An Interview with Chris Bunch of Six Rivers

An Interview with Chris Bunch of Six Rivers

What’s SB have to do with land conservancy?

Many think of sustainable business as a fairly narrow thing: It has to do with business and being “green”. This is certainly reasonable, but it’s a long way from what sustainable business means. Not long ago, I spoke with Chris Bunch, the Executive Director of Six Rivers Land Conservancy about his work. What I learned has an interesting link to sustainable business thinking.

If you are not familiar with land conservation, it’s the system in which land can be protected from development in perpetuity. The concept is rooted in what John Locke said constituted our rights: “Lives, Liberties, and Estates, which I call by the general Name, Property.” In other words, once we acquire property, we have the right to dispose of it as we see fit. So, if I own real estate, then I – within certain limitations – may do with it as I please. I can either develop or conserve it. Through a relatively complex legal framework known as conservation easements, a land conservancy affords owners the option of ensuring a piece of property never gets developed.

Land conservation has been around since the end of the 19th century when folks living in the northeast US came up with the idea of conserving land from logging. In the 1970s it started to take off with changes to the tax code. These changes allow landowners a tax exemption when they donate or sell land to a non-profit land conservancy such as Six Rivers.

Six Rivers serves the five-county region of Genesee, Lapeer, Macomb Oakland, and St. Clair counties in Southeast Michigan. I asked Chris why land is protected through a conservancy. “There are a lot of reasons to protect property,” Chris said. This includes conserving “wildlife habitat, forest quality or water quality. Water quality is a key issue in the Great Lake State and especially in this region where we’ve had such significant impacts on our water resources.”

Because land is so developed in Southeast Michigan, we often hear about the damage our stormwater infrastructure causes to the lakes. I asked Chris about remediation. According to Chris, Six Rivers “sticks to its knitting” and will call upon partner organizations that are better suited for remedial work. For Chris, when it comes to remediation, “What I always tell people is this: An ounce of preservation is worth $100MM in restoration.” This is why Six Rivers’ work is so important: What little undeveloped land remains in Southeast Michigan is invaluable to our becoming sustainable in the region.

Being able to access nature where we live is something we cannot overlook. It’s vital to who and what we are as human beings. We emerged from nature and are intricately connected with it, so being able to get outside and engage in pristine landscapes is something that adds to the quality of our lives.

While Michigan has over 800MM acres of public land, just 200K acres of that land is in the Southeast Michigan region. And for those of us who live in the region, we’ve managed to develop a mindset that sees nature as “someplace else.”

“It’s a multi-generational thought process ingrained in people that nature is ‘up north’”, Chris said. “This is where we build things. We get in our cars and drive up north” to be part of nature. This is where the connection with sustainable business lies.

When it comes to attracting talent to Detroit and Southeast Michigan, we find ourselves coming up short. By comparison to places such as Denver Colorado, where one can practically walk out the back door and be “in nature”, living in Southeast Michigan means driving somewhere else. The other thing that’s at play is the “out of sight, out of mind” inclination that plagues most of us. If we spend most of our time inside and drive everywhere – which is what we tend to do – it’s easy to think nature is someplace else. We’ll lose touch and be inclined to overlook nature’s importance to our existence. Many of us are beginning to sense this and are looking for ways to bring nature back into our lives. If we want to become sustainable and run sustainable businesses, we need to think critically about these implications.

Here’s what Chris had to say about this: “People will protect what they care for; they care for what they know about; they know about what they have access to. If you have to get in your car and drive up north every time, then that’s where your thought process is. If you can walk out the door, and in five or ten minutes, immerse yourself in natural surroundings, then that will change your thought process.” And this is precisely what we need to do, change our thought processes. We need to think through just how important land conservation is to our region.

Conserving what’s left of Southeast Michigan’s nature is foundational to our becoming sustainable in the region. The more we’ll be able to easily connect with nature, the more likely our appreciation for nature will increase. Having nature readily accessible in Southeast Michigan will improve recruiting and retention. It’ll also drive home the importance of sustainable business practices, those that lower negative impacts on nature and uplift the need for connecting with nature. It’s a win-win-win for people, the planet, and profit.

If you want to learn more about Six Rivers Land Conservancy or support their work, please check out their website.

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