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Detroit Arboretum, Zoo Lead Connected-Habitat Restoration Project

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Monday, March 20, 2023   

By Tom Perkins for Planet Detroit.
Broadcast version by Mark Richardson for Michigan News Connection with support from the Solutions Journalism Network

Detroit Audubon, National Wildlife Federation, Arboretum Detroit and neighborhood groups are working on small and large-scale habitat restoration projects. The challenge is to connect them.

Detroit’s thinned-out Poletown neighborhood, swings and slides once in the underused, city-owned Callahan Park have been replaced with a new kind of playground, but this one isn’t for children. Instead, on an afternoon last fall, pollinators, insects and birds buzzed, fluttered and flew among showy goldenrod, Maximilian sunflowers and bee balm. 

The flowers and grasses were densely packed, stretching up to six feet in a native plant meadow designed to attract wildlife. So far, volunteers have documented 107 bird species, including indigo buntings, warblers and black-capped chickadees at the park, which is part of the city and Detroit Audubon’s Bird City habitat restoration initiative.

“We’re bringing back a habitat that has not been embraced here for some time,” said Ava Landgraf, research coordinator for the Detroit Audubon. “The amount of life happening there is very special.” 

Before southeast Michigan was developed into farmland or cities, it held prairies full of tall flowers and grasses, once again found on a smaller scale in Callahan. The space is one of a growing number of habitat restoration projects planned or happening in Detroit that aims to provide a nurturing home to the region’s native wildlife up and down the food chain, including deer, foxes, pheasants, coyotes, a range of birds, pollinators and insects. 

The effort is being carried out by multiple groups and individuals increasingly coordinating to redevelop a system of native habitats across Detroit. Among the restorations are larger neighborhood-scale initiatives like Callahan, “backyard” habitats, and native plant and rain gardens at churches or local businesses. 

Some organizers are coordinating with private-public partnerships responsible for the region’s growing number of large-scale green infrastructure projects, like the Detroit Tree Equity Partnership.

The efforts are critical to sustaining local wildlife because native plant habitats attract thousands of species of insects and lifeforms, said Shafkat Khan, director of conservation with the Detroit Zoo, which is taking on a leadership role.

“Birds and small mammals will get much of their energy from eating insects, like caterpillars, because they are energy-rich, so it seems like a really small idea, but that’s how energy captured by native plants gets transferred into higher parts of the food chain,” he told Planet Detroit. “The habitats are really enriching all the different empty spaces and niches of wildlife that we’re thinking about.”

The “native” part of the equation is critical. Native plants and trees, such as an oak tree, have had millions of years to build ecological relationships with the region’s wildlife and can support hundreds of caterpillars species and other insects that provide energy, Shafkat said. 

A non-native tree, like blue spruce, will not attract many insects that fuel animals higher up on Michigan’s food chain – like birds.

Part of the challenge in restoring wildlife habitats in Detroit is finding the green space to do it. Other cities, including those in the industrial heartland like Chicago or Cleveland, already have historically developed networks of nature preserves and well-maintained neighborhood open space. 

Detroit, by contrast, has relatively little to speak of. The dearth has deprived the city’s population of a nearby opportunity to connect to nature, representing a “glaring environmental justice” issue, Khan said. 

“People in the region haven’t had this longer-term ecological effort or ethic of caring for the environment that they live in,” he added. “It’s not the people’s fault, but it’s incumbent on [us] to make the connection, and that’s a huge challenge when we’re trying to involve stakeholders.” 

She said a major obstacle is access – municipal owners focused on development and tax base growth often hesitate to part with many parcels that will be used as green space. 

On the other hand, the situation does provide an opportunity to get people involved and effectively develop such spaces. 

And in post-industrial Detroit, the number of vacant parcels offers a chance to re-establish native habitats on a wide scale. 

Tiffany Carey, a senior education coordinator and engagement coordinator with the National Wildlife Federation, said she doesn’t think of the lots as vacant: “They are unactivated lots.” 

The ‘best you can ask for’

Among the new residents in Callahan: two pairs of nesting indigo buntings. Some who visited the meadows last spring and summer were treated to seeing the mothers feeding fledglings. 

“That’s pretty much the best you can ask for,” Landgraf said. “That keeps us motivated to do this work.” Callahan is one of five Detroit Bird City meadows, though it and another in Palmer Park were planted in 2019 and 2020, respectively, and are the furthest along.

Elsewhere around the city, projects of similar scale are underway or in the works. In Poletown, Arboretum Detroit has converted clusters of lots into tree nurseries and native habitat parks. Hundreds of oaks, eastern red cedars, sweetgums, eastern white pines, sumacs, sycamores, red maples and more are now rooted in the lots. 

The trees in the nurseries are traded to city residents in exchange for a small amount of labor, and Circle Park is a space meant to be enjoyed by people as much as wildlife. Next up, Arboretum Detroit is planning to reveal a similar project called Oxygen Alley, the group’s president, Andrew Kemp, said. 

The once vacant lots are protected from city mowers, dumping and other human activity that can spook wildlife, so birds and animals are returning to the spaces, Birch added. 

“The birds, foxes, critters all come back,” he said. “Since we formalized Arboretum Detroit four years ago, we can see the difference in the way wildlife behaves.”

Among the recent arrivals is a screech owl. 

“That was a moment for me: When I heard a screech owl, I was like, ‘Oh yeah!’” Kemp said.

The National Wildlife Federation is working closely with a group that collectively is among Detroit’s largest property owners: houses of worship. The Sacred Grounds Detroit program works with 19 faith-based entities across the city to implement native plant gardens and habitats on their properties.

Part of the motivation has been financial. The churches were hit with a surprise cost spike when the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department changed how it assessed drainage fees several years ago. Large rain garden installations have been a way to mitigate those costs while creating a native habitat that fosters wildlife, and some have planted native plant gardens. 

The program has also been an entry point into ecological stewardship for many residents and helped generate new appreciation for native plant species, Carey said. That kind of support and knowledge is key to re-establishing a stronger native habitat system in Detroit. Meanwhile, faith leaders are becoming “the spokespeople” for the projects, Carey said.

“They’re learning all the different benefits from an economic perspective – a climate change mitigation perspective, but also creating nature in their communities and having high-quality greenspace activation,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be in Belle Isle or on the riverfront, it can be in their community.”

Projects and project ideas abound. In North Corktown, a proposed greenspace project funded by Ford and managed by a neighborhood association is on hold as residents try to secure land. In Highland Park, the North End Woodward Community Coalition is developing plans to establish mini-science centers offering butterfly and bird sanctuaries within its three service areas. 

And in Core City, Paw Paw Park is proposing a 30-lot, 5.5-acre native habitat restoration project to remove all turf and invasive species and replace them with native plants and trees with walking paths. Its organizer, Ash Davis, said she’s putting funding in place and seeking parcels from the Land Bank, so the project’s timeline and scope are in the air for now. 

Davis stressed the importance of habitat restoration in Detroit. 

“You have to go really far away from Detroit to access a really nice natural area, so it has not only intrinsic value for the animals, plants, birds, pollinators, but also the community,” she said. “Humans need to have access to that kind of environment.”

Tom Perkins wrote this article for Planet Detroit.

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