Nature reclaims northern golf courses, as eagles (the feathered kind) return

The course was carved into the woods and hills just outside of Traverse City in 1982. The course closed in the early 2000s, and now nature is reclaiming the land, with help from the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy .

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Jay, Director of Communications and Conservation Engagement, is happy with the transformation and thinks wildlife seem happy to once again roam the 220 acres overlooking East Grand Traverse Bay.

“They are finally able to live and enjoy their natural habitat without lawn mowers, chemicals and golfers,” Jay said.

At least 50 Michigan golf courses have closed since 2000, their remaining lives ranging from housing estates to soybean fields. In northern Michigan, the Mitchell Creek course is one of two former courses purchased by land conservation agencies, which are now working to open them as nature preserves.

“Nature’s ability to restore itself is truly amazing,” Jay said. “We’re going to help, and that’s great.”

In nearby Harbor Springs, when the Little Traverse Golf Club closed in 2019, the land was first sold to developers. But the Little Traverse Conservancy has heard of the property and bought.

It was renamed the Offield Family Viewlands Working Forest Reserve. Some fairways are reforested with trees, while others are havens for native wildflower meadows to maintain a majestic view of Little Traverse Bay, approximately 1.5 miles away.

This project is unlike any that conservation has done before. The land had been actively tended until just a few months before conservation took over. Now conservation is working to return it to a more realistic natural state.

“It’s very, very new or unique to the reserve because a lot of us are protecting natural areas,” said Derek Shiels, director of stewardship for the reserve. “These are existing natural spaces. These may be low quality or degraded natural areas, but they are still natural areas, not as man-manipulated as a golf course.

Conservancy is working to reintroduce more native plants to the environment, while also introducing new trees that are not native to Emmet County.

“We’re expanding the line a bit, which we don’t take lightly,” Shiels said.

He said the decision to try to plant new trees is also due to the fact that there is a loss of beech trees due to beech bark disease.

Shiels says that since the course has been in human hands for 30 years, it’s the perfect opportunity to experiment with planting new species that aren’t native to northern Michigan. The majority of trees, which are planted between 2,000 and 4,000 at a time, will produce fruit and nuts that wildlife can nibble on.

Michael C. Ford