100-year-old golf course turned into naturalized prairie

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WXMI) — The land of the former Highlands Golf Club is transforming into a naturalized prairie, thanks to a partnership between two nonprofits and the work of dozens of volunteers.

“What we are doing here is putting nature back in the city,” Justin Heslinga, the stewardship director of Land Conservancy of West Michigan said.

Land Conservancy of West Michigan and Blandford Nature Center have been working together for several years to naturalize the 120-acre plot of land. On Saturday, the groups hosted about 50 volunteers to plant seeds.

“This was turf grass from border to border, manicured as a golf course for over 100 years, and so what we’re doing is removing that turf grass, which doesn’t provide any wildlife habitat to speak of,” Heslinga said.

Julie Batty, the land stewardship manager at Blandford Nature Center said the land will be utilized in the center’s educational programs.

“It cannot be understated how impossible this would be without volunteers,” Batty said. “It will last for decades. It’s a little bit of effort that individuals can put in and then together, they’re making an incredible impact.”

Batty said planting the seeds during winter is important.

“This is what you’d call a ‘frost seeding’ and what you can do is take your native plant seeds and throw them down when the ground is already frozen,” Batty said. “A lot of native plants, the seeds have to be frozen before they will sprout.”

Volunteers like Dwight Baker said the work is rewarding.

“The fun thing about grassland restoration is you can live to see it,” Baker said. “What’s exciting about it is you can see what happens with the wildlife. The insects and birds and such that move in there and recolonize it, all that’s gonna happen where we’re standing.”

Heslinga said there are currently over two miles of trails, which community members are already using.

“We’re continuing to maintain trails out here into the coming years, those will be expanded. We’ll have some ADA-accessible trails out here, as well as a pavilion-type structure,” Heslinga said.

Heslinga said the groups will need volunteers in the future to plant trees and do other tasks on the land. To participate, contact Land Conservancy of West Michigan or Blandford Nature Center.

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