Ann Arbor is renowned for its dedication to environmental conservation. The Ann Arbor Greenbelt Program stands as a testament to this commitment, often referred to as an “unsung success story.”
Rosie Pahl Donaldson, land acquisition supervisor at the City of Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation Services, shares that the Greenbelt Program has successfully preserved 7,650 acres through 85 transactions. Of these, 68 are working farms. These efforts have also safeguarded 28 miles of river, stream and waterway frontage, primarily in the Huron River watershed, which flows through Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.
Public nature preserves
While the Greenbelt itself doesn’t own any nature preserves outside the city, it plays a pivotal role in funding land purchases intended for public nature preserve use.
In collaboration with agencies like the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission and Legacy Land Conservancy, the Greenbelt has contributed to the establishment or expansion of 11 public nature preserves, accounting for over 1,000 acres.
One of the program’s recent notable achievements is the launch of the buy-protect-sell initiative. This method involves purchasing a farm, reserving a conservation easement, and then selling it.
The goal is to provide an affordable pathway for land-insecure farmers to access farmland. The program’s first project under this initiative is currently underway, with proposals being evaluated.
The program’s environmental contributions are commendable. Over “1,500 acres of woods and over 1,700 acres of wetlands” have been preserved. These lands store a staggering “302K metric tons of CO2.”
However, Pahl Donaldson admits, “We have a tool from the EPA to measure these environmental benefits, but it’s outdated. We are working on selecting a better tool.”
Support for local farming
The Greenbelt’s support for local farming remains unwavering.
Pahl Donaldson emphasizes that “easements are often used to pass land on to younger farmers, because of the reduced appraised value caused by the easement.”
The program’s vision includes continuing land preservation with added benefits, with the buy-protect-sell initiative being central to this vision.
Legislative and Regulatory Impacts
Legislatively, the federal Farm Bill greatly impacts local land preservation programs. It funds the federal grants that typically cover up to 49% of the conservation easement purchase price. The yet-to-be-passed 2023 Farm Bill might affect this year’s grant round.
Locally, the 2022 Community Climate Action Millage and the Office of Sustainability and Innovation have fostered an internal partnership, aligning the Greenbelt’s preservation work with broader sustainability goals.
Recreational spaces and community engagement
Balancing land preservation with recreational needs is crucial. Most partner requests for funding nature preserve land purchases are granted.
Pahl Donaldson mentions a significant contribution last year in which the Greenbelt “contributed 75% of the purchase price, more than our usual average, to the County’s purchase of a 220[-acre] forested property…”
A model for other cities
Ann Arbor’s Greenbelt Program serves as an inspiration for other cities.
“The City of Ann Arbor has one of very few city-based land preservation programs that protects land surrounding the city,” Pahl Donaldson said.
Washtenaw County’s multiple overlapping land preservation initiatives achieve faster and more diverse results. Cities like Lexington, Kentucky and Boulder, Colorado have similar programs, but Ann Arbor’s collaborative approach with various agencies sets it apart.
Under the guidance of dedicated individuals like Pahl Donaldson, the program exemplifies the community’s dedication to preserving its natural heritage. Through innovative initiatives, partnerships, and a commitment to both the environment and its residents, the program continues to pave the way for sustainable urban development.