Historic land purchase on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula marks innovative approach to conservation

Mountain Drive on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula offers perspective on the scope and density of a sprawling forest in the Keweenaw Heartlands.
The view from Brockway Mountain Drive on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula offers perspective on the scope and density of a sprawling forest in the Keweenaw Heartlands. Photo: Jeff Alexander

Brockway Mountain is one of Michigan’s highest points, and it affords breathtaking views of Lake Superior and the lush forest that blankets the Keweenaw Peninsula. The geological history and ecological significance of the iconic peninsula have led devotees of the area to call it a “land of superlatives.”

The label is fitting. The Keweenaw was formed by a series of lava flows that occurred over the course of 100 million years and ended approximately 1 billion years ago. The peninsula extends 60 miles into Lake Superior, the largest lake by surface area on the planet. Indigenous peoples who have inhabited the area for over 7,000 years carried out the earliest metal workings in the Western Hemisphere. And the peninsula’s massive copper deposits helped fuel the growth of America’s modern economy, said Erika Vye, a geosciences research scientist at Michigan Technological University’s Great Lakes Research Center in Houghton, Michigan.

The Keweenaw may soon be noteworthy for an entirely different reason: a community-based approach to land conservation.

The Nature Conservancy recently purchased 22,700 acres of forest, wetlands and rivers on the peninsula, and it plans to acquire another 9,900 acres by the end of this year. Acquiring the 32,600 acres of land from a private equity firm will conserve four large tracts of forest known collectively as the Keweenaw Heartlands. It also will ensure that the public — including snowmobilers, ATV riders, anglers, hunters, hikers and mountain bikers — may continue to experience and enjoy the property.

A river framed by beautiful evergreens runs through the Keweenaw Hartlands in northern Michigan.
The 27-mile-long Montreal River flows through a portion of the Keweenaw Heartlands before emptying into Lake Superior. Photo: Jeff Alexander

Having protected the land from development, TNC is now working with residents, community leaders and tribal officials to develop a community-based conservation plan that balances environmental, cultural and economic interests. It could become a model for other communities hoping to increase recreation-based tourism without ruining the natural resources that are often the foundation of such economies.

“This project is more than conservation,” said Helen Taylor, director of TNC’s Michigan chapter. “We’re trying to help the community develop a rural prosperity plan for an area that has been driven by copper mining, then forestry and now recreation. Change is coming and we need to plan for it so we don’t love this area to death.”

The Mott Foundation has provided grant support to TNC and its Michigan chapter for over 30 years. Taylor was elected to the Mott Foundation’s board of trustees in 2016.

TNC will work with local, regional and state partners to develop an ownership and stewardship plan that will ensure both conservation and economic benefits are protected. The planning process also will help local leaders anticipate other needs, such as infrastructure, affordable housing, and ways to accommodate the growing number of tourists and seasonal workers streaming into the tiny community of Copper Harbor, near the tip of the Keweenaw.

A map from Nature Conservancy showing The Keweenaw Heartlands project series of land acquisitions that have protected most of the tip of the scenic peninsula.
The Keweenaw Heartlands project is the latest in a series of land acquisitions that have protected most of the tip of the scenic peninsula. Photo: Courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation granted $1 million to TNC to help support both the land acquisition and a community engagement process that will help determine future ownership and management of the property. Ridgway White, president and CEO of the Mott Foundation, said the project could chart a new course for pursuing land conservation projects, and help communities identify new revenue sources for those projects, while also safeguarding and bolstering regional economies.

“New models are sorely needed for land conservation projects,” White said. “In the past, there was sometimes a sense that you had to choose either conservation or economic prosperity.

“What’s brilliant about The Nature Conservancy’s approach is that they’re protecting the forest while working with the community to ensure that the land can continue to be used and enjoyed, generate income from tourism and recreation, and support sustainable industry,” White added. “It’s a win-win approach that others would be wise to model.”

Aerial view of the Keweenaw Peninsula with a river and road crisscrossing each other in the middle of the green lush forest.
The Keweenaw Peninsula’s vast forest supports the region’s recreational economy, provides critical wildlife habitat and absorbs climate-changing air pollutants from the atmosphere. Photo: Quincy Aerial Photography, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

Gina Nicholas, a local resident who spearheaded efforts to conserve the Keweenaw Heartlands and who serves on the committee developing the land management plan, said the project has widespread support.

“Everyone up here is happy about this deal because we’re one step closer to protecting this land forever,” she said. “This peninsula is like no place else on Earth.”

The Keweenaw is one of the most unfragmented, climate-resilient areas of forest and freshwater in the United States, according to The Nature Conservancy. It supports abundant wildlife and is an important stopover for migratory birds, particularly raptors. Taylor said the Keweenaw Heartlands project is “an opportunity to protect an extraordinary region for both nature and people.”

The land purchased by The Nature Conservancy includes three miles of Lake Superior shoreline, 37 miles of rivers and 4,700 acres of wetlands. The group continues to raise funds for the land acquisition, which will improve wildlife habitat and conserve a forest that absorbs climate-changing air pollutants.

Beyond its natural beauty, the Keweenaw region also is acknowledged as the ancestral, traditional, and contemporary lands and waters of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, a sovereign nation. Tribal officials will play a key role in determining how the Keweenaw Heartlands will be managed in perpetuity.

Change is coming and we need to plan for it so we don’t love this area to death .”
Black and White portrait of a woman with dark hair pulled back wearing a necklace. Helen Taylor, director of TNC’s Michigan chapter

“The Keweenaw Peninsula is part of the historic lands of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, which our families have used for hunting, fishing, gathering and ceremonial purposes for generations,” said Brigette LaPointe-Dunham, CEO of the tribe. LaPointe-Dunham thanked The Nature Conservancy for “leading a culturally appropriate plan that protects this sacred land so it can be enjoyed and appreciated for the next seven generations.”

The Keweenaw has long been popular among snowmobilers, ATV riders, hunters, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts. In recent years, it also has become popular among birders, hikers and mountain bikers.

The development of world-class mountain biking trails over the past decades is fueling a tourism boom that is straining Copper Harbor, which has a year-round population of 136. A primary goal of the community-based conservation plan is striking a balance between preserving the forest and allowing people to continue to use it, Nicholas said.

“We’re trying to find that sweet spot of balancing recreation and conservation. They can coexist — everyone should be able to use this land,” Nicholas said. She chairs the Keweenaw Outdoor Recreation Coalition (KORC), which was formed in 2019 to preserve the Keweenaw Heartlands and ensure continued public access to the land.

An aerial view of the Lake Superior shoreline with crystal clear deep blue/green water showing the underwater fauna at Little Betsy Point and the neighboring forest.
The Lake Superior shoreline at Little Betsy Point and the neighboring forest will remain in their natural state as part of the Keweenaw Heartlands project. Photo: Quincy Aerial Photography, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

Don Piche, chair of the Keweenaw County Board of Commissioners, said many questions remain about how the conservation plan will be implemented. But he said The Nature Conservancy has addressed the biggest issues.

“We have a long tradition in Keweenaw County of enjoying the outdoors, and losing access to these lands would have really hurt,” Piche said.

The four parcels of land in the Keweenaw Heartlands border other large tracts of forest that have been purchased and protected by The Nature Conservancy, the state of Michigan and other conservation groups. Most of the land at the tip of the peninsula has been conserved and will remain in its natural state. Sustainable logging practices will continue in some areas.

Vye, the Michigan Tech professor, said conserving the rugged landscape will foster education and outreach opportunities that nurture healthy relationships with the land and promote sustainable economic development that’s rooted in recreation and tourism.

“This landscape has shaped the passage of people to this region for thousands of years. As the Keweenaw continues to shift from an extractive economic past, protection of our lands and waters is vital for all beings that call this place home,” Vye said. “What is our legacy? What do we want this place to look like for future generations?”