Face Of This Place

Ruth Thornton, Ann Arbor

Ruth Thornton works in the Fund’s Ann Arbor office, where she manages the Ann Arbor Greenbelt Initiative. Launched in 2003, the Initiative protects and links city parks, natural areas and working farms. A native of Vienna, Austria, Ruth moved to the U.S. to attend college, and has spent the last 16 years working for environmental nonprofits and state agencies.

How did the Ann Arbor Greenbelt Initiative start?
The Ann Arbor Greenbelt Initiative is an innovative program established to protect open space, farmland, natural habitats, and city water sources in and around Ann Arbor, Michigan.  It accomplishes this by purchasing parklands within the city and the development rights, or conservation easements, on farmlands and natural spaces surrounding the city. 

How and why did the Initiative get started?
In 2003, when the residents of Ann Arbor voted to approve a 30-year tax to preserve and protect open space, the initiative was launched.  At that time there was tremendous development pressure from Detroit, and residential developments were being built on surrounding farmland and open space at an alarming rate.  Ann Arbor residents recognized the value of the farmlands and open spaces in and around the city, and realized that they were an essential and integral part of the quality of life and unique character of the city.  Since then, the tax program has raised over $2 million per year, has protected more than 4,600 acres of farmland and natural areas around Ann Arbor, and has added 72 acres of parkland within the city.

How has the Initiative changed over time?
The biggest change has been the increased focus and community support for local food production. Ten years ago, people believed agriculture was no longer viable in this area. Many farmers were aging out of farming and weren’t investing in infrastructure because they thought they were going to be the last generation to farm the land. Today, there is a renaissance in farming in many areas of Michigan.  More young people are interested in farming as a career, and they see the area as ideally located because it’s close to the markets where people want to buy local foods. Farmers are redoing their barns and building infrastructure to invest in their operations for the next generation of farmers. Watching this transition has been wonderful.

What attracted you to The Conservation Fund, and excites you about this initiative?
Before I worked for The Conservation Fund, I was with The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia and then Minnesota, and had the opportunity to work with various Conservation Fund staff on different projects.  I was very impressed by their willingness to collaborate and find innovative solutions to conservation problems.  My last position was in rural Northwestern Minnesota, where I worked with private landowners and partners to protect native prairie land, a very similar position to what I’m doing now, but without the emphasis on farmland.  New and beginning farmers often face a steep financial hurdle to afford farmland, especially this close to a metropolitan area.  By eliminating the development rights on the land, conservation easements make the land affordable for local farmers in addition to providing many benefits to the public.  When I learned about the Greenbelt program and all it had accomplished so far, I knew it was an exciting initiative that I wanted to be a part of.

Do you see a lot of community support?
Absolutely.  I regularly talk to people who recognize the value of the program and appreciate the long-term benefits it provides to the community.  I recently talked to the landowners who completed the first easement 10 years ago, Tom and Roseanne Bloomer. It was great to hear how supportive they still are of the program, and how happy they are that they took the step to protect their beautiful farm in perpetuity.

What do you see as the Initiative’s greatest accomplishment?
I am just amazed that the program has been able to protect more than 4,600 acres and put over 50 easements in place in such a relatively small area around Ann Arbor and so close to Detroit.  It really highlights the foresight the residents of Ann Arbor had to tax themselves to preserve the open character and beauty of their home.

What do you wish more people knew about this work?
There are a lot of misconceptions about conservation easements, how they work, and the rights the landowners retain.  I wish more people understood the benefits both the landowners and the general public get—depending on the property being protected, the benefits can include wildlife and natural habitat protection, corridors for wildlife movement, protection of our drinking water sources, and economic benefits like enabling small farms to compete financially.

Looking forward, what’s most exciting to you about the future of the Initiative?
A really exciting aspect of this program is the collaboration with landowners and partners to find creative conservation solutions.  Each project is unique, and I enjoy working with each landowner to help them protect their property in a way that enables them to retain ownership and use of the land while providing all the public benefits of conservation easements.  The Ann Arbor Greenbelt Initiative has worked closely with many other local organizations to complete the projects, including landowners, Washtenaw County, the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service program, townships, and local land trusts such as Legacy Land Conservancy and Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy.  The Initiative would not be successful without the combined dedication and enthusiasm of all these people and organizations.

Learn More

Face Of This Place
Places We Work: Michigan
Ann Arbor Greenbelt Initiative