Nine Southeast Michigan land conservancies won the funds through the Lake Erie Conservation Partnership. With their matching contributions, they’ll spend $12 million over five years to conserve farmland, protect water, and restore wetlands.

While the organizations often pool resources to preserve specific farms and natural areas, this is their first joint project. Ann Arbor Greenbelt program manager Remy Long credits senator Debbie Stabenow, who launched the USDA’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program as part of the 2014 Farm Bill and won it dedicated funding in 2018 bill.

“RCPP was an incentive to break out of our singular visions and have more collaborative approaches with other conservation partners in [the] region,” says Long. He spent most of the last year preparing the Lake Erie partnership application–while also managing sixteen conservation easement projects representing 1,139 acres in the Greenbelt pipeline.

Long grew up in Saline when, he says, “it was still teetering between becoming a subdivision of Ann Arbor and retaining some of its agricultural heritage.” Watching many farmers retire and sell their land to developers made him passionate about keeping farmland in production. After getting a degree in environmental studies at Western Michigan University, he spent three years in West Africa with the Peace Corps, where he “witnessed and was very involved with tribal land disputes” and got interested in “the concept of private property law.”

Long came back to Michigan to get a master’s degree from what’s now the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability. He was working at Legacy Land Conservancy when it won the county’s first RCPP grant in 2017.

He moved on to the Conservation Fund, the national nonprofit that contracts with the city to manage the Greenbelt. Tapping the fund’s experience with RCPP grants and its contacts with the USDA unit that handles them, he quickly won a $1 million RCPP grant to spread the benefits of the Legacy award across a larger swath of the county.

Long then set his sights on winning a much larger grant that would encompass both the Huron and Raisin watersheds and bring many of the region’s conservation organizations together for the first time. He says the city’s Greenbelt Advisory Commission immediately saw the potential and approved $1.8 million in matching funds. The Greenbelt typically applies for that much from another USDA conservation program over a five-year period anyway, he explains–and since the RCPP now had its own budget, it could apply for both.

Long says the region was in a great position to apply for the new funding because so many conservation groups are working in and around Washtenaw County. He believes few other areas in the country can match it. Eight entities joined the Greenbelt and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in the Lake Erie Conservation Partnership application: Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation, Ann Arbor Township, the Huron River Watershed Council, Scio Township, Webster Township, Legacy Land Conservancy, Six Rivers Land Conservancy, and the Washtenaw County Conservation District.

“The partners know that building a viable agricultural economy is about more than protecting farmland,” Long says. “The new generation of farms are diversified. They want smaller parcels closer to urban markets, and they have less capital to invest in land. Buying conserved land

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makes it much more affordable, so that farmers can use their limited resources to invest in their businesses.”

But “just acres protected isn’t enough,” Long adds–the public wants environmental benefits, too. So the grant’s deliverables also include carbon sequestration and reduced water pollution.

Those will be tracked through MSU’s Great Lakes Watershed Management System. The system already covers the Raisin watershed, and grant funds will pay to expand it to include the Huron. It will aggregate data generated by MSU, EGLE (the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy), and others to calculate the water quality and other environmental benefits of the 2,000 acres to be protected through the grant, in addition to the 18,000 acres of farmland, woodland, and parkland already conserved in the county.

There are 85,000 acres in the Greenbelt district outside the city, including 25,000 that are actively farmed. The Greenbelt has so far protected 6,292 acres, including 4,000 acres of farmland. “I don’t see a lack of opportunity” for land to protect, Long says. “I could

double the amount of transactions if I had another me, but I’d run into a financial cap.”

The average Greenbelt easement is seventy-one acres. A recent survey of local land-seeking farmers found that smaller parcels of conserved farmland close to the Ann Arbor market is what they most want, so Long is eager to see smaller farms come into his program.

If the Lake Erie Conservation Partnership can protect more parcels like those, it will go a long way to ensuring that the local landscape includes farmers, and not just farmland, for years to come.