121-acre nature area opens on ex-golf course


A pair of girls explore at The Highlands in Grand Rapids, a 121-acre nature area. Courtesy The Highlands

A new 121-acre nature area at a former golf course on the West Side is opening for public tours and hiking today.

The Highlands is a green space in the beginning stages of restoration with trails and wildlife at the old Highlands Golf Club in Grand Rapids, at 2715 Leonard St. NW.

Blandford Nature Center, in partnership with the Land Conservancy of West Michigan — with a $3-million short-term loan from The Conservation Fund in Arlington, Virginia—  purchased the property in February and announced plans to convert it into a nature area for community recreation and education.

Once the loan is paid off, the Land Conservancy will take ownership of a portion of the property.

“We hope to restore this to the way it was 150 years ago, before it became farmland and then a golf course in 1909,” said Joe Engel, executive director, Land Conservancy of West Michigan.

“While there is plenty of work yet to do, we are eager for the community to get their feet on the ground and experience the benefits of fresh air and the beginnings of a remarkable, open, natural landscape right here in northwest Grand Rapids.”

The Highlands is open daily — from sunrise to sunset — starting today.

Staff members from Blandford and the Land Conservancy will conduct tours at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. today. The public can come and hike the land independently or join up with the tours embarking from the east end of the clubhouse.

Two-phase project

Today’s opening marks the first phase of the nature area’s transformation.

“The first phase is to acquire the property, pay off the mortgage, get folks out there to experience this, then we are going to ask them what they want to see on the property, within reason, if it’s consistent with the natural space,” Engel said.

“In phase two, we are going to work with landscape architects and hydrologists to get the land back to how it used to be, at the same time as getting people in to enjoy it. We’ll be developing wetlands, natural space and doing some reforestation, which adds to the urban canopy Mayor Bliss is working so hard on.”

This summer, a community-input process will take place between phase one and phase two. Neighbors, children and community members will be invited to learn more about the project and contribute ideas for how The Highlands will take shape in the coming years.

Right now, the land has a clubhouse and former concessions building that will eventually come down, Engel said, and a new pavilion will be built with a restroom.

The site has a parking lot. The single entrance, off Leonard, is on a bus line, so urban residents can easily access the space.

“Besides walking the trails, we want people to walk in the grasses, stand in the middle, take it in, bring their blood pressure down and put a smile on their face,” Engel said.

Community support

The Highlands project has received support from the Judy & Kenneth Betz Family, Peter C. & Emajean Cook Foundation, Frey Foundation Fund of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, Grand Rapids Community Foundation, Third Coast Development, The Wege Foundation and Wolverine Worldwide Foundation.

Land Conservancy

The Land Conservancy of West Michigan works to protect and care for natural land and help people enjoy nature.

Since 1976, it has protected 137 natural areas covering more than 10,000 acres in Kent, Ottawa, Allegan, Newaygo, Muskegon, Oceana, Mason and Lake counties.

Among other projects, the Grand Rapids-based Land Conservancy partnered with the City of Saugatuck to permanently protect the 300-acre Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area.

Blandford Nature Center

With a stated mission of engaging and empowering the Grand Rapids community through nature experiences, Blandford Nature Center is a nonprofit.

The center provides access to 143 acres of natural land, including more than four miles of trails.

The Grand Rapids-based center also hosts educational classes, festivals and camps.

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