Wild Ones   Corridors for a Healthier Environment - Part 3  
By Sally Elmiger

This is the third article in a series that discusses how corridors that connect natural areas can help sustain our environment, native plant communities, and local wildlife. At this point, readers are surely seeing the benefits and possibilities for greenways in their own communities. In the first two articles, greenways were described as vegetated corridors connecting a series of natural areas. These corridors can be used for recreation and simultaneously to protect native plant and wildlife habitats – among other benefits.

Greenways result when residents and community leaders work together for the common purpose of natural area preservation.

A Linear Park - The Paint Creek Trail, Oakland County, Michigan

The Paint Creek Trail’s beginnings go back to the early 1800s, when a railroad was constructed on the route by the Detroit and Bay City Railroad. Running for ten and one-half miles from the village of Lake Orion to the Oakland/Macomb County line in southeast Michigan, the Paint Creek Trail follows the abandoned railroad right-of-way that was once the route of the Penn Central Railroad.

The railroad’s property was purchased in 1982, with assistance from a grant through the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, by the Paint Creek Trailways Commission, which was formed specifically for the purpose of maintaining the trail. The commission is an intergovernmental entity made up of two commissioners from each community through which the trail runs: Orion and Oakland Townships, and the cities of Rochester Hills and Rochester.

The main purpose of the acquisition was to provide a recreational trail for non-motorized activities, such as cycling, jogging, walking, and horseback riding. But as the trail gained in popularity, the Trailways Commission realized that the trail provides many other benefits. For example, trail users have many opportunities for viewing wildlife, such as painted turtles sunning themselves on logs in the wetlands or a large snapping turtle crossing the trail, finches as they dart from plant to plant, or bluebirds that nest in trees or nest boxes, and monarch butterflies feeding on the numerous milkweed plants.

The trail right-of-way is typically 100 feet wide, although the trail limestone surface itself is only 10 feet wide. Most of the remaining space in the right-of-way is filled with a variety of wetland, woodland, and grassland habitats, that harbor native plants and seed banks from the time when the railroad ran.

Also flowing through the right-of-way is Paint Creek, a designated trout stream set in a suburban background. Because of the relationship of the creek to the trail, there are many areas of land between the creek and the trail that were not easily accessible, and therefore left undeveloped. Even though the trailway and its adjacent habitats contain many native species, they still require maintenance to preserve them.

For example, due to the linear nature of the trailway corridor, there is a greater amount of “edge” area that invasive plants can penetrate. Oakland Township has devoted significant funds, staff time, and volunteer hours to removing invasive species from the trail edge. One unexpected benefit of fewer invasives – like honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.), buckthorn (Rhamnus spp.) and autumn olive (Eleagnus umbellata) – which grow faster than many native shrubs, is that pruning for safety is required less often along the trail; this reduces one category of trail maintenance expenses. Of course, the other benefit is that the additional space provides greater opportunities for native plants to re-establish themselves.

The prolific native plant seed source has, with appropriate management activities, produced some exciting results. A few years ago it was evident that a tall-grass prairie remnant existed next to the trail right-of-way in Oakland Township. The Trailways Commission acquired the three-acre piece and hired an ecologist to conduct a plant inventory and develop a management plan.

The Director of Parks and Recreation for Oakland Township, Mindy Milos-Dale – a Wild Ones member, Oakland (MI) Chapter – has been heading up the management of the prairie, and explains what they’ve done so far: “We’re in our second full year of management, and we’re still discovering what’s in the seed bank. We haven’t been doing this long enough to know what’s out there. We’ve conducted prescribed burns, and we are inventorying the plants that appear, including those in the deer exclosures, which a local Boy Scout troop built for us.

These exclosures are necessary since the large deer population in our area eats many plants before they can be inventoried. The exclosures are built with metal posts and chain-link fencing. We recognized that prescribed burns would be necessary in the management of this area and that wood fencing would not meet our needs. The dimensions (10 x 30 feet) of the exclosures were based on research done by Michigan State University. The research showed that deer rarely enter narrow enclosures. (“Narrow” being defined by the breadth of a deer’s fence-crossing leap.) An extension of the logic of these findings suggested that we could go with five-foot fencing. In the two years that the exclosures have existed we have seen no evidence that deer have entered them.

By following the management plan, which, to provide adequate sun exposure to the prairie species, includes the removal of invasive and woody species in the prairie, we’ve seen a transformation in the native prairie plant community. Last year we recorded a blanket of lupine (Lupinus perennis) in the deer exclosures. It looked just like what we had seen in old photographs of the area.”

Recently Oakland Township acquired and started managing another prairie – a wet prairie – that is on a 10-acre parcel adjacent to the trailway. This site has an unusual mix of plants because the soil is calcareous and sandy, while the water table is high. The species list includes Potentilla fruticosa, Liatris cylindracea, Tofieldia glutinosa, Parnassia glauca, Gentian procera, and Andropogon scoparius.

Access to these sites has generated some discussion. Milos-Dale explains, “Some people feel that if a property is bought with public money, all of it should be accessible through the building of trails and other support facilities on that property. However, one of the purposes of acquiring these parcels is to preserve the native plant and animal communities. We reason that the small populations of the native species would not fare well with a lot of disturbance. If a feature can be seen from the main trail, we feel that in some delicate places, side trails and other public facilities are not necessary.”

The Paint Creek Trail is an example of cooperation – cooperation among adjoining communities, cooperation between the communities and the residents who own land along the trail’s right-of-way, and cooperation among the various community maintenance departments and resident volunteers who help maintain the trail and its environmental integrity.

The next issue of the Journal will feature the final installment in this series – an example of a greenway that is less traditional in nature, but that also represents a cooperative relationship – cooperation between a community and the developers buildingin that community.

Sally Elmiger has a graduate degree in Landscape Architecture from the School of Natural Resource at the University of Michigan, and works as a community and environmental planner for Carlisle/Wortman Associates, Inc. in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She is a member of the Ann Arbor (MI) Chapter of Wild Ones.

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Updated: Jun 12, 2005.