BELLAIRE — It’s been five decades since Grass River Natural Area became a nature preserve.

Friends and supporters of the preserve will gather Thursday at Shanty Creek Resort to celebrate that historical event, as well as raise funds for continued educational programs at the Antrim County spot.

The nonprofit’s annual benefit will this year feature a talk by preserve founder Warren Studley of Traverse City.

He said the preservation of the land around the Grass River was a stroke of good luck.

“Lucky to be at the right place at the right time,” Studley said. “It was in the stars. Everything came together wonderfully.”

Studley was a conservation officer with the local soil conservation service 50 years ago when the opportunity to protect the special place from development forever presented itself.

He said an economic recession was underway at the time and the federal government had provided ample grant dollars for urban programs. Then the U.S. Department of Agriculture freed up some money for rural programs.

“Some of the funding was available to buy wetlands,” Studley said. “And it’s a really unique place. There are ospreys, eagles, beaver, bear, all sorts of wildlife and flowers.”

Betsy Willis, the natural area’s development coordinator, said while the 1,492-acre preserve has been there for 50 years, awareness of the spot and its growing educational programs really took off after the construction of the nature center building in 2011.

She said it’s an honor to have Studley participate in the 50th anniversary celebration.

“He really is the person who started the dream,” Willis said.

This year, the annual benefit event has been dubbed the Grass Riverfest, billed as an evening of fun, food and fundraising for the nonprofit nature preserve.

“It’s a big anniversary. We are 50 years old,” Willis said.

The event will feature jazz music by the Steve Stargardt Trio, along with a cash bar and what organizers call a “strolling dinner.” Both live and silent auctions also will help bolster the nonprofit’s coffers.

All proceeds from the event will benefit the agency’s mission to manage the Grass River Natural Area, conserve and protect its watershed and provide opportunities that increase knowledge, appreciation and community-wide stewardship of the natural environment.

Tickets cost $60 and will be available at the door, Willis said.

More information about the preserve and its benefit event is available at www.grassriver.org online, or by calling 231-533-8314.

“It’s a big anniversary. We are 50 years old.” Betsy Willis, development coordinator

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