One December day when Susan Lackey was about ten, she took a ride with her father, a farmer in western Michigan. As they passed a sign that read “Under it all is the land,” her father turned to her and said, “Don’t ever forget that. Life is all about the land.”

And she never has. “My career has been devoted to helping communities be the kind of places where people want to live, work, and play,” she says. That career ends June 30, and already a new chapter of her life is beginning to unfold.

“It will be very, very difficult for anyone to fill her shoes,” says Diane Dupuis, development director of Legacy Land Conservancy, which Lackey has headed for the past eleven years.

A philosophy major at Grand Valley, Lackey earned a master’s degree in urban planning and public administration at Western, then worked on the urban redevelopment of Benton Harbor before becoming executive director of the Washtenaw Development Council in 1994. She was named executive director of Legacy, which was then known as the Washtenaw Land Conservancy, in 2005. Since then, she has worked tirelessly with local governments, parks commissions, environmental agencies, conservation organizations, hunt clubs, farmers, and county residents to preserve land, waterways, wildlife, native vegetation, heritage, and vistas in our area.

“In the depths of America’s Great Depression, farsighted community leaders here in Michigan outlined a vision of green space that begins at Lake St. Clair, curves around Washtenaw, Livingston, and Jackson counties, and extends back to Lake Erie,” she says. “Today we call that space the Emerald Arc. We’re successors to their vision.

“I joined the organization at the right time,” Lackey says. “There was strong support for farmland and water protection.”

When Lackey took charge of the organization, she inherited a staff of three, four nature preserves, a $250,000 budget, and the development rights for 1,800 acres. Now its budget tops $750,000, the staff numbers eight, an endowment fund holds nearly $750,000, and the group will soon hold the development rights for more than 8,000 acres.

Under Lackey’s leadership, the conservancy created a system to decide which lands are priority properties: areas contiguous to preserves, and corridors with environmental networks, endangered species, rivers, lakes, and creeks. “Ecosystems don’t abide by geographical boundaries, which is why our work spills into Livingston and Jackson counties,” she says. As that became clear, they realized a name change was needed, and the organization was rechristened Legacy Land Conservancy.

Lackey used to say that Lyndon Township residents could put one foot in the Huron River and one in the Grand River. Now she refers to this region with a smile as “our own Continental Divide,” because the Grand (Michigan’s longest river system), St. Joe, and Kalamazoo rivers flow to Lake Michigan while the Huron and Raisin end in Lake Erie. Because these important rivers either rise here or have major sources here, “the Washtenaw-Jackson area bears an outsized responsibility to protect the waters where we play and which we drink,” she says. “By protecting those waters–and, consequently, the lands around them–we help protect the Great Lakes, which contain 20 percent of the world’s fresh water.”

Once Legacy identified priority areas, Lackey and her staff laid parcel maps over topographical maps and started talking to property owners. Decisions to sell development rights are completely voluntary and funded almost exclusively by local residents. When open land is purchased for a preserve, Legacy actively manages the properties, removing invasive species, restoring native plants, and maintaining walkways, boardwalks, trails, information kiosks, and viewing platforms.

“Each of our nature preserves has a story to tell–stories about hardscrabble farming, early exploration, Native American commerce, glaciers and rocks, rare or common plants, animals, and our connection to Great Lakes water quality,” Lackey says. And Legacy’s Forever Fund ensures the financial resources for the properties’ ongoing care. “Each time we acquire a property, we need to find another $7,000 for that fund,” she says. “We don’t accept new preserves without a funding source.”

Because she grew up on a farm, Lackey was especially keen to promote the future of farming. As farmers aged and started to think about retirement or leaving a legacy for their children, many didn’t realize they had any alternative other than selling their land for subdivisions. “Young farmers just can’t pay the price developers can pay for land,” she explains. That’s where Legacy can help. “If farmland is priced at $4,000 an acre but developers can pay $10,000 for the same land, we can offer to pay the farmers the $6,000 difference for an easement. Then the farmer can afford to sell his land to a young farmer for $4,000 an acre.”

There’s a good future here for farmers, she insists. Michigan has the second most diverse agricultural base in the country–behind only California, she notes. But in recent years, growers have turned away from specialty crops and toward commodity crops like corn, sugar beets, and soybeans. These are large-scale operations. Lackey believes it could be beneficial to bring more old-fashioned, high-value products back into the mix: the fruits, vegetables, and sheep for East Coast markets that once flourished here and don’t require a thousand acres. And Michigan farmers have a climate advantage since their farms don’t require extensive irrigation systems. Lackey says she is hopeful that by protecting the land, there is a future for a broad range of farming here–“but it’s not going to happen overnight,” she warns.

She’s leaving Legacy on firm footing, as Jim Adams, board president, wrote in its newsletter: “The hard work, deep thinking, and collaborative spirit that characterize Susan’s leadership are evident in the strong, flexible, achievable strategic plan–adopted in 2015–that Susan crafted.” Legacy has instituted a fund in her name to help maintain nature preserves.

What does Lackey consider her greatest achievement?

“Ironically, my first and last major project involves the Reichert Nature Preserve,” she says. She negotiated the acquisition of the first part of the preserve in 2006. This year, “We’re adding fifty-eight acres in Pinckney. Half will be a conservation easement.”

And what does a woman do after a long career in public service?

“I really am retiring,” she insists, after admitting she agreed to serve on the Chelsea Library Board and volunteer in several preserves not far from her Waterloo home. “My husband retired three years ago, and he’s been waiting for me to join him on some adventures. We have a long list of national parks to visit, as well as some preserves and parks in southeast Michigan. We have big water to explore, streams to fish, areas to hike and bike. And, fortunately, we’re still young enough to do that.”