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Introducing Buttonbush and Hickory: Ann Arbor's newest nature areas

Leaves changing colors in the Buttonbush Nature Area in Ann Arbor. (Credit: Michael Hahn, NAP Supervisor)

ANN ARBOR – The city has officially named its newest nature areas on the north side.

The Buttonbush Nature Area is in Ann Arbor's northeast corner and Hickory Nature Area is in the city's north central region. Both parcels provide natural corridors and the Buttonbush Nature Area is home to rare wildlife.

Dave Borneman, deputy manager at Ann Arbor's Natural Area Preservation, was closely involved in the process. 

See our Q&A with Borneman below, where he explains the significance of the nature areas, which plant and wildlife species call them home, and how parks are named in Ann Arbor.

David Borneman, NAP deputy manager, leads a controlled burn training at the Leslie Science and Nature Center on Feb. 22, 2018 (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

The following interview was conducted via email.

How long was this in the works?

"We've had our eyes on the Buttonbush Nature Area site for a long time. Years ago, we identified the buttonbush swamp there as an important habitat for some rare wildlife, including the state-threatened Dukes' skipper butterfly. The surrounding wooded portions of the site contain a mature oak-hickory forest that approximates what the Ann Arbor area would have looked like historically. There aren't many of these native forest remnants left in the city, so we are excited to be able to set aside this 16-acre parcel as a public park. It helps to maintain a natural corridor through the northeast corner of the city.

"Similarly, at Hickory Nature Area, this parcel was long identified as an important part of a natural corridor through the north central portion of the city, so we were pleased when the developer donated this land to the city as a park. This parcel is only 2 acres in size, but there may be opportunities in the future to acquire additional parkland nearby."

How did you decide on the names for the new nature areas?

"Park naming is done on a case-by-case basis. In some cases, naming requirements are spelled out as part of the park acquisition process. If a new acquisition is adjacent to an existing park or nature area, staff typically add the parcel to the existing parkland. When neither of those situations exist staff looks for a name that reflects something unique about that park. If it is a nature area, staff look for a name that calls out a significant and unique aspect of that park. The typical process for naming a new nature area is that staff, who have visited the park and who are familiar with how that park compares to other city parks, suggest a name based on the natural features of that park. 

The Buttonbush Nature Area in Ann Arbor. (Credit: Michael Hahn, NAP Supervisor)

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"The Park Advisory Commission is then presented with a resolution that recommends the naming of the park. The resolution is on the PAC agenda so the public has the opportunity to comment at that time. If the PAC resolution is adopted then a resolution comes to council for adoption. 

"At Buttonbush Nature Area, the choice was easy because the most unique feature of this site is the large buttonbush swamp in the center of the park. Hickory Nature Area, being considerably smaller, doesn't offer anything quite as unique. The largest trees there are oaks, as is the case in many of Ann Arbor's parks. And we already have several parks with 'Oak' in the name. But we don't have any with 'Hickory' in the name, and hickories are certainly another abundant native tree at this site."

How often does the opportunity to acquire parkland arise?

"If a new housing development comes to the city, we often try to get some new parkland designated to meet the needs of the new residents. That's especially true if the site contains significant natural features, or if there are no other parks nearby. Sometimes the new parkland is donated by the developer, as was the case with Hickory Nature Area. Sometimes it is purchased by the city. And sometimes it is a combination of donation and purchase, as was the case with Buttonbush Nature Area.

"We also respond to private property owners who offer their land for sale to the city. The frequency of this ebbs and flows, but probably happens on average every few months. As such offers come to us, staff and the Park Advisory Commission review each parcel and decide whether or not it is a parcel we are interested in pursuing."

How much land makes up Ann Arbor's nature areas?

"The Ann Arbor park system is made up of 163 parks encompassing nearly 2,200 acres. Of those, approximately 1,530 acres are undeveloped natural areas."

Fall leaves seen on the forest floor in the Buttonbush Nature Area in Ann Arbor. (Credit: Michael Hahn, NAP Supervisor)

Which plant and animal species can be found in these new nature areas?

"Buttonbush Nature Area consists mainly of dry-mesic forest dominated by oaks and hickories. A large buttonbush swamp lies in the central portion of the site, and a stream flows to the south from the swamp. North of the swamp, several vernal pools provide habitat for amphibians. The property is connected to Foxfire South Park on its western edge, and is not far from Oakwoods Nature Area to the east, which makes it an important link in the habitat corridor in the northeast area of Ann Arbor.

"Many interesting species can be found in this park, including wild turkey, wood thrush, wood frog, salamanders, bladdernut, swamp white oak, black ash, Indian pipe, great blue lobelia, blue flag, monkey-flower and turtlehead. In addition, the federally threatened eastern massasauga rattlesnake has been observed in adjacent Foxfire South, and a Dukes' skipper butterfly, which is a protected threatened species in Michigan, was observed in the buttonbush swamp in 2002. 

"Hickory Nature Area also consists of dry-mesic forest dominated by oaks and hickories, including a small grove of hickories on its western edge. The forest is notable because it contains many large landmark trees, such as white oaks, shagbark hickories and sugar maples, which had been part of a fencerow around the property when it was a farm field in the first half of the 1900s.

"The property is the first acquisition in what could potentially become a larger network of protected natural areas providing connections to the Huron Parkway Right-of-Way and Onder Nature Area to the south, and Leslie Park and Black Pond Woods Nature Area to the east. Such connections are beneficial to the movements of both wildlife and park users."

The Buttonbush Nature Area in Ann Arbor. (Credit: Michael Hahn, NAP Supervisor)

Looking ahead, are there currently plans in the works to acquire more land?

"The city is always on the lookout for opportunities to acquire parcels that have been identified by the Park Advisory Commission as high priority."

Below is an excerpt from the city's current PROS Plan (Park, Recreation and Open Space Plan):

Get involved

Saturday will be the first opportunity to visit the Buttonbush Nature Area with a Stewardship Workday event. From 1 to 4 p.m., volunteers will be cutting invasive shrubs like honeysuckle and buckthorn to help care for the nature area.

The group will meet at the end of Hickory Point Drive, off Foxway Drive. See the map here.

Volunteers are asked to wear long pants and closed-to shoes. Minors should attend with a guardian and all participants must fill out a release form. Tools and snacks will be provided.

To learn more about Natural Area Preservation, visit its website.

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About the Author:

Meredith Bruckner

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.