Summer Slater had never been to Belle Isle when I met her at the Friends of the Detroit Rivers’ Stewardship Days on the island.
“This is kind of like out of my comfort zone,” she told me. “I’m not really interested in nature too much, but it was nice to get a little scenery.”
But her friend Madison Turner had a different reaction.
“I loved learning about the trees, the honeysuckle,” she said. “My favorite part of the day was seeing the bald eagles. I want to do something where I can help them in the future.”
Turner, a participant in Green Door Initiative’s youth group, said the experience has helped her realize that natural resource stewardship is the sort of work she’d enjoy as an adult.
For many Detroiters, Belle Isle is a hotspot for nature and recreation. The island boasts one of the most unique ecosystems on earth. It’s a refuge for both aquatic and avian species and allows us humans a chance to reconnect back to nature.
Unfortunately, years of environmental degradation have taken a toll on this natural ecosystem. Legacy chemicals dating back to the Industrial Revolution have been festering in the riverbed, causing health issues for fish and other aquatic species (and for those who eat them). In recent decades, dredging the river floor has removed some harmful sediment, but much work still needs to be done.
But now, with the help of the Friends of the Detroit River, a group of determined youth are now learning all they can do to meet that challenge.
The Friends of the Detroit River first banded together in the 1990s to prevent development in Humburg Marsh in Trenton. This area was the last natural shoreline on the U.S. side of the river, and construction on the lands would have jeopardized wildlife and fish species living there.
With the help of other environmental groups, they waged a 7-year-long battle against the developing company, ultimately ending in a win for the wildlife with the project being terminated.
“And from that, we realized there’s a need for a group like this,” said McKenzie Waliczek, Stewardship Director, for the organization.
In the years following the battle for Humbug Marsh, the organization expanded its programming to include river monitoring and partnering with other groups to supervise and improve the health of the Detroit River by influencing grant projects.
This year, the Friends of the Detroit River has partnered with SER Metro-Detorit and The Green Door Initiative youth groups to showcase Belle Isle and highlight possible career pathways in the environmental and wildlife sectors.
For three Fridays this summer, these students traveled to the island to participate in water quality and macroinvertebrate sampling with the Belle Isle Nature Center, kayaking with the Belle Isle Conservancy fleet, invasive species control with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and more. For their work on the island, the students earned $11 an hour.
“It’s transformative for these young Black and brown students to see another world that isn’t full of just screens,” Ian Price, a leader of the Green Door Initiative group, told Planet Detroit.“They can make a difference by actually getting out there in the environment.”
FDR has done other programs with youth, but nothing like this before, Waliczek said. “It was a strategic goal of our organization to increase stewardship programming,” she said. “We anticipate it to be a long-lasting one that we hope to continue for years to come.”
The students in the program ranged in age from 14 to 19, with some older students serving as mentors. Having the ability to participate in a paying program gives students a realistic goal to strive for and shows them new experiences outdoors, Waliczek said.
She added that many students who participated in the Stewardship Days have never been to Belle Isle. Obstacles like transportation to the island and finding time in parents’ schedules prevent many young Detroiters from visiting the state park.
For the last day of the program, the plan was to work on invasive species removal, break for lunch, and then finish the day with a hike to the William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse. But the previous night’s heat and rain forced the instructors to end the day earlier than expected, omitting the hike.
Despite not encountering any animals during the hike, we saw a family of nesting bald eagles.
Kelsy Dietz, a natural resource steward with the Michigan DNR, explained to the students what types of invasive plants they were looking for and how to safely remove them. They searched for non-native honeysuckle and buckthorn shrubs, which tend to outcompete native species and can negatively affect nesting birds.
The students had already removed other types of invasive species in different parts of the park, but this day they worked in Belle Isle’s mesic flatwoods, a globally rare ecosystem found only in southeastern Michigan formed from poor glacial draining during the last Ice Age, thousands of years ago. These lands typically are moist, rich soil soils that sponsor species like oaks, hickories, and maple trees.
The group together had an even ratio of boys to girls, with most participants separating into teams along the trail to comb through the greenery to find their target plant. One student would cut the base of the plant and toss it off the trail, while another would dab an herbicidal solution on the branch to nullify further growth.
The heat caused students to take frequent rehydration breaks, wiping sweat away from their faces with gloved hands.
Waliczek hopes that by participating in this program, kids are exposed to lifestyles and career paths that were once foreign to them, and shows them how it’s possible to pursue them.
“We want them to realize that jobs like this exist,” Waliczek said. “This isn’t just a fantasy job, it’s real.”