August 19, 2019 Program Recap 

| Hike, Monthly Meeting

August 19, 2019 Program Recap

Restoring Native Habitat in an Urban Setting
Presented by Justin Heslinga, Stewardship Director, Land Conservancy of West Michigan

It was a warm August evening when Wild Ones River City Chapter members and friends met at The Highlands on Leonard St NW, Grand Rapids. There was a great turnout of 60 interested people—many new to Wild Ones.

The Highlands is a nature preserve established in 2017 as a collaborative project between the Land Conservancy of West Michigan (LCWM) and Blandford Nature Center (BNC). The site is the former Highlands Golf Club originally constructed in 1906. It was one of the oldest courses in the Grand Rapids area. Horses and plows were used to build the course. During the last decade, the golf course experienced a decline as not as many people were playing golf. Plans were made to sell the course to a developer to built 350 houses.

Justin Heslinga, Stewardship Director from the Land Conservancy was our presenter. He explained how the nature preserve came about. Blandford is right next to The Highlands on its West side. BNC was concerned about having a large development next to their nature center so they sat down with the developer to express their concerns and desire to purchase the Highlands Golf Club’s 121 acres. BNC did not have the expertise to take on the project alone, so they partnered with the Land Conservancy to purchase the land in January 2017 with a loan from a national nonprofit called The Conservation Fund, “with a vision to transform the property into a natural area for community recreation and education.” Phase One of the 5.3 million capital campaign has been completed through generous donors and there is a master plan for Phase Two. BNC currently owns the land and LCWM managed the campaign. Eventually, ownership will be equal.

As we walked the trail, Justin said BNC has a large deer population and they wondered how it would affect planting natives at The Highlands. A test was done with two growing plots. A fenced deer enclosure was erected and native plant plugs were planted in it and in the same size open plot next to the enclosure. The results were encouraging. We could see that the plants like Gray-headed coneflower outside of the enclosure were somewhat shorter than those in the fenced plot, but the deer had not mowed them down. Also, the Stiff Goldenrod was not palatable to the deer.


Two years ago a ten-acre area was seeded with 30–40 species with the help of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife’s “Partners in Wildlife Program.”

In the 1800s the area sat on a line to the East, mixed Oak Savannah/pocket prairie and to the West, a mesic Beech/Maple forest. Justin said their goal is not to return the land to that. They want to build an ecosystem from the ground up with a bio-diverse prairie-like mix. Some areas will be more forested. Justin said patience is key here. The conservation easement is forever.

A question was raised about how they got rid of all the turfgrass. Justin said a prescribed burn was done and re-sprouts were killed with some herbicide. It was then broadcast seeded. The seeds are a mix of part local genotypes and from the Great Lakes region creating biodiversity. Prescribed burns will be done every other year, but not in all sections. Next year they plan to burn 20–30 acres, along with the current 10 acres it will be the largest prescribed burn in Grand Rapids.


We came upon a large wetland area that was created from a natural swale a year and a half ago. The spot was excavated and three feet of topsoil removed to reveal thick black muck—there was a wetland here before! A wetland mix of sedges and graminoids was planted but other native plants have sprung up. Justin feels that these may be from the old wetland seed bank. A dead Norway Spruce was laid down into the water, making a home for frogs, turtles, and herons. Five more wetlands are planned.

We stopped at an enormous, beautiful White Birch Tree. Amazing to see one that has lived so long. It made for a perfect photo op spot.



The last part of our hike was through a tall “thistle forest.” Justin said he has hopes that when this area is planted with deep-rooted natives they will outcompete the non-native thistle along with the help of site preparation and burning. But the thistle is good for pollinators.

There is an underground stream in a pipe under the East end of the property that drains from the nearby residential areas. It is mostly run-off. The plan is to eventually put the stream back up to the surface to spread out. Riparian and upland vegetation will be planted with help from the Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds (LGROW) and funding from the City of Grand Rapids. Grand Valley State University has helped with soil studies of the acreage.

The Highlands will be an on-going nature preserve project. The site is open free to the public and is located on The Rapid bus line route, so it is accessible to all. The trails are open dawn to dusk. What a wonderful treasure right in the city of Grand Rapids!

Thank you Justin for the guided tour of this wonderful preserve and for your hard work on this on-going project. It will be interesting to watch it evolve over the years.

Read more about The Highlands.

By Ruth Oldenburg, WORC Communication Chair