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

aerial view of what looks like a forest
The former Mitchell Creek Golf Course is owned by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy. Now, ducks, snakes, bears and eagles make their home in the reclaimed property. (Photo by Noah Jurik, Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy)

East Bay Township — From the former clubhouse of the closed Mitchell Creek Golf Course, Jennifer Jay can see the property’s past, as well as its future.

The outlines of greens can still be seen, but the manicured grass is giving way to scrub brush. Tee markers are gone, but bears have been marking the area with poop. A family of wood ducks have made a home in what used to be a water hazard, and a bald eagle’s nest, 50 feet up in a white pine, is a sand wedge away from a former fairway.

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

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Jay, director of communications and engagement for the conservancy, is happy about the transformation and believes wildlife appear happy to once again roam the 220 acres overlooking East Grand Traverse Bay.

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

At least 50 Michigan golf courses have closed since 2000, with their afterlives ranging from housing developments to soybean fields. In Northern Michigan, the Mitchell Creek course is one of two former courses to be purchased by land conservancies, which are now working to open them as nature preserves.

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

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

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

This project is unlike any that the conservancy had done before. The land had been actively manicured until just months before the conservancy took over.  Now, the conservancy is working to return it to a more realistic natural state. 

“This is very, very novel or unique to the conservancy because largely we protect natural areas,” said Derek Shiels, the conservancy’s director of stewardship. “They’re existing natural areas. Maybe they're low quality or degraded natural areas, but they’re still natural areas, not as human-manipulated as a golf course.”

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

“We’re expanding the range a little bit, which is something we don't take lightly,” Shiels said. 

He said the decision to try planting new trees is also because there is a loss of beech trees because of beech bark disease.

Shiels says since the course was in human hands for 30 years, it’s the perfect chance to experiment by planting new species that are not native to northern Michigan. A majority of the trees, which are being planted between 2,000 and 4,000 at a time, will produce fruits and nuts for wildlife to nibble.

grass with a bunch of flowers
"Every story that's connected to our mission can be told right here on this property," said Jennifer Jay, spokesperson for the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy. "Every window and every door you can look out and say, 'This is where we do this.'" (Bridge Photo by Tessa Lightly)

An hour and a half away near Traverse City, the Grand Traverse conservancy group faced different issues. The course it purchased had been largely left alone for more than a decade.

“When our director of land protection went out there the first time, he literally didn’t know what he’d find,” said Jay, the spokesperson. “He called us while he was still on the site and said, ‘You wouldn’t believe how much is regenerating and how much it looks wild — and how much we have to protect.’”

The course’s land is on a tributary to East Grand Traverse Bay and is listed as an impaired watershed by the Environmental Protection Agency, meaning it is too polluted to meet water quality standards. Many pollutants came from surface runoff, with the chemicals in fertilizers and pesticides making their way back into the water. 

“We knew that the watershed was already struggling and didn't need any further development types that would harm it,” Jay said. 

Investors looking at the land wanted to turn the course into either a race track or a housing complex, but before they could do that, the conservancy bought the property in 2019 with a $1.1 million donation from philanthropists Don and Jerry Oleson. 

The conservancy is going to have a goat barn, allowing them to roam the property to help get rid of invasive species like autumn olive. The goats will also help break up some of the remaining turf grass from the shuttered course, David Foote, director of facilities for the conservancy, told Bridge. 

The land, rechristened Mitchell Creek Meadows: The Don and Jerry Oleson Nature Preserve, is expected to open to the public in early 2023. 

Experienced in selling golf courses, George Pierson of Howard Hanna Real Estate in Jackson said closed courses face a variety of fates. One currently for sale is Jackson’s Lakeland Hills Golf Course. Pierson has primarily heard from real-estate developers, though some local residents have shown interest. 

Another course in the process of being sold, formerly Sparrow Hawk Golf Course near Jackson, is a mix of industrial land, a multi-family housing development and farmland, with 100 acres of soybeans.

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That’s not the fate of the converted course near Traverse City. The Mitchell Creek preserve will have fully-accessible paths, along with trails connecting neighborhoods and local schools.

“Imagine being able to ride your bike to school through a nature preserve,” Jay said.

“I’ve been with the conservancy for 15 years, we’ve protected a lot of lands. But the level of enthusiasm and satisfaction (for the nature preserve) is palpable,” she said. “We cannot wait to open the preserve for everyone.”

Ron French contributed to this report.

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