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First person: Conservation and community

Connecting to the lives and livelihoods at the heart of land preservation

Fall 2017 | By Heather Shumaker

The story of saving Arcadia began for me in the basement of Science Hall, the domain of the Nelson Institute. We didn’t call it the Nelson Institute back then. In the 1990s it was still IES, the Institute for Environmental Studies. I was a Land Resources student brimming full of ideas about forest ecology and conservation biology, and eager to try them out.

Heather Shumaker
Heather Shumaker

Most days I passed through the Nelson Institute library, where I saw book titles like Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature. I didn’t like the title – too depressing – but McKibben and others were thoughtful and committed, and in my view, whenever thoughtful and committed people start working, the results can be impressive.

That’s the attitude I took with me as I was hired by a northern Michigan land trust as a land protection specialist. The very job title tantalized me. When I arrived in Michigan, though, I discovered it wasn’t the forest or coastal dune systems that were hard to understand. It was the people.

Despite having designed my thesis around land trusts and written countless academic papers about landowners and stakeholders, the truth was I was scared of them. My first week on the job terrified me. I was expected to reach out to landowners and suddenly I wished I’d taken more classes in public speaking and psychology and fewer in ecology and biology.

I spent the next eight years getting to know the people of northern Michigan. Bakers and innkeepers, orchard farmers and summer visitors, politicians and corporate executives. It took all these people to save a spectacular Great Lakes landscape like that of Arcadia. My recent book, Saving Arcadia, tells the story of saving this 6,000-acre landscape.

Arcadia Dunes
Arcadia Dunes (Photo by Drew Smith).

It explores the complexities of modern-day conservation. Most of all, it is an on-the-ground conservation adventure story. It’s the kind of book I wish I could have read as an environmental studies student preparing for real-world challenges. It’s the story of hard work and heartache, of human and nonhuman species, but mostly of hope. Saving Arcadia is that rare thing: a good news environmental success story.

When I arrived in Michigan, my eyes zeroed in on maps showing the Arcadia Dunes – a big block of 6,000 acres owned by CMS Energy. Conservation principles I’d learned at the Nelson Institute drove me on. Gamma diversity. Forest interior habitat. Big blocks of habitat are good. Big blocks with rare and threatened species are even better.

For the next eight years, I worked to preserve a landscape, not just a block of land. The Arcadia land is a mix of rare coastal habitat, good quality forest, lower quality forest, and cultivated orchard land. Preserving the wild land I cared most about meant engaging with local cherry farmers and designing a plan that included agriculture compatible with habitat goals.

The result is the very face of 21st century conservation: landscape preservation that includes wild habitat and economic livelihoods. Some land at Arcadia Dunes is a nature preserve. Some land can be logged or farmed. One area is a grassland preserve managed with creative partnerships, such as farmers haying the fields after ground-nesting birds have finished their nesting season.

Like any ambitious project, saving Arcadia involved money – millions of dollars. Fundraising is surely as much a part of conservation as scientific principles. Principles guide us in where to put our energies, but funding turns it into action.

Saving Arcadia

To me, conservation work is thrilling. Many days are stressful, but taking action for environmental good is exhilarating. That’s what I wanted to share in Saving Arcadia — what it’s like behind the scenes at the front lines of conservation. How much hope and heart and determination it takes. I hoped that this optimistic story would rub off on others.

So far, that’s beginning to happen. One reviewer said that it is accounts like this that turn ordinary people into environmental activists. And a young AmeriCorps volunteer wrote to say, “Your book has given me a new spark to my conservation career. Now, I hope to get accepted to an ecological restoration program and continue restoring lands across the country.”

We all need hope to continue our vital conservation work. Meetings, research and grants may get the work done, but love of the land and inspiration is what keeps us going.

Two decades after I walked through the Science Hall basement library, I was especially touched when Bill McKibben reported back after reading Saving Arcadia, saying “This is a lovely book. Stories like this provide deep and abiding hope.”

May you find hope for your own work in its pages.

Heather (Rigney) Shumaker is the author of Saving Arcadia: A Story of Conservation and Community in the Great Lakes. A 1997 Land Resources graduate, she has worked in land conservation for two decades. Previously the coastal program director for protecting Arcadia Dunes, she is now a full-time author living in Traverse City, Michigan.

WHAT DO YOU SAY? In Common welcomes engaging first-person essays from Nelson Institute alumni on topics related to your lives, professions or perspectives. To send an idea for an essay, or a draft to be considered for publication email:

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