COVID-19 spurs visits to nature sanctuaries

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Map of trails and natural features at Nan Weston Preserve at Sharon Hollow.

By Kirsten Rintelmann
Capital News Service

Michigan residents have spent more time outdoors, visiting conservancy-owned preserves and sanctuaries, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

That higher use of conservancy-owned locations across the state mirrors the experience at state and national public lands where the public sought outdoor recreation while the pandemic was limiting indoor activities.

“A key objective is not giving just an outdoor experience, but also teaching,” said Helen Taylor, the state director of the Nature Conservancy in Michigan. “Our hope is to educate the public.”

“Land conservancies, also known as land trusts, are community-based, nonprofit organizations dedicated to the permanent protection and stewardship of natural and working lands for the public good,” according to Bay City-based Heart of the Lakes, which represents such organizations across the state.

Taylor said the Nature Conservancy has protected 390,000 acres in Michigan and has 26 preserves, plus four reserves “that are our laboratories where we are conducting forestry practices.”

The most frequently visited preserves owned by the Nature Conservancy in Michigan are: Nan Weston Nature Preserve at Sharon Hollow in Manchester, Washtenaw County, Zetterberg Preserve at Point Betsie, Benzie County, and Ross Coastal Plain Marsh Preserve in Covert, Van Buren County.

She said she believes the COVID-19 pandemic significantly contributed to that increase.

According to Taylor, Ross Coastal Plain Marsh Preserve saw an enormous increase in visitors this past summer and fall compared to past years.

“They can’t connect with people, but they want to connect with something,” Taylor said of the visitors.

The Land Conservancy of West Michigan, based in Grand Rapids, has 17 preserves.

Its two most-visited are Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area in Saugatuck and the Highlands in Grand Rapids, said Kim Karn, the organization’s development director.

According to Karn, public use of Land Conservancy of West Michigan-owned properties went up last summer and fall.

“We have no scientific way of counting,” she said. “We could tell by the parking lots were full and the use of the trails. People, of course, were social distancing.”

Heart of the Lake cautions on its website that though the use of the land is encouraged, the pandemic requires “some serious adjustments.”

“Please use your head and take the most precautionary approach you can so we may keep our fellow Michiganders safe and our public lands, parks and trails open,” the organization said.

In addition to encouraging visitors, the Nature Conservancy has created virtual experiences to enable more people to still enjoy its preserves and not leave their homes.

Its video tours allow people, such as the elderly or those who don’t feel comfortable and want a safer alternative, to experience the preserves, Taylor said.

“Our ability to reach people has increased,” she said. “We will never go back to doing just the traditional types of events. We will continue to do these video tours.”

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