Children
Children frolic with a butterfly net at the Chippewa Nature Center's summer day camp in Midland.

By F. Michael Kunz

Environmental protection and recreation do not always have to be the job of government. Voluntary, community-based nonprofits are getting into the act as well.

Two private Midland County nonprofit groups, the Chippewa Nature Center and the Little Forks Conservancy, provide a blueprint for private environmental preservation, education, and recreation by reducing government involvement and harnessing individual initiative.

The aim of Little Forks Conservancy (LFC) is to protect pristine stretches of Midland County from development. Property owners permanently donate the right to develop their land to the Conservancy, and this "conservation easement" stays with the land in perpetuity. The Conservancy then monitors use of the land, making sure the easement's rules are obeyed. Nationwide, there are 800 such conservancies. Michigan claims 40 of them.

Landowners have incentives to donate their land to conservancies: Donations of easements are income, estate, and property tax deductible. Little Forks Conservancy Executive Director Douglas Koop says "the financial end is the icing on the cake" for individuals who want to protect their property for future generations.

Private operations, such as the Chippewa Nature Center (CNC), provide life-enriching contact with the environment for the citizens of a community. "We don't charge any admission fee at our front door, which makes us unique. You can come right in and enjoy our exhibits," notes Executive Director Richard Touvell. Yearly, an estimated fifty thousand visitors use the center's 14 miles of hiking and cross-country ski trails that meander through the 1,032-acre center.

CNC's highlights include numerous wetlands and habitat areas, a nature day camp in the summer for schoolchildren, examples of historical Native American and European homes, and a visitor center that will feature an 88-seat auditorium, bookstore, and exhibits following the completion of renovations in the fall of 2000.

Operating without a state mandate or financing has numerous advantages, in spite of the obvious fundraising challenges. First, a privately funded endowment provides budget stability and security to the CNC, contributing roughly 80% of its annual $950,000 budget. This takes the conservancy out of the highly politicized government budget cycle with which state parks must contend.

Second, private management gives CNC greater flexibility than would government management. "We have fewer layers of bureaucracy; we can turn around our organization rather quickly if we need to," observes Touvell.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, an 800-member volunteer group contributes roughly 12,000 hours of service annually. This is equivalent to adding six additional full-time staff members to the center's 14-member staff.

Community organizations and individuals set up private, voluntary nonprofits such as the Chippewa Nature Center not because of government mandates, but out of a love for protecting the environment. Avoiding state funding and control may be key to their successes. State and local officials concerned with environmental protection may wish to look to these private efforts for guidance in protecting Michigan's environmental landscapes.

F. Michael Kunz is a research intern with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and a political economy major in James Madison College at Michigan State University.