All posts by Ben VanderWeide

About Ben VanderWeide

I am the Natural Areas Stewardship Manager for Oakland Township Parks and Recreation in southeast Michigan. I have a doctorate in biology (focused on plant ecology) and I am passionate about protecting and managing natural areas.

Land Preservation Millage Renewal on November 6 Ballot in Oakland Township

The Land Preservation Millage will be on the November 6, 2018 ballot for renewal at a rate of 0.6310 of one mill. The purpose of the millage is to continue to finance the acquisition and preservation of open green spaces within Oakland Township. The green spaces acquired with millage monies are representative of the natural and rural history of our Township and are permanently protected from residential or commercial development.

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A ‘yes’ vote will NOT increase the tax rate of Township property owners beyond its current level. A ‘yes’ vote will extend the time period of the authorized millage. The annual roll-back required by the Headlee Amendment would continue after the approval of this millage renewal.  For example, this millage was initially approved in 2001 at .75 of one mill, renewed in 2006 at .6916 of one mill and the current proposal is for .6310 of one mill.

Read on to learn more about what your Land Preservation Millage has accomplished since 2001. You can also select these links to check out the Land Preservation Millage timeline and some Frequently Asked Questions to learn more. The owner of a home with $125,000 taxable value will pay less than $7 per month for this millage. The millage will be used by Oakland Township during the 10-year millage period (2021-2030) for:

  • Acquisition of land or interests in land
  • Management of Oakland Township parks’ natural areas
  • Improvements to provide public access to park natural areas
  • Long-term care of park natural areas

Protecting our Natural Heritage and Rural Character since 2001

Oakland Township residents have always been proud of the rustic character of their township and abundant open space. Development pressure has reduced the amount of open space dramatically in recent decades, but voters have consistently supported land preservation efforts to maintain the rural character that makes our place special.

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In 1940, Oakland Township was a rural community with open, agricultural fields abundant throughout the area. Woodlots and wetlands dotted the landscape in areas that weren’t suitable for farming. Today houses and other development have replaced nearly all of the farm fields. With less demand for local wood products, forested areas are actually more common. Few large tracts of land are available for preservation.

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Bear Creek Nature Park and the surrounding areas in 1940 (left) and 2017 (right). Much of Oakland Township was an open agricultural landscape until the 1960s, when residential development pressure began to accelerate.

In 2000, Oakland Township voters overwhelmingly approved a 10 year, 0.75 mill land preservation millage, managed by the Parks & Recreation Commission. 170 additional acres were purchased using the first land preservation millage and grant funds. Those new properties included a 22 acre wooded addition to Cranberry Lake Park; the 10.5 acre Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie, with many rare plants; 60 acre Lost Lake Nature Park, with its special oak-pine barrens, and 90 acre Draper Twin Lake Park.

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A fall sunset illuminates the splendor of changing leaves at Draper Twin Lake Park.

Several additional large parcels became available around 2006, including the 60 acre parcel we now call Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. The existing millage had already been allocated to previous acquisition projects, so the Parks Commission asked the voters for an early renewal of the Land Preservation Millage in 2006 at a rate of 0.6916 of one mill. Again voters overwhelmingly approved the early renewal. Over 250 acres have been protected by the land preservation millage since it was renewed in 2006.

One of the parks protected through the millage renewal is Watershed Ridge Park, shown below. At 170 acres, this park protects a variety of forests, wetlands, and open fields. Watershed Ridge Park also has several active farm fields which help preserve the agricultural heritage of Oakland Township.

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Beautiful natural areas at Watershed Ridge Park.

We also added 6 acres to Lost Lake Nature Park with access to beautiful, spring-fed Green Lake. We protected 10.5 acres at O’Connor Nature Park, where the property was donated, and the millage paid for boundary survey, environmental assessment, and appraisal. We even protected a half acre fen along the Paint Creek Trail. While small, over 140 plant species have been documented from the Fen parcel, many specialists to the mineral-rich groundwater flow that define fen wetlands.

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Shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa) is a low shrub that is found in open, wet ground in high quality natural areas, like the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Fen.

As the second millage cycle ends, the parks commission is working to close on a 208 acre addition to Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. This beautiful parcel includes streams, hills, wetlands, and beautiful old trees.

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Aerial view of the 200+ acre expansion of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park that we hope to add in late 2018 or 2019.

Active Restoration Brings Back Birds, Blooms, and Butterflies!

The land preservation millage also helps us care for and restore the properties that we’ve protected. This allows us to preserve the natural heritage of Oakland Township for future generations. This work includes installing native prairie habitat plantings, including over 70 acres at Charles Ilsley Park, Draper Twin Lake Park, and Gallagher Creek Park.

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Prairie planting in the east field at Charles Ilsley Park. This area was restored using Land Preservation Millage funds and a $15,000 grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

We are also restoring fire-dependent ecosystems such as prairie, oak savanna, and some wetlands by re-introducing prescribed fire. We do regular monitoring and research, like our vernal pool surveys and photo monitoring. This helps us track how the natural areas are changing over time, and if our land management work is successful.

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Spring prescribed burn at Bear Creek Nature Park, 2018.

We want you to enjoy nature in our parks! Our education and outreach includes Wednesday morning bird walks, guest speakers, volunteer opportunities, workdays, and much more. Check out the Stewardship Events page on this website to learn more!

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Birders admire warblers in tree in early May, 2018. Photo by Tom Korb.
The Land Preservation Millage Renewal  is on the ballot for the November 6, 2018 general election with this wording: 


“Shall the Charter Township of Oakland be authorized to renew a levy of up to 0.6310 of one mill for a period of ten (10) years starting with the December 2021 levy for the purpose of continuing to provide funds and financing for the timely acquisition of land, the protection of natural habitat, and the preservation of green spaces within the Township? Approval of this proposal would renew the previously authorized tax limitation increase of approximately 63 cents per $1,000.00 of taxable value on all taxable property in the Township. Revenue from the levy renewal shall be disbursed to the Charter Township of Oakland. Based upon the projected 2021 Township wide taxable value, it is estimated that this proposal would result in authorization to collect up to $924,318 of revenue in the first year (2021) if this millage renewal is authorized and levied.”

Hunters of the Sky: Program with Live Raptors November 2!

You’ve probably seen red-tailed hawks riding thermals on sunny afternoons. Or you’ve heard owls hooting  mysteriously from the woods. These birds of prey are even more amazing up close, and we have an opportunity for you to see a live hawk, owl, and falcon on November 2! You’ll also get hands-on learning with feathers, skulls, and other bird parts in the Hunters of the Sky program. Sign up today to get in on this family-friendly program at Lost Lake Nature Park, led by Leslie Science and Nature Center!

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Lannis Smith, Wildlife Program Manager at Leslie Science and Nature Center, teaches with a beautiful barred owl.
  • Hunters of the Sky – Families (Ages 4 to Adult)
  • Friday, November 2, 2018 7:00 – 8:00pm Lost Lake Nature Park Warming Shelter, 846 Lost Lake Trail, Oakland, MI 48363
  • It’s all about survival! Three engaging raptors (such as a hawk, owl, falcon) will visit Lost Lake Nature Park to demonstrate and model their amazing survival characteristics and techniques. Hand-on explorations of feathers, skulls, and other bird parts provide a stimulating introduction to the Hunters of the Sky. Presented by Leslie Science & Nature Center.
  • Residents: $5 Non-residents: $7 Register by: October 26

Photo of the Week: Green Plants on a Snowy April Day

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Spindly moss sporophytes growing out of the green gametophyte. Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, 2017.

It was snowy this morning when I looked out the window. Yes, it was beautiful, and no, snow is not unusual in early April. But I’m getting a strong case of spring fever, so I needed to look for something green to brighten my day.

Enter mosses. They are the masters of shaking off a snowy day. One study found that Arctic mosses can ramp up photosynthesis within 332 seconds of snow removal. That’s less than 6 minutes! Mosses in southeast Michigan are equally hardy. They love the bright sunlight and moisture of early spring, ramping up photosynthesis quickly to soak up every bit of sun.

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Moss on the base of a tree at Blue Heron Environmental Area, February 2018.

With the constant change between beautiful, sunny days and wintry weather, we need to take a lesson from the playbook of mosses: catch every bit of sun possible. The forecast calls for sun this weekend, so where are my hiking boots…?

Fantastic, Forgotten Fields: Using Fire to Manage Open Habitat

When we spend a lot of time in a space, the sound, shadows, and ambience almost become part of our subconscious. The creakkkk of a floorboard as we walk through the living room. The drip of coffee slowly filling the pot in the morning. The rustle of pine boughs in a favorite patch of forest. The harsh call and boastful flash of color from red-wing blackbirds in a marsh. Our happy memories in these places make them special to us.

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Wild lupine in a prairie at Highland State Recreation Area, May 2017.

 

What about the natural spaces that have (almost) ceased to exist in our everyday lives? The prairies and oak savannas of Oakland Township used to have a signature rustle in the evening breeze. Fields of brightly lit prairies were punctuated by speckled shade under oak groves, and seasonal bouquets of native wildflowers marked the transition from spring to summer to fall. Until a few decades ago, the inhabitants of our township had been intimately familiar with the sights and sounds that defined our open oak lands in southeast Michigan for thousands of years.

We now assume that all fields should eventually grow into shrub thickets, then forests. But many plants, birds, insects, and other wildlife are prairie and savanna specialists, with connections to each other that were formed by living together in this landscape. They depend on us re-awakening memories of these fantastic, forgotten fields, doing the important work of making them new.

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The western slope at Bear Creek Nature Park was one of the units we burned in March 2018. This view is from August 2017. Photo by Cam Mannino.

So two weeks ago, with the help of our volunteer prescribed fire crew, that’s exactly what we set out to do. We assembled around noon at Bear Creek Nature Park. All the staff and volunteers that help on our burns have been trained to do prescribed fire, so they know the drill when they arrive. We double-checked our pre-burn list: introduce everyone on the burn crew and write names on helmets… check; call the fire department… check; walked trails around the burn unit… check; tested equipment… check; everyone is wearing the right gear… check;  weather and fuels meet our burn prescription… check. After reviewing the plan for the day, we headed out to begin burning. The fine grasses were nice and dry, though small patches of snow lingered in the shade on a north-facing slope.

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The western slope at Bear Creek Nature Park on the morning of March 23, 2018.

We started on the down-wind side, slowly letting the fire creep into the burn unit.

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Fire slowly backs into the wind.

As we built up a safe, burned buffer on the outside of the unit, we lit parts of the interior. The mowed trails kept the fire exactly where we wanted it, though we checked them often during the burn just to be sure.

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Mark lights part of the burn unit using a drip torch.

As we worked around the burn unit, we let the fire creep through patches of invasive autumn olive and multiflora rose. The slow-moving flames will do more damage to the shrubs than a fire that passes quickly.

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Joan watches fire advance slowly into the shrubs. Photo courtesy of Mike & Joan Kent.

After we got around the outside of the burn unit, we stepped back to let the fire crawling through the interior finish its work. Then we walked through the area one more time to put out anything that was still smoking.

We had a nice mix of experienced staff, returning volunteers, and new volunteers. By the end of the burn, everyone got a chance to try the different pieces of equipment and responsibilities on the burn crew. And we had fun!

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Alex, Joan, Mike, and Dan are all smiles after a good burn at Bear Creek Nature Park on March 23, 2018. Photo courtesy of Mike and Joan Kent.

The fire likely top-killed the invasive shrubs in our burn unit. We’ll still need to treat any that sprout again in the summer, but fire did a lot of work for us in a few hours. The black soil will warm more quickly than areas that haven’t been burned, extending the growing season for the plants. In a few weeks we’ll see a fresh fuzz of green growth carpeting these areas. We will spread seed of more native grasses and wildflowers so that they can establish in the newly opened soil.

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The western slope at Bear Creek Nature Park after our burn on March 23, 2018.

That March afternoon was a fine day for making new memories. Our memories of working together as a team to restore grassland habitat are an important part of natural areas stewardship. We only care for the things we value. The township residents that walk these fields will see the dramatic change, watch the landscape grow over the summer, and make their own memories. Hopefully most of the visitors will see the signs we posted, explaining why we use prescribed fire. A few will go home a look up more information. And maybe some will join our team next time we do a prescribed burn!

Natural Areas Stewardship 2017 Annual Report

After three years of consistent stewardship work in key project areas, we are beginning to see good results. New wildflower species were found at the Wet Prairie along the Paint Creek Trail. Invasive shrubs were cleared from over 20 acres at Watershed Ridge Park and Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. Prairie species planted a few years ago at Draper Twin Lake Park and Charles Ilsley Park began to flower. And more people like you got involved in the adventure through bird walks, volunteer workdays, nest boxes, potlucks, and stewardship talks. What fun! Check out the highlights of the year below, or read the full 2017 Annual Stewardship Report (click link to view).

Volunteer Program

Volunteers contributed 637 hours in 2017! Weekly bird walks were well attended. For the first time we hosted a summer stewardship potluck to help build our conservation community. Volunteer workdays focused on garlic mustard (May), invasive shrub control (July to November), and seed collecting (October). Volunteers also helped with maintenance of native plant gardens, prescribed fire, vernal pool monitoring, and building nest boxes.

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Students from Eagle Creek Academy helped us install native trees and shrubs at Gallagher Creek Park.

Volunteer Tom Korb led the effort to revitalize nest boxes in our parks. Tom built nearly 30 nest boxes for installation at Charles Ilsley Park and Draper Twin Lake Park. We hope to see more breeding bluebirds, kestrels, and other cavity-nesting birds in our parks in the future!

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Volunteer Tom Korb led the design, construction of nest boxes for Charles Ilsley Park and Draper Twin Lake Park. Nest boxes will be installed and monitored in 2018.

Prairie Restoration with USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife Grants

Using our second Partners grant we prepared sites for planting 15 acres of native prairie plants at Charles Ilsley Park and 3 acres at Gallagher Creek Park. Planting was delayed until spring 2018 due to seed shortages, but that will give us a little more time to get the site in good shape. We continued maintenance of areas planted in 2015 and 2016, working to give native plants the upper hand during the critical establishment phase.

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Native plants in newly planted fields at Charles Ilsley Park provide habitat for wildlife and pollinators.

Prescribed Burns

We contracted with Plantwise LLC for spring burns at Cranberry Lake Park, Lost Lake Nature Park, and Marsh View Park. We also worked with private landowners to burn habitat adjacent to the Paint Creek Trail right-of-way, including high quality oak savanna, prairie remnants, and fen wetland. We held volunteer prescribed burn crew training again in February. The volunteer crew completed burns at Marsh View Park, Paint Creek Heritage Area—Wet Prairie, and the Art Project prairie north of Gallagher Road along the Paint Creek Trail.

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The volunteer prescribed fire crew is all smiles after a successful burn at the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie, Spring 2017. Photo by Sue Greenlee.

Stewardship Blog

The stewardship blog continued to thrive with regular posts from Cam Mannino. The blog also continued to serve as an up-to-date source of information about stewardship volunteer opportunities and events. We published 52 posts and had 5324 visitors, with 8797 page views. Natural Areas Notebook, oaklandnaturalareas.com

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Education Events

Stewardship hosted education events in early 2017. Topics included the importance of protecting public land in Michigan, reptiles and amphibians of Michigan, and prescribed fire in Oakland Township parks.

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David Mifsud leads a presentation about Michigan reptiles and amphibians, including the eastern massasauga rattlesnake.

Phragmites Outreach Program

We continued the Phragmites Outreach Program to help township residents get Phragmites treated on their property. We received about 33 requests for no-obligation cost estimates, and treated about 21 properties with a contractor, PLM Lake and Land Management.

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Photo monitoring is used to track the success of Phragmites treatment. This photo point at Gallagher Creek Park shows Phragmites growing thick on the edge of Silver Bell Road before the treatment program began. Photo point GCP03. August 28, 2014.

Seasonal Technicians

We had one technician return for 2017, Zach Peklo. Zach came to us from Grand Valley State University studying natural resources management with an emphasis on Geographic Information Systems. New to our crew as seasonal land stewardship technicians in 2017 were Josh Auyer and Billy Gibala. Josh graduated from Calvin College in May 2017 with a degree in Biology. Billy graduated from University of Michigan – Flint in spring 2017 with a degree in wildlife biology and a minor in regional and urban planning. Alex Kriebel also returned to our crew as a Stewardship Specialist, bringing additional experience in natural areas management from his work with Oakland County Parks and Recreation.

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(L-R) Ben, Zach, Alex, Josh, and Billy, our 2017 natural areas stewardship team.

All of our annual reports can be found on the About page.