Great Lakes Moment is a monthly column written by Great Lakes Now Contributor John Hartig. Publishing the author’s views and assertions does not represent endorsement by Great Lakes Now or Detroit Public Television.
While watching civilization expand into the countryside in the 1800s, the great American author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau recommended every town have a forest of 500 to 1,000 acres for conservation instruction and outdoor recreation. Southgate, Michigan agrees with this precept and while it’s short of Thoreau’s threshold, it has created a significant 41-acre nature center adjacent to Southgate Anderson High School.
There were challenges to be sure. The site was farmed between the 1940s and early 1970s and then sat vacant for a time before becoming a dumping ground for tires and debris. But teachers and community organizers were not to be deterred from saving this land from development.
The idea for the Southgate Nature Center was conceived in 1996 when several of the high school’s teachers, including John Nasarzewski, met with then superintendent Stanley Mazur to share concerns about the loss of open space due to the rapid development of every inch of available land in the city.
The teachers proposed that the school district designate 18 acres west of the school as a nature preserve. The purpose would be to provide citizens and students with a natural area for hiking, an appreciation of wildlife and habitat, and environmental education where students and adults could be inspired with a sense of wonder and develop a stewardship ethic. A committee was then formed with representation from government, education, conservancy groups, and community members.
Students from Southgate Anderson High School immediately got involved. A computer-aided design class mapped the site, while students in environmental science classes conducted field studies that inventoried wildlife and vegetation. Technical assistance came from an expert from an environmental consulting firm called Wade Trim.
In 1999, the nature center was expanded with an additional 23 acres thanks to a Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund grant of $525,000. That same year, both the city and school signed a management service agreement accepting joint responsibility for stewardship and operation of the nature center for 99 years.
In 2000, 8.2 acres of wetlands were restored as part of a deal to compensate for the loss of wetlands in the construction of a Meijer supermarket. Then in 2004, the Southgate Anderson Ecology Club and the Downriver Stream Teams joined the Wayne County Department of Public Services’ Environmental Services Division to begin a water monitoring program. This program helps local communities meet the federal Clean Water Act requirements for stormwater and has been ongoing at the site nearly 20 years.
Over time, students have been involved in surveying, monitoring, habitat restoration, cleaning up debris and trash, watching for illegal dumping, trail building with trailheads and learning kiosks, programming, and community education. They have also placed benches along the trails and this nature oasis is now a unique destination along the regional Downriver Linked Greenway system.
“Our goal from the outset of this project has been to create a nature center that would become part of the community fabric,” said Bruce Szczechowski, a teacher at Southgate Anderson High School. “We want this to be a place where residents, visitors, and students can experience and enjoy nature, and all its ecological, contemplative, restorative, and health benefits.”
Indeed, the Children & Nature Network has shown that the well-being of children and wild places are inextricably linked. While research tells us regular time outdoors is essential for children’s healthy development, today’s kids are less connected to nature than ever before. Southgate Anderson High School is an exception to that rule.
Southgate Nature Center sits in the heart of Downriver and is bounded by the high school on the east, Dix-Toledo Road on the west, Leroy Street on the north, and property now owned by Christ the King Lutheran Church on the south. Key features of the property include forestland Frank & Poet Creek, 8.2 acres of mitigated wetlands, including several ponds, and prairie. Students can literally walk out their school door and into nature.
Think of Southgate Nature Center as equal parts nature playground and fodder for the high school curriculum. Over the past two decades, teacher Bruce Szczechowski and his students have documented over 140 bird species on the property. Based on tips from birders and E-bird entries, Southgate Nature Center is now considered a birding hotspot by BirdingHotspots.org. Even a beaver recently showed up. What a testament to the conservation efforts of so many.
Southgate Nature Center is open daily during daylight hours. Parking is available at both Southgate Anderson High School and Southgate Regional Center off Pennsylvania Road. If you want to experience a respite from urban life or see a model for connecting students with nature, then this is clearly worth putting on your bucket list.
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Featured image: Southgate Nature Center, Southgate, Michigan (Photo credit: Google Earth).