“Imagine a place within a busy city, where shady swamps harbor endangered spotted turtles, ancient reptiles whose dark shells glow with spots of brilliant yellow, gliding just below the water’s surface. Then imagine moving a short distance into a glacial lakeplain prairie, with fields of native grasses and flowers from the time when the glaciers last melted from the land of Southeast Michigan.”
Those words first appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of the Oakland Land Conservancy newsletter in reference to a parcel of undeveloped land on the north side of Square Lake Road between John R and Dequindre in the highly urbanized City of Troy. Fast forward to May 2018. Efforts of the former Oakland Land Conservancy, which eventually merged with other conservancies, and finally morphed into the Six Rivers Land Conservancy finally bore fruit in the form of the new Turtle Woods Preserve.
Turtle Woods is owned by the Troy School District, however ownership will soon transfer to Six Rivers Land Conservancy. Six Rivers is a non-profit land conservation organization working to sustain the quality and character of the natural resources in the watersheds of six major rivers. These six major rivers have a portion of their watersheds in Oakland County: The Belle, Clinton, Flint, Huron, Rouge and Shiawassee. Six Rivers is well suited for their new Turtle Woods role and their actions match the words of their mission statement: “Conserve, sustain, and connect natural areas, lands, and waters that make the places we live special.”
On the evening of May 9th, I joined about 35 others under a cloudy sky for the “Turtle Woods Preserve Exploration Hike.” Among that enthusiastic gathering of friends, neighbors, teachers, and representatives of the Troy School District, members of the Stage Nature Center, and the Troy Nature Society, was one-year-old “JJ” and an 81-year-young gentleman who thought it would be a great evening for a walk in a landscape he loved. I was warned the trail conditions would be primitive, without signage and with “significant wetlands, and thick understory”. That made it a “can’t miss” wilder side adventure for me, hidden away in one of the most developed sections of our county.
It was also the first official hike led by Six Rivers at Turtle Woods Preserve, a truly momentous occasion for all who fought so diligently to save this ecological significant parcel. Tina Catron, a friend and neighbor of Turtle Woods, and the marketing specialist for the Troy Nature Society, told me she, “Felt a sigh of relief knowing that this land would be preserved for generations to come.” One of the features that makes the land significant is the habitat supports a small population of spotted turtles, the rarest turtle species in Michigan. The evening started with the story of the spotted turtles presented by Christopher Bunch, the Executive Director of Six Rivers. His enthusiasm for the “polka-dot” turtle with yellow spots on its head, neck, legs and upper shell was contagious as he stood in the bed of his pickup truck and held up a photo.
Spotted turtles emerge from their winter slumber earlier than most turtles and spend a great deal of time basking on logs, muskrat houses, and grassy habitat such as those present at Turtle Woods. At night and during summer dormancy, they burrow under vegetation and sometimes crawl into mammal burrows. Unfortunately, the story of this species across its range is saddening. The sharp decline of spotted turtles across its range is from habitat destruction, the draining of wetlands, road mortality, nest predation, and illegal collection. The species is now listed as threatened in Michigan.
Spotted turtles however, when left undisturbed, do well in lakeplain habitats, one of the rarest ecosystems of Michigan. According to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, “Lakeplain wet prairie is a species-rich prairie community that occurs on the seasonally wet ground of glacial lakeplains in the southern Great Lakes region.” The Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy writes that only about 640-acres of quality lakeplain prairie habitat remaining in the State. That’s less than 1% of what existed before early Europeans settled in the country. Turtle Woods Preserve has an ecologically significant portion of lakeplain prairie.
As we hiked in a mostly single file line, and at times slipped on the narrow, natural surface pathway, the observation of coyote scat and deer tracks gave indisputable evidence of the two largest mammal species that live in the 80-acre, tough to penetrate, protected parcel. Light rain began to fall just as we emerged from the woods and entered the prairie. The increasing wind and swaying trees drowned out all urban noises just as Troy AP Environmental Science Teacher Robert Zynda began chatting with us about the biodiversity of the site, its history in respect to glaciation, the formation of the lakeplain prairie and the ongoing battle with invasive species to maintain the openings. Zynda also emphasized he’s been taking Troy High School students for on-site studies for over 20 years and has worked at Turtle Woods with scout groups on environmental projects.
After returning home, I reminisced on some of the super enthusiastic young children who were already fierce defenders and advocates for “their woods” even if it was just a place to get their feet muddy as they splashed in puddles and looked for “weird birds.” I wrote to Six Rivers, Executive Director for answers to two questions.
Q: I see different numbers for the acreage, can you clarify?
A: “Of the full 83-acres of the property, approximately 8-acres of frontage along Square Lake is upland, the majority of the economic value of the property is in that frontage. The balance, roughly 75-acres is wetland interspersed with lakeplain prairie. To maximize their financial return, the school is separating off the frontage and selling it to be developed, and transferring the balance 75+/- acres to Six Rivers, along with an endowment to help cover the costs of management and restoration. The school district will sell wetland mitigation credits from the wetland portion of the property to fund the endowment and provide some additional return to the school district. Six Rivers has begun forming relationships with neighbors, Troy residents, Stage Nature Center and The Nature Conservancy to assist with management and restoration of the property once we own it. This initial introductory hike was to reconnect with people and give them an idea of the coming opportunities.”
Q: The exploration hike is over, what happens next?
A: “Because this is a complex and technical process involving multiple public entities, including regulatory agencies, Six Rivers is concentrating all of its attention on the transactional process until that is completed and we hold the title. Once we own it, we will turn our attention to stewardship, restoration and access. In the meantime, we are glad to have our friends at Stage Nature Center and Troy Schools and the informal friends group, along with scout groups and other civic entities, help out with things like maintaining the existing trails, keeping it clean, preventing ORV/ATV use, etc., understanding that the property still belongs to Troy Schools and that it remains open to the public with the historic access points. Once we own it, we will look to working with these groups to create and implement formal access and management plans, and with The Nature Conservancy to undertake a serious and comprehensive restoration program to restore the lakeplain prairie habitat.”
The protection of this rare wildland habitat is no longer just a whimsical fantasy. It’s an idea that has turned into a fact that will enhance the quality of life in Oakland County. For more information on Turtle Woods Preserve or to become involved in Six River Land Conservancy programs, follow them on Facebook and sign up for “Email Updates” on their website to stay current on upcoming events, news, volunteer opportunities, and more. Connect to the “Nature Near You.”
Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.