A wild and happy place

Southgate’s Nature Center is a peaceful home to wildlife

By Hank Minckiewicz

The frogs thrum, the birds trill, somewhere a fish splashes in a pond. The sun beats down warmly, there is a fragrance in the air and if you didn’t know better, you’d imagine you were in the middle of nowhere, miles away from people, cars, noise and civilization, in general. 

But you’re not, you are in the Southgate Nature Center, smack dab in the middle of Downriver just minutes from everything civilization has to offer. 

As you sit in the nearly 40-acre site, the cattails and the invasive phragmites rustle in the breeze and a dragonfly hums past; bees and other insects buzz overhead and go about their pollenating business. The Nature Center is a small bit of wild Michigan.

One of the founding Nature Center Committee members, John Nasarzewski wrote, “It is a place of openness in a place that is becoming overcrowded and where population density is increasing. It is a place to escape for those who do not have the means to travel the increasing distances to get to open areas.”

Bounded by Southgate Anderson High School to the east, Dix-Toledo road to the west, Leroy Street to the north and the former Southgate Regional Center, now owned by Christ the King Lutheran Church, the site was once a dumping area, littered with old tires and other debris. Prior to that, it was farmland back in the area’s agrarian days

Today, it is an amazing place, a place filled with flora and fauna that was found in this area centuries ago.

Anderson environmental science teacher Bruce Szczechowski, who likely spends more time in the Nature Center than any other human, says the area is unique because it holds many different kind of ecosystems, from ponds and streams to meadows and even forests.

“I do most of my teaching there,” Szczechowski said. “What better classroom is there in the world?”

For years, the little plot of land, located behind a rundown bar, was a forgotten patch of Southgate. The parched hard clay earth was home to some hardy weeks, piles worn out, used tires and assorted trash.

That changed in 1996 when some dedicated teachers and administrators joined forces, teamed up with the city and and brought the Nature Center to life.

The school district initially owned about 18 acres of what would become the Nature Center. An additional 23 acres was purchased by the city with a grant from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in 1999. A Meijer Wetlands Mitigation grant – to compensate for wetlands destroyed during the building of the Woodhaven store – restored 8.2 acres of wetlands in the Nature Center in 2000.

The Anderson Ecology Club and the Downriver Stream Team spent three years cleaning up the the site. Students from the Anderson’s CAD class mapped the site for the initial engineering survey. Students in environmental science classes conducted field studies that inventoried wildlife and vegetation.

Then, heavy equipment was brought in to move earth, create the big pond and sculpt the otherwise flat site. Dirt removed to create the big and small ponds was used to create a rise that allows a natural observation point and provides an incline for walkers.

Environmentally friendly recycled plastic benches were added throughout the center and paths were added, strategically designed to avoid nesting and breeding areas. Today, a blacktop path connects the Nature Center with the Downriver Linked Greenways system.

In 1999 both the city and the schools passed resolutions for a Management Service Agreement  with the schools accepting responsibility regarding the operation of the Nature Center. The term is for “99 years and on to perpetuity.”

At that time, Nasarzewski, said: 

“The hope is that future generations, residents of Southgate and surrounding communities, will appreciate the fact that at the turn of the 21st century a group of citizens preserved what will probably be the largest parcel of open space in Southgate for their enjoyment of nature and their contemplative, restorative and healthful use.”

Among others joining with Nasarzewski at the beginning were Merle Shepherd, Bill Boatin, Eric Carlson, Jim DeVor, Mary Lou Provost, Ms. LaFortune, Stan Mazur, Mike Kell, Jim Cannon, Elmer McCans and David Pinkowski.

Today, the Nature Center is an inviting place, but make no mistake, this is not manicured park. This is a playground for nature.

Szczechowski said the Nature Center is home to whitetail deer, coyotes, rabbits, racoons and more. He said he and his classes have cataloged more than 120 species of birds in the Nature Center.

The Nature Center is even home to one endangered species – the smallmouth salamander.

“I tell my class every year, it is an automatic A if your find an adult smallmouth salamander,” said Szczechowski. “I haven’t have to give one, yet. We find their tadpoles often, but even with the amount of time I spend out there, I have only ever seen two adults.”

When asked about environmental testing of the area, Szczechowski said the great biodiversity of the area points to its overall health.

The area’s big pond sustains a population of fish and Szczechowski said he knows that Anderson assistant principal Pinkowski regularly catches bass and rock bass there. The pond also has a sizeable population of goldfish and Koi, as people have used it as an option for ridding themselves them.

Rabbits and other small prey are abundant and that accounts for the number of hawks and other raptors that regularly patrol the Nature Center area.

For people, the center offers a serene setting; a place where you can go to think, sketch or just enjoy a few moments away for the hustle and bustle of everyday life. You can also jog, walk the dag, push a stroller or just take a few moments to be quiet and watch as nature goes about its business all around you.

You can access the Nature Center off of LeRoy Road and parking is available in the high school’s west lot. 

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