Natural Places

Relatively natural forest, wetlands, grasslands, and other natural places abound in the Kalamazoo River watershed because of its overall rural nature, the abundance of isolated wetlands that could not be drained for agriculture, and the widespread abandonment of agricultural activity on more marginal lands that were too sloped, erosion prone, or sandy.  In addition, the broad floodplains of the Kalamazoo River valley have returned to a more natural state in many areas.

We are fortunate to have a wide array of protected natural areas in and near the Kalamazoo River watershed.  In total, we have more than 70,000 acres of land in the watershed that have been set aside for recreation and wildlife habitat.  The natural areas in our region, together with land that is still in agriculture, provide important ecosystem services and habitat that are often under-appreciated, including recreational opportunities, maintenance of groundwater, clean water, wildlife habitat, and biodiversity.

Kalamazoo River Watershed Council - Photo: Mark Cassino

Photo: Mark Cassino


Learn more about the natural places found within the Kalamazoo River Watershed:

In 1981, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources designated the lower portion of the Kalamazoo River as a “wild and scenic” river under the Natural Rivers Act. The Natural Rivers program was developed to preserve, protect and enhance our state’s finest river systems for the use and enjoyment of current and future generations. The wild and scenic section extends roughly 23 miles from below the Calkins Dam near Allegan to just below the Hacklander public access site near I-196 in Allegan County.

Broad forested floodplains are characteristic of the lower Kalamazoo River. The Natural River Plan describes thes floodplains as generally covered with lowland forest or marshy wetlands with a mix of willows, cottonwood, silver maple, and ash. Sycamores are scattered along the floodplain in lowland areas. Where conditions are right, a few black walnut can be seen. The marshes contain various sedges, rushes, cattail, smartweed, and aquatic species such as pondweeds and waterlilies. Hunting and fishing are popular throughout this reach of the river, due in large part to good public access throughout the Allegan State Game Area.

Canoeing and kayaking are also popular recreational activities along this stretch of river. Below Allegan Dam, the river is wide and deep and has a moderate current. There is very little development that can be viewed from the river, which makes it an enjoyable stretch to canoe or boat. Most tributaries along this section are not large enough to navigate watercraft, even for non-motorized canoes and kayaks. One exception is the Rabbit River, which is located north of the mainstem of the Kalamazoo River and joins it near New Richmond. This river provides an enjoyable paddle for canoeists who do not mind the occasional portage around logjams and snags. Check out our water trail maps to plan your trip along this wild and scenic section of river.

The State of Michigan owns and managements several state game areas and state parks for use by the public and the protection of animal habitat. These areas which include the Allegan State Game Area, Fort Custer State Recreation Area, Yankee Springs State Recreation Area, and the Barry State Game Area, are enjoyed by thousands of visitors each year.

Check out our Explore page to learn more about the special recreational opportunities at these parks and game areas located right in our backyard. The Fort Custer Training Center is a large area of largely forested military land adjacent to the Fort Custer State Recreation Area and it is increasingly managed to protect and enhance natural features as well as for its training mission.

We have more than 12,000 acres and counting under the protection of local municipalities and conservation organizations such as the Michigan Nature Association and the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy within our watershed. In many cases, these areas contain natural features of particular importance to the Kalamazoo River. The Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy serves the nine county region of southwest Michigan by acquiring and protecting natural areas and open space through gifts, purchases of land, and through conservation easements.

Their work provides important programs and sites for outdoor recreation, nature study and the appreciation of history. They work extensively with individuals and organizations who want to protect ecologically significant land. Learn more about their work and their nature preserves by visiting the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy website.

There are special land preserves and wildlife centers throughout the watershed where residents and visitors can experience and learn about important natural landscapes. From the Baker Bird Sanctuary to the Brooks Nature Area and several world-class nature centers and preserves, our municipalities and conservation organizations are working hard to protect natural lands throughout the watershed. Visit our explore page to learn more about these great places.

The Kalamazoo River watershed has four terrestrial communities and, while each is distinct, there are many transitional zone (ecotones) that exist in between. Some of the dominant species are found in many different communities and may be prevalent in more than one area. The terrestrial communities include:

  • Dry Southern Hardwood Forest – Forests of dry upland sites with burr oak, black oak, or white ash dominating
  • Moist Southern Hardwood Forest – Forests that occur in richer and moister soils and are dominated by beech and sugar maple
  • Wet Lowland Forest – Forests characterized by willow or cottonwood, or bottomland floodplain forest including sycamore, silver maple, and ash
  • Grassland-Savanna Complex – A combination of prairies, sedge meadows, and savannas; characterized as treeless or with scattered trees and dominated by grasses or sedges either wet or dry

In 1994, the Michigan Natural Features Inventory listed several distinctive plant communities of particular conservation interest within Allegan and Kalamazoo counties. In Allegan County, the communities are Dry Sand Prairie, Dry-Mesic Northern Forest, Dry-Mesic Southern Forest, Great Lakes Marsh, Interdunal Wetland, Lakeplain Wet-Mesic Prairie, Mesic Southern Forest, Oak Barrens, Open Dunes, and Prairie Fen. In Kalamazoo County, the communities are Coastal Plain Marsh, Mesic Prairie, Mesic Southern Forest, Prairie Fen, and Southern Floodplain Forest (note: mesic is a habitat with well-drained soils, but with an ample amount of moisture; a fen is a wetland with saturated muck soils, receiving groundwater inputs that are neutral to strongly alkaline).

Throughout the watershed there are oak savanna and prairie remnants. Southwest Michigan is part of the tallgrass prairie region dominated by grasses such as big bluestem and Indian grass. The tallgrass prairie vegetation sometimes reached a height of 10 feet or more. Oak savannas, characterized by a grassy prairie-type ground cover underneath an open tree canopy, are common in areas that border the prairies. Prairies and oak savannas are fire-dependent systems.
Oak savanna and prairies support many species such as the Eastern box turtle and the Great Plains spittlebug. These systems in the watershed also support plants that are rare in Michigan and indicative of high-quality savannas, including rattlesnakemaster, prairie coreopsis, sand grass, and black haw.

Wildlife is abundant throughout the watershed. An inventory of animals of the Allegan State Game Area, completed in the early 1990s listed 235 bird species, 45 mammal species, 19 amphibian species, 76 fish species, and 23 reptile species. Important resident game species include the white-tailed deer, cottontail rabbit, fox squirrel, gray squirrel, raccoon, ring-necked pheasant, ruffed grouse, bobwhite quail, and wild turkey. Beavers are common along most watercourses and in smaller streams and wetlands they often make their presence known by their constant hydraulic engineering.

Important species of waterfowl, commonly taking up summer residence, include the mallard duck, black duck, wood duck, Canada goose, blue-winged teal, and American coot. Others, found only during spring and fall migration, include the blue goose, whistling swan, redhead duck, canvasback, goldeneye, American merganser, bufflehead, lesser scaup, American gallinule, Wilson’s snipe, baldpate, pintail, and green-winged teal. The American woodcock is a migratory forest species.

There are about 2,450 lakes and ponds totaling 37,500 acres scattered across the watershed, ranging in size from Gun Lake (in Allegan and Barry counties) at 2,611 acres and Gull Lake (in Kalamazoo and Barry counties) at 2,040 acres, to numerous smaller lakes and ponds. There are 52 lakes or impoundments of 100 acres or more in area. The larger lakes are popular sites for seasonal and year-round residences, and those with public access also draw visitors from outlying areas to use the lakes for recreational purposes. Protection of the water quality of these lakes is therefore of paramount interest.

Some larger lakes, but primarily the smaller, shallow lakes can become filled with plant growth during the summer. These shallower lakes may not be suitable for motorized boating, but they have significant ecological and aesthetic values and can be excellent for angling. The diversity of lake types in the watershed is connected to a diversity of aquatic plant and animal life as well.

All streams are important for their intrinsic aesthetic, recreational, and ecological values in addition to being conduits of water and, potentially, of pollutants. There are more than 540 linear miles of streams throughout the watershed with the mainstem channel of the Kalamazoo River at roughly 123 miles long. Anecdotal evidence indicates that streams and rivers in the watershed are probably in better ecological condition today than during much of the past 150 years. Since the time of early settlers and industrialization, the natural floodplains along the streams and rivers are becoming reforested, providing a buffer against polluted runoff and soil erosion. These floodplains are important buffers in the face of future pressures for land development along the river corridor.

Coldwater streams, which are tributaries with particularly high rates of groundwater input, are a unique natural feature providing important spawning habitat and thermal refuge for coldwater aquatic species including trout. The Kalamazoo River contains some of the southernmost trout streams in the Midwest. The Kalamazoo Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited has been particularly active in protecting and restoring the trout streams many refer to as “world class.”

There are approximately 160,000 acres of wetlands in the Kalamazoo River watershed, down from more than 250,000 acres prior to the arrival of European settlers. Wetlands play an important role in the maintenance of good water quality, especially where they lie along lakes and streams because they can intercept groundwater and surface runoff, retaining nutrients, sediments and contaminates from the water. Riparian wetlands are located along streambanks and are particularly good at attenuating floods and stabilizing stream channels.

There are a number of important types of wetlands in the watershed. In particular, prairie fens are geologically and biologically unique wetlands found only in the glaciated Midwest. In Michigan, they occur in the southern three to four tiers of counties. Fens are wetlands characterized by high rates of groundwater through-flow, and in southern Michigan that groundwater is typically rich in dissolved ions including calcium, magnesium, and bicarbonate. Typical plants found in prairie fens are switchgrass, Indiangrass, big bluestem, sedges, rushes, Indian-plantain, and prairie dropseed. The wettest part of a prairie fen, which is usually found near the water source, is called a “sedge flat” because members of the sedge family dominate the vegetation. The “fen meadow” often is the largest part and is more diverse with many lowland prairie grasses and wildflowers. Slightly elevated areas, especially around the upland edge, also support tamarack, dogwood, bog birch, poison sumac, and the invasive glossy buckthorn.

Wetlands found in the floodplain of rivers and streams are another important feature in our watershed. Rivers, streams, lakes, or drains may on occasion overflow their banks and inundate adjacent land areas. The land that is inundated by water is defined as a floodplain. In Michigan, and nationally, the term floodplain has come to mean the land area that will be inundated by the overflow of water resulting from a 100-year flood (a flood which has a 1-percent chance of occurring any given year). Often, floodplains are forested. These dynamic forested systems represent an interface between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and are extremely valuable for storing floodwaters, allowing areas for sediment to settle and providing wildlife habitat.

Current threats to floodplains include conversion to industrial, residential, or recreational uses; wetland or floodplain fill or drainage; exotic species invasion; chemical pollution; sedimentation; and nutrient loading from agriculture and other land uses. Almost all rivers and their floodplains are subject to multiple hydrologic alterations, for example changes in land use, human-made levees, impoundments, channelization, and dams. Check out our Wetland Loss page to read more about the importance of wetlands, what’s change over the centuries, and what we can do to restore them.

Get involved with the KWRC by attending one of our many events!