GUEST BLOGGER: Tom Leonard
Mr. Leonard examines the virtues of Grand Rapids and surrounding landscape from the perspective of a place-centered eco-ethic. I concur, take a stand for what you believe in the place that you love.
For the last century and more, Michigan has had a reputation as a world-class industrial leader on the one hand, and an outdoor paradise on the other. This contrast between city and wilderness, between the populated centers and the remote retreats, imbues and enhances the Michigan experience. And nowhere in the state is that contrast any more clear than here in metropolitan Grand Rapids and the central West Michigan region.
I like to say that Grand Rapids is now Michigan’s first city. That may not be so in population, geographical extent or capital investment. But it is so in one very important respect: reputation. Grand Rapids is the Michigan city that all Michiganians can take pride in. Grand Rapids is the Michigan city that, year in and year out, seems to work best.
Manufacturing, arts and entertainment, social diversity, bipartisanship, business innovation, industrial design, architecture, infrastructure, history, spiritual leadership. All these things are a part of our capital, points of our pride.
But we are not made important by sheer bigness or by the works of the human population here.
Take a ride out from the center of Grand Rapids, in any direction you like, and in half an hour you may find you have touched a piece of Michigan’s great wilderness heritage.
Go north and you will find black bear habitat almost as close as the Grand Rapids suburbs, with occasional documented visits from creatures of the ursine persuasion. Half an hour to the south, if you know where to look, you can find what may be the southernmost nesting pair of common loons in North America.
To the east the Grand River and its tributaries wind away, the traditional home of the beaver, mink, river otter, and other species seldom seen since the days of the Astor fur traders, but now returning to our waters.
And to the West, of course, the lake itself, and the animals and plants that reside within it. Along the Lake Michigan coast, in our estuaries and rivers, the bald eagle plunges and the lake sturgeon turns a solemn, Devonian profile. In the wetlands and cornfields, sandhill cranes have grown abundant in central and west Michigan. Few things are more plainly inhuman, in the prehistoric sense, than the sight of the cranes arriving in their wild roosting areas at dusk.
A lot of people don’t know that our area provides a foothold for many endangered and threatened species, especially birds. Thomas Funke, the resident manager of the Michigan Audubon’s Otis Sanctuary in Barry County, reports that the Barry State Game Area is home to seven of Michigan’s nine globally imperiled bird species. They include Henslow’s sparrow, the golden-winged warbler, redheaded woodpecker, northern bobwhite, and the olive-sided flycatcher.
In fact, Funke notes that whooping cranes, among the world’s rarest birds, have been reported in West Michigan three years running.
Part of what makes it possible to see rare bird species in West Michigan is the availability of some remaining large tracts of contiguous woodland habitat. Barry State Game Area is one of a number of such areas, otherwise rare in the southern part of the state. The Allegan and Middleville State Game Areas are also nearby. Some of the species mentioned above could not persist in an area with less than 4,000 or 5,000 acres.
Thoreau called these creatures his “brute neighbors.” Part of the formula for sustainability of any community involves the welfare of our brute neighbors. These fellow West Michiganians, whose existence may be barely noticeable to many of us, are part of the community we hope to sustain with our green buildings, 21st-century designs and renewable power sources, our agricultural resources and policies, our pollution scrubbers, transit vehicles, and infrastructure.
We may think we are being generous to them if we sustain them. But really we are being generous to ourselves.
Whether you are a birder or sportsman or just an alert hiker, much of the charm and wonder of your chosen region will have to do with its wildlife. For my own part, I would like to see our wildlife flourishing in a way it does not now. A flourishing wildlife requires room, especially the room to be seldom visited, to be left alone. Small inroads and appearances, even by careful, well-intentioned people, test their sometimes precarious existence. A diverse wildlife, by contrast, requires diverse habitats. Indeed, they may be dependent on systems of natural habitat stretching well beyond our borders.
A hopeful effort to systematically protect local natural areas and wildlife is the Green Infrastructure concept being developed by the West Michigan Strategic Alliance, a regional planning group. The notion of green infrastructure suggests how nature, instead of being regarded as an impediment to economic growth and development, or as the absence of useful endeavor, needs instead to be considered as an amenity, and allowed to grow in proportion with the region as a whole.
Government policy, instead of refereeing the gradual destruction of wildlife habitat over time, needs to reflect and support such values.