future.

Construction of single-family homes and high-density apartments is already underway at the public Elmbrook Golf course, where a developer plans to help address the housing crisis with upwards of 900 units on 228 acres.

The 18-hole course backs up to an existing residential neighborhood.

Related: Michigan’s housing market is in crisis. Climate change could make it worse.

Ashley Soltysiak, climate and environment program director for nonprofit Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, said this type of decision-making about where to put housing – and where to avoid it – will be key in infrastructure planning for Michigan’s climate haven future.

She said building high-density housing near public transit, and developing walkable, bikeable communities will promote sustainability.

Knowing these folks are coming “does mean that there’s going to be changes to our communities and probably more density than some more rural areas have ever experienced before,” Soltysiak said.

Greening urban landscapes

Nadine Basile, 48, moved to Leelanau County in the dead of winter. She trekked through snow and set up fences for the seven sheep her husband was bringing from their farm in Portland.

They had no idea they had landed in one of the state’s hottest vacation areas.

“Once summer hit, we’re like, ‘where are we? Where’d all these people come from?’ That was a little bit of a shock,” she said.

As a career grape farmer, Basile watched firsthand how both climate and people changed the land in Oregon. She and her husband were looking to move out of their rental in Leelanau County and find a permanent farm in West Michigan, but she was disappointed to find so much acreage dedicated to creating space between vacation properties or forgotten farmland.

“There’s so much land here that’s just fallow,” she said. “If you were to leave it alone, it’s never going to go back to the beautiful diverse forest that it once was. Once you change an ecosystem, once you start farming a piece of land, and then you leave it alone, all it turns into is a reservoir for invasive species.”

Resilient use of green space is not solely a concern for communities with abundant undeveloped land.

Metropolitan areas must claw back paved-over green spaces, finding natural ways to better handle stormwater floods from thunderstorms, made stronger in recent years by climate change.

In Grand Rapids, a master plan includes expanding green space and recreational opportunities, enhancing tree canopies and installing water-protecting systems that filter pollutants from stormwater runoff.

Especially targeted are “neighborhoods of focus,” areas of buildings and pavement without natural landscapes and more prone to be urban heat islands.

A parking lot on the inner west side, for example, became a “delightful green space,” said Karie Enriquez, Grand Rapids parks and recreation project manager.

Enriquez said especially important are trees planted in neighborhood streets right-of-ways because much of the city doesn’t have cooling, overhanging trees, a problem officials say stems from the federal government redlining parts of Grand Rapids in 1937.

The discriminatory practice isolated communities of color and low-income neighborhoods from lending and other investments. Over time, it resulted in increased pollution exposure and other injustices.

Related: Fresh water will draw millions, but Michigan lacks systems to harness it

The urban tree canopy map clearly demonstrates the effect on the city’s landscape, said Annabelle Wilkinson, the city’s environmental and climate justice specialist.

“Specifically for Grand Rapids, we know that (population growth) could exacerbate already existing inequities in our community,” Wilkinson said.

Data scientist Derek Van Berkel, assistant professor at the University of Michigan, said asking people what they want for their city is an important part of resilience planning.

It’s also critical to treat climate migration as a long-term adaptation rather than as a hazard, he said.

Part of Van Berkel’s research involves a new mapping tool showing where social and environmental vulnerabilities exist so city leaders can plan solutions.

The Nature Conservancy, an international land protection group, also developed an online mapping tool to help determine the best, most resilient green spaces across North America to help meet climate action goals.

About 19% of Michigan’s lands are already under some level of protected status, said Patrick Doran, the international conservancy’s associate state director.

“We can’t miss these windows of time over the next decade,” Doran said. “It’s important both for climate and to make sure that we have the natural resources that can support a healthy economy and people moving, immigrating, into the state.”

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