HARBERT — Chikaming Open Lands (COL) formally closed on the purchase of 14 acres of woodland and wetland near the lakefront in Harbert on Oct. 14.

The Harbert Road Woods property expands COL’s existing 5-acre Harbert Woods Preserve and connects to its neighboring 9-acre The Woods Preserve, creating a corridor of nearly 30 acres of protected land along Harbert Road west of Red Arrow Highway.

According to a COL press release, the acreage to expand the preserve was acquired thanks to a grassroots fundraising effort led by a group of neighbors determined to ensure the property remained undeveloped. More than 460 individuals and organizations participated in the campaign to raise the $1.4 million needed to complete the purchase of the property and protect this valuable woodland and wetland in perpetuity.

“It’s really fantastic what the neighbors and community were able to accomplish in a relatively short time with this fundraising campaign,” said COL Executive Director Ryan Postema. “There was a high likelihood that this property would have been divided and developed with multiple homes, but it was also the missing link to create a corridor of nature preserves along Harbert Road. The volunteers and donors really stepped up and the community came together in an extraordinary way to ensure it was protected.”

As explained by Brooke Long, one of the leaders of the neighborhood Save Harbert Road Woods Committee, “We were spurred to action by the sound of trees being cut down (for a new road). Within days, a group of concerned neighbors gathered to discuss the property and the potential to acquire and protect it. Longtime residents shared the history and importance of the property as the centerpiece to the potential 30-acre conservation corridor. Our team agreed that we must act fast to protect it, or else the forest would be lost in the Covid-era housing boom and the character of Harbert would change forever.”

COL was ultimately able to negotiate a deal with the owner for two parcels of valuable mature forest and wetland to expand and connect the preserves on Harbert Road. Also located in close vicinity is Critter Haven Preserve, another COL-protected property in the corridor.

“It’s unusual to find this much undeveloped, natural landscape so close to the lakefront in this area,” said Postema. “Creating these conservation corridors along the lakeshore is important for a number of reasons – the wetlands help filter groundwater before it enters Lake Michigan and woodland areas along the lake create a safe flyway for migratory birds.”

With the successful completion of the acquisition, Long said, “At the heart of Harbor Country we have discovered a community who deeply values the natural environment and shares a love of protected, open spaces. By engaging this broad community in creative ways, we reached more than 460 donors and completed the campaign against many odds (a short timeline, a high value property, raising funds during a pandemic). We feel immensely grateful to Chikaming Open Lands, our local land conservancy, who makes it possible for us all to live by our values. This was a true grassroots effort – individuals, families, and local businesses came together to create a legacy asset that will be enjoyed for generations to come.”

The expanded nature preserve will be open to the public in the future for passive recreational activities such as hiking, cross-country skiing, or bird-watching/wildlife-viewing. COL and the neighbors envision developing a short hiking trail through the woods with pedestrian access from Harbert Road to allow the community to visit and enjoy the beauty of the preserve.

Chikaming Open Lands is the local land conservancy dedicated to preserving the open spaces and natural rural character of southern Berrien County. COL works to protect and restore native plant and animal habitat, improve water quality, and permanently preserve ecologically significant forests, prairies and wetlands, as well as prime farmland and other open spaces in this area. COL serves nine townships in southwest Berrien County, and has been instrumental in protecting more than 2,000 acres of open space since its founding in 1999.

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