Lonnie Kester: A farmer with a vision builds a public trail

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Lonnie Kester bought an abandoned rail corridor and made a public recreation trail. Photo by Howard Meyerson.

By Howard Meyerson

Lonnie Kester grew up on a Michigan farm and farming is his life. But the 58-year-old family man from Millington – a rural village northeast of Flint – is known for more than his agri-business interests. Though he farms 3,900 acres and sits on the boards of the Tuscola County Farm Bureau and Genesee County Fair, he is as likely to strike up a conversation about rail-trails, his passion.

Kester loves to talk with cyclists on the Southern Links Trailway, the 10.2-mile abandoned Penn Central Railroad corridor he bought and later developed for public use with the help of the Michigan Departments of Transportation and Natural Resources. The rural bike path runs through farm country. Its scenic route is enjoyed by thousands annually. It is part of U.S. Bike Route 20, which extends from Marine City, Michigan to the Oregon coastline, and it is a link in the 774-mile Iron Belle cycling trail, proposed by Michigan Governor, Rick Snyder.

“I never dreamed of making it a trail,” notes Kester, who lives with his wife, Carol, outside of Millington, the trailway’s northern trailhead. “We bought it in 1998 because we needed 1,000 feet to get to another farm we bought. Tessenderlo Kearly, the company that owned it, didn’t want to sell 1,000 feet. They wanted to sell 7.42 miles of it. Fifteen thousand dollars seemed like a good deal.”

Such a good deal

A good deal, indeed, but Kester would invest far more once he committed to developing a public trail. The remaining 2.74 available miles would cost him $110,000 in 2004. Disputes about other parcels would cost more yet. There were legal challenges too and other complications. But, Kester is known to be determined once he sets a goal. He borrowed money, with interest, to clear the financial hurdles and spent more than $500,000 with no guarantee he would see a return.

“When I bought it I didn’t know if I would recoup any of the money,” Kester explains. “I bought it with faith that this corridor would, one way or another, become a trail. I had several offers to sell it off, and I turned them down and those folks got mad, but I didn’t want to break it up. I told everyone here, ‘This is bigger than any of us.’ It’s a wonderful thing. Rich men and poor men are equal on the trail.” Continue reading

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A cold day in May paddling for wooden canoe enthusiasts

This gallery contains 5 photos.

It was a day of rain, sleet and snow. Winds were barreling down from the northwest, but that didn’t keep these intrepid paddlers from gathering as they do this time of year. Michigan chapter members of the Wooden Canoe Heritage … Continue reading

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Awash in Microplastics: Great Lakes Studies Raise Questions


Schooner Inland Seas sails on  Grand Traverse Bay as students study microplastics in the Great Lakes. Photo courtesy of ISEA.

By Howard Meyerson

When the schooner Inland Seas slips her berth at Suttons Bay on June 24, her captain, crew and passengers will share in a voyage of discovery—a two-hour educational journey under sail to learn about microplastics, an emerging environmental problem that ills the Great Lakes.

The two-year-old program, called “Exploring Microplastics,” is offered by the Inland Seas Education Association (ISEA), a nonprofit that teaches Great Lakes science aboard the 61-foot schooner. Its passengers will examine what crew members find while conducting a fine-mesh trawl for plankton. They will learn how tiny plastic particles enter the food chain and a lot more about how microplastics foul Great Lakes waters.

Jeanie Williams, ISEA’s lead scientist and education specialist, says plastic pollution is common in Lake Michigan. She and the ship’s crew have drawn numerous water samples off popular ports such as Charlevoix, Petoskey, Escanaba, Harbor Springs and Suttons Bay.

“We find plastic in all of our samples,” Williams notes. “Mostly we find fragments, but we find film (plastic bag pieces) and fibers.” Continue reading

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Birdwatching Hotspots in Grand Rapids Michigan


Jan Lewis likes to photograph birds at Reeds Lake. Photo by Howard Meyerson.

By Howard Meyerson

Once spring arrives and northerly bird migrations begin, Jan Lewis will grab her camera and head out to Reeds Lake. With its marshes, boardwalks and tree-lined shores, the East Grand Rapids resident and prize-winning bird photographer finds it is one of the city’s best birdwatching destinations. And she’s not alone.

Birders have observed more than 200 species there, according to eBird, the online observation site launched in 2002 by Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and National Audubon Society. The website draws birders from across the U.S. who record their sightings and learn what else is being seen. Reed’s Lake is the No.1 Kent County Hotspot and 84 species have been reported there so far this year.

To learn more about birdwatching in the area: when is best,  the most productive sites and what can be seen, check out this story on Experience GR Blog. Read more: Birdwatching Hotspots.


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Protecting wildlife in Detroit’s urban core

Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge Manager Dr. John Hartig discusses conservation careers with students from Carlson High School. Photo by Tina ShawUSFWS.

Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge Manager, Dr. John Hartig, discusses conservation careers with students from Carlson High School. Photo by Tina Shaw, USFWS.

By Howard Meyerson

Toiling daily in the urban industrial zone adjacent to the Detroit River, John Hartig’s work is never finished. There are wetlands to restore and invasive plants to control, remnant pollution issues to resolve, and fish and bird species to protect.

Hartig helped create a federal conservation program in Detroit to protect important habitat in its urban core. He manages the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, a joint-venture with Canada established by the U.S. Congress in 2001. It is the only international wildlife refuge in North America.

“The Detroit River was one of the most polluted rivers in the U.S. back in the 1960s and ’70s,” notes Hartig, author of “Bringing Conservation to Cities,” published in 2014 by Ecovision World Monograph Series. “Most (people) thought of it as a working river that supported commerce and transportation. We thought if we could give it this designation that we could do something special for it.”

Developing the wildlife refuge program was no small job. It encompasses 5, 834 acres of islands, coastal marshes and waterfront parks spread out along 48 miles of river in Michigan and Canada. It is jointly managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service and is part of the U.S. National Wildlife Refuge System that protects 150 million acres of land and water across the nation.

Continue reading

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2016 Fishing Season: Grand Rapids Waters Offer Plenty of Opportunity

Anglers enjoy the spring steelhead run on the Grand River. Photo by Howard Meyerson

Spring fishing. What’s not to like? The air is clear and cool and birds are often singing. Fish are hungry and readily take bait, lures and flies. It’s a time brimming with excitement for Grand Rapids anglers no matter whether they fish from a boat, sit on the bank, or wade in the shallows.

The 2016 fishing season begins April 1 and new fishing licenses are needed. If you’re interested in where to catch big fish in Kent County, or where to find Family Friendly fishing waters, be sure to check out my latest post on Experience GR Blog.

Read more:  2016 Fishing Season: Grand Rapids Waters Offer Plenty of Opportunity

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Conservation reserve: competitive signup for smaller program


Photo by Scott Brosier

By Howard Meyerson

Grand Rapids, Mich ­- U.S. farmers have been advised that the 2016 Conservation Reserve Program general sign-up that ended February 26 will be extremely competitive this time around. Congress capped the program at 24 million acres when it passed the 2014 Farm Bill, shrinking the program from 32 million acres previously. Each application will be ranked by its environmental benefits and compared to others across the country, according to federal officials.

“There’s a lot of interest (in the sign-up) due, in part, to softening of commodity prices around the country,” said Val Dolcini, CRP administrator for USDA’s Farm Service Agency in Washington D.C. “Some say they want to get their acreage back into the program.Even though the rental rates are fairly modest, they are better than low commodity prices. But the competition will be (stiffer) than it has been the last few years. There is more interest than land available (due to the farm bill quota).”

CRP was created in the 1985 farm bill, but it’s concept – paying farmers to conserve land – dates back to 1950’s and the federal Soil Bank program. CRP has been expanded over the years to provide protection for land and waters in agricultural areas. It offers financial incentives to farmers who agree to protect erodible croplands, wetlands and other environmentally sensitive acreage,  by ending crop production and planting seasonal grasses, buffer strips and trees to maintain soils and/or provide food and cover for wildlife and pollinators.

Farmers participate for 10 to 15 years and are compensated depending on location and soil quality. Michigan farmers were paid an average of 112.22 per acre in 2015, according to the FSA. Continue reading

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Citizen Foresters Green Grand Rapids By Planting Trees


Citizen foresters learn to care for and properly plant trees in parks and neighborhoods. Photo by Stacey Miller.

By Howard Meyerson

People often think forests grow somewhere other than in cities, but licensed forester Margaret Studer says it’s not so. Urban forests are found all around Grand Rapids – in parks, residential neighborhoods and even cemeteries. That’s why Studer works with area volunteers who want to green the community by planting trees and becoming a Citizen Forester.

“Our work is broader than city parks,” notes Studer, director of the Urban Forest Project, a program of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, the non-profit that works closely with the city to maintain and promote its parks. “Urban forests aren’t just on public lands. We work with residents on their own bits of forest and public spaces.”

If you are looking for an opportunity to volunteer for something good and enjoy being outdoors, consider reading on and learning more about the program and joining the others who are working to green the city. You can find out more in my latest piece for Experience GR Blog.

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Oil and Birds Don’t Mix: Potential Risks at the Straits of Mackinac


Line 5 runs under the Mackinac Straits. Photo by Michael Barera.

By Howard Meyerson

Darrell Lawson loves birding at the Straits of Mackinac. There are miles of open water and the Michigan lakeshore is gorgeous. Thousands of birds fly along Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsula shorelines and funnel through the Straits during annual spring and fall migrations.

There are waterbirds, waterfowl, raptors and warblers, woodpeckers and plovers, to name just a few. More than 200 bird species have been observed at Pointe La Barbe, just west of St. Ignace. Those listings appear on eBird, the Internet site by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society.

“I lead all kinds of trips for Audubon and spend quite a bit of time up there,” notes Lawson, a software engineer and president of Petoskey Regional Audubon Society. “I go there 25 to 30 times in the spring and the fall. On one of my best days we saw 40-some Great Egrets. We might normally see a couple in a year. To see that many is incredible.”

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Enbridge Line 5. Map by NOAA.

Given the abundant and diverse bird life found at the Straits, Lawson and other Petoskey Audubon members have grown increasingly concerned about the 63-year-old Enbridge Inc. oil pipeline, known as Line 5. It runs along the lake bottom between the peninsulas.

Thousands of birds

Should either of the two 20-inch-wide, five-mile-long pipes rupture, the impact on birds could be devastating. Endangered Piping Plovers are known to nest in the area, to say nothing of the thousands of eagles, hawks, falcons, and turkey vultures that migrate across the Straits annually and the untold damage that could occur to fisheries, recreation, boating, and tourism.

Petoskey Audubon sent Governor Rick Snyder a letter in December 2015 requesting that the line be shut down until its safety and integrity can be verified, Lawson said.

“If we have an oil spill there, that oil could end up in a lot of places like Waugoshance Point (at Wilderness State Park), which is a huge birding area,” Lawson elaborated. “There is a nesting tern colony on the Coast Guard pier that is worrisome…. A huge raft of redheads also hangs out in the Straits area every fall.” Continue reading

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Federal funds slated for Negwegon State Park to protect its wetlands


The new acquisition will protect wetlands and fill a gap creating eight miles of beach. Photo: Howard Meyerson.

By Howard Meyerson

Grand Rapids, Mich. – A $900,000 federal grant to acquire private property within Negwegon State Park on Lake Huron is going to help protect coastal wetlands and endangered species, according to federal officials. The National Coastal Wetlands Conservation grant was approved by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and announced early in February.

“The main reason (Negwegon) was selected is the size of the habitat, and being able to connect two pieces (of the park) to make one large tract of land,” said Mara Koenig, public affairs specialist for the U.S. FWS Midwest office in Bloomington Minnesota. “The other is that it contains the endangered Hines emerald dragonfly. Pitcher’s thistle also grows there, and it has the eastern massasauga rattlesnake, which is proposed for federal listing as threatened.”

Negwegon officials say they have long hoped to acquire the 390.8 acre, known as the Dault property. It abuts state park property but sits between the park’s north and south units on Thunder Bay. The private inholding has been a priority acquisition that consolidates state land within the dedicated park boundaries. Continue reading

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