Michigan Nature Association celebrates 60th anniversary

By: Brad D. Bates | Shelby - Utica News | Published April 23, 2012

 Old-growth trees like this beech are part of the unique ecosystem at the Wilcox-Warnes Nature Sanctuary in Shelby Township.

Old-growth trees like this beech are part of the unique ecosystem at the Wilcox-Warnes Nature Sanctuary in Shelby Township.

Photo by Brad D. Bates


SHELBY TOWNSHIP — When the Michigan Nature Association returns to “celebrate its roots,” the phrase takes on several meanings.

When the MNA hosted a hike through the Wilcox-Warnes Nature Sanctuary in Shelby Township April 18 as part of its 60th anniversary odyssey tour, it was a unique opportunity for the group that was founded by bird aficionados who frequented what was then known as Metropolitan Beach Metropark in Harrison Township.

“The MNA traces its roots back to Macomb County,” MNA President Stephen Kelley said. “In 1952, there was a group of bird-watching enthusiasts who would frequent Metro Beach, and they wanted to do more to protect and preserve native habitats.”

According to the MNA’s website, www.michigannature.org, its first initiative came in 1951 when it was known as the St. Clair Metropolitan Beach Sanctuary Association and it objected to the destruction of a tern colony at Metropolitan Beach.

The group was successful in that effort and started leading nature tours and exhibits throughout the state. In 1954, the group changed its name to the Macomb Nature Association and started a traveling nature exhibit that went to schools throughout Macomb and St. Clair counties.

In 1960, the group started to undertake the initiatives that are its trademark today, as its first nature sanctuary was established after it purchased 40 acres in St. Clair County that is now known as the Louis G. Senghas Memorial Nature Sanctuary.

As the group continued to grow and acquire more land, it changed its name again to the Eastern Michigan Nature Association in 1965 and further growth necessitated another change to its current moniker in 1970.

But, as members strolled through their only preserve in Macomb County, the group was brought back to its roots figuratively and literally.

“Over the years, we’ve expanded statewide; unfortunately, this is our only sanctuary in Macomb County,” Kelley said.

While it only owns one property in Macomb County, the MNA is unique in that its preserves are privately owned by the organization, so all plant and animal species on the premises are protected by private property laws — meaning the roots on the preserves are literally the MNA’s roots.

At the 44-acre Wilcox-Warnes Nature Sanctuary, those species include rare large, mature tulip trees, as well as some 100-year-old trees that were never harvested by loggers or felled to make way for farming.

The Wilcox-Warnes Nature Sanctuary was originally named the Wilcox Sanctuary when it was donated to the MNA in 1975 by Anna Wilcox, granddaughter of the property’s first owner, David Wilcox, and Harold Warnes, who had worked on the property since 1912.

When Warnes died in 1976, the sanctuary was renamed Wilcox-Warnes Sanctuary.

“The southern part of the property was only selectively timbered over the last 100 years,” Kelley said. “The land was donated by the family that owned it after it was awarded to them by President Andrew Jackson.

“So there was only one owner, and we’re very honored to be the second owner.”

With the group’s expansion encompassing 58 counties across the state, administration and management of the local sanctuaries falls largely to local volunteer “stewards” and businesses like Diamond Die of Warren, which donated time and supplies to build boardwalks around the Wilcox-Warnes Sanctuary.

But the work at the individual sanctuaries falls to the steward who, according to the group’s website, “is a person who volunteers their time to protect and maintain a specific sanctuary in a specific part of Michigan.

“An MNA steward believes in the mission and goals of MNA, and volunteers their time in monitoring, special projects and educational events at a sanctuary.”

“We try to have one volunteer for each sanctuary,” Kelley said. “We need them there because they’re our eyes and ears, literally.”

As those eyes and ears, no one knows the sanctuaries better than local stewards.

“It looks different every time I come here,” Wilcox-Warnes steward Martha Wolfe of Macomb Township said of what she enjoys most of her little slice of paradise.

“Seeing it in the different seasons is amazing, too, and it feels special because it is Macomb County’s only MNA sanctuary.”

Wolfe said she enjoys the tranquility of the sanctuary and its proximity to her home, and she has found that all one needs to truly enjoy its benefits is a little time and patience.

“Spend some time on the trails, be quiet and look closely because some of the stuff out here is not real obvious,” Wolfe said of the the trails — she suggests wearing waterproof shoes and possibly bringing a good set of binoculars or camera.

“And don’t be afraid to come out here. This you can do if you just have a half hour to hike.”

It’s the sense of ownership of the local stewards and the physical ownership of the MNA that are at the core of the group’s mission.

The MNA explains its goals as “a nonprofit conservation organization committed to the protection and maintenance of special natural areas throughout the state.”

In its 60 years, the MNA has amassed more than 10,000 acres from the northern tip of the Upper Peninsula to the state’s southern borders with Indiana and Ohio.

It currently has more than 170 sanctuaries, and the reason why the exact number is not known is because some are home to such rare and sensitive plant species that the MNA does not release the location and barely acknowledges their existence.

“I can’t tell you where, exactly,” Kelley said after explaining that there is a sanctuary in the Upper Peninsula that is home to a colony of rare ferns that are found in mere handfuls in a few secluded pockets around the nation.

“I can’t tell you that,” Kelley said when asked what kind of fern it was.

That’s the level of dedication the MNA has to its cause as its members scout, acquire and maintain the sanctuaries — not for themselves, but for the native species and plants that preceded them with the hope that they will continue.

“We seek to preserve native Michigan habitats and to protect rare and endangered Michigan species,” Kelley said.

“This is open all the time,” Kelley added of the Wilcox-Warnes Sanctuary’s open access to any who wish to hike and explore its trails.

“A number of our preserves have extremely sensitive species, though, and we want to make sure that they continue to have those species, so they’re closed to everyone.”