Picture this: 2,900 feet of frontage on a quaint waterway (think two of the Empire State Building stacked together, then go a little further). On either side of this waterway, floodplain forest fills the valley it has forged since the last period of glaciation about 15,000 years ago. Feel the cool, moist weight of the air in this little valley. Hear the steady burble of the water—much of which has infiltrated through the surrounding landscape—as it reaches the next stage of its journey: the Huron River.
Now imagine our delight when in 2016 Legacy was approached by the family who had stewarded this waterway for generations with a desire to protect it forever. Places like this and other natural and agricultural gems dot the landscape in southern Michigan. And, it’s been Legacy’s goal for 50 years to protect as many of them as we can.
In addition to this tributary and the property it runs through (which also includes 265 feet of frontage on the Huron River), in 2017 Legacy identified four more properties within Washtenaw and Jackson counties with hundreds of acres of important land to conserve. The properties included prime agricultural soils, significant water frontage, and a rare wetland type found only in the glaciated Midwest. The majority of this land also provides significant linkage to other properties already being protected, thus magnifying the overall benefits of land protection in a region of Michigan characterized by fragmentation and high development pressure. The total cost to conserve these five properties was estimated at over one million dollars.
While Legacy primarily accepts donated easements, for various reasons more landowners are approaching Legacy with a need to be compensated for the value of their land’s development rights, which they part with in entering a conservation easement. Because these funds are not part of our program budget, we have to raise additional capital, posing a significant fundraising challenge to the organization.
Always up for a challenge, Legacy began creatively exploring relationships and pursuing funding sources to reach our five-property, million-dollar fundraising goal. In early 2018, Legacy was awarded a $487,000 matching grant from the Carls Foundation, a Michigan-based foundation with a focus on the preservation of natural areas. The Carls Foundation agreed to match every dollar we raised up to that amount to help us fund these five conservation easement projects.
Over the next two years, Legacy leveraged the generosity of the Carls Foundation to secure a creative mosaic of funding sources. We cultivated new donors, and existing donors graciously made additional gifts. We pitched our projects to local and state partner organizations and foundations, calling on old friends and building new relationships.
Through innovation, persistence, and the generosity of a diverse group of donors, in 2020 Legacy completed the Carls Foundation match, securing the million dollars necessary to conserve all five properties. To date, two of the five projects have been permanently protected, and the remaining three are all expected to close within the coming year. When all is said and done on this initiative, over 370 acres of ecologically and culturally significant land will be protected, forever.
While this is certainly a time for celebration, the future is never far from our minds. The need for funding to conserve important land in Washtenaw and Jackson counties doesn’t end with these five properties. Legacy has an exciting pipeline of conservation easement projects already in progress. Each comes with its own unique funding challenges, and its own authentic justification for protection.
We would like to thank the Carls Foundation for their commitment to conservation, and every individual, foundation, and organization who generously donated to help us cross this finish line. Like drops of rain converge to form rivers that carve through solid rock, so every gift makes possible our work of keeping soil open to receive the rain.