Many of us know this line from a classic 70’s song “… you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” The inspiration for that came during Joni Mitchell’s first trip to Hawaii, when she opened the window of her hotel room, glanced out at the green mountains in the distance and then noticed that all around her, a parking lot stretched as far as the eye could see. That same vignette has played out in parts of northern Michigan as well.
Back when that song was written, the only permanent option to prevent uncontrolled development was public land ownership. But today, public-private partnerships between government, community-based land conservancies, and conservation-minded landowners have created something new that has protected millions of acres nationwide.
Since 2006, an enhanced federal tax deduction has encouraged landowners to donate conservation easements. These easements are donated to land conservancies to ensure that land is protected in perpetuity. In short, conservation easements are the single most important tool to protect the water quality of our inland waters and Great Lakes; protect our dunes and wild lands; and maintain the fabric of working farms and forest lands that makes northern Michigan a magnet for tourists and young entrepreneurs.
These agreements are flexible, allowing us to achieve different conservation outcomes in different areas. In Leelanau County conservation easements protect tributary streams flowing directly into Northport Bay and Lake Leelanau. They also protect 5,000 acres of working farmland. Donations to the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy have protected thousands of acres of farmland and forestland, much along scenic highway corridors or sensitive watersheds. These are just a few examples.
In many parts of northern Michigan, the protection of conservation lands has meant long-term economic stability for the region. The fruit growers in Acme and Old Mission who entered into these easements conserved their orchards. That helped give Shoreline Fruit the stable land base they needed to invest and upgrade their plant. In this sense, the easements not only protected cherished landscapes and a way of life, but also jobs for farmers and people that work processing fruit.