Standing on Grass
River Dock at the Grass River Natural Area, are (from left) executive director Jenn Wright, board member Rich Hannan, conservation director Emily Burke, and volunteer Kurt Cox.

People Fund helps keep Grass River Natural Area volunteers safe

Standing on Grass River Dock at the Grass River Natural Area, are (from left) executive director Jenn Wright, board member Rich Hannan, conservation director Emily Burke, and volunteer Kurt Cox.

Lending a hand to nature's helpers

Great Lakes Energy’s service area is filled with groups who are all about offering a helping hand to people, pets, or Mother Nature.

But sometimes even the people doing this good work might need a little help of their own as they make a difference in the community. That’s at the core of two grants the Great Lakes Energy’s People Fund provided to the Grass River Natural Area near Bellaire in 2022.

Located about five miles south of Bellaire in Antrim County, the Grass River Natural Area is a 1,492-acre nature preserve surrounding the Grass River. Along with the beautiful views of Grass River, the area also offers seven miles of well maintained trails including 1.5 miles of boardwalk floating above northern fen and cedar wetlands. With these natural features, Grass River Natural Area offers visitors an outdoor living laboratory to explore and learn. The Grass River Center is open year-round, offering a comfortable learning environment for public programming, school field trips, camps, and more.

The nonprofit organization that oversees the preserve received two People Fund grants in 2022, including $1,350 for infrared traffic counters and $2,000 for an emergency radio.

Although at first glance it might not be obvious how these grants will benefit the preserve, organization executive director Jenn Wright said both will be very
useful for staff and volunteers who work at the sprawling facility.

A call for help

Jenn explained that volunteers play a key role in keeping the preserve protected, well maintained, and managed. One key function these volunteers perform during warm weather months is trekking deep into the swampy reaches of the property to do survey work. These teams use an app to catalog the locations of the notable plants and animals they see, being particularly vigilant to note any invasive species that might need to be addressed. They are also on the lookout for evidence of potentially damaging human activity, such as off-road vehicle use, littering, unauthorized hunting blinds, and other activities not allowed on the property.

Much of the area where these teams of three to five volunteers do their work includes very thick brush and wetlands. Some areas are only accessible by kayak. Jenn said recent discussions among staff and volunteers highlighted the fact that cell phone service is spotty at best in some portions of the preserve. That means if a volunteer had a medical emergency while way out in these remote areas, they’d have no way to call for help. The solution to this communication concern was to purchase a handheld radio that will allow volunteers to connect directly with staff at Antrim County Central Dispatch. Jenn noted that the same radio will be used by work crews when they visit some of these same remote areas for tasks such as removing invasive species.

“The radio is a great tool that provides not only peace of mind, but could become
very important in an emergency situation,” Jenn said.

Making it count

The Grass River Natural Area’s large size and year-round availability to the public make deciding how and where to focus improvement and maintenance efforts a major challenge for the organization. With limited resources, the board and staff want to make sure they are targeting their efforts for projects, programming, and fundraising to the greatest benefit for the property and the many visitors it draws each year.

One way the staff does this is by using infrared traffic counters placed at strategic locations throughout the property. The devices are simple: They collect data on how many people pass a particular location during a given period of time. One counter measures the traffic to the property, while others measure traffic at specific locations around the preserve. The grant paid for the replacement of one counter and the addition of a few more.

In one example, Jenn said data collected through the counters showed only about 25% of users actually go into the education center, where information about the property and the organization is available. This data prompted staff to create a series of informational signs and several brochures that are strategically placed outside the building to provide information that many visitors might otherwise miss.

“Our mission is to make connections with people. We want to educate and inspire them to protect not just this preserve, but also nature in general. This helps us do that even when we aren’t here,” Jenn said.

The counters also showed that visits to the preserve went up by 30% during the height of COVID-19 restrictions. Jenn said this type of information is a valuable tool for fundraising because it shows just how important the preserve is to people. Similar data is being used to help bolster fundraising efforts for an ongoing initiative to replace the boardwalk, which was originally built in the 1980s.

The preserve continues to grow in popularity. In fact, thanks to the counters, the organization knows it set a record in 2022, eclipsing the 40,000-visitor mark for the first time.

Jenn said one of the many things that makes the Grass River Natural Area such a special place is that it represents a wide array of habitats found in the area.

“It really is the quintessential northern Michigan landscape and, thanks to our trails and the boardwalk, people are able to get out into areas where they would not be able to access otherwise,” she said. “We are sort of a hidden gem. It’s a really special place.”

For much more information about the Grass River Natural Area, visit the organization’s website at or its regularly updated Facebook page at

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