Blue Heron Ministries

An opportunity to be stewards of our Lord's creation within the context of community

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Sugarin’ Time – by Nate Simons

Sometimes there is snow on the ground and the nights are cold. Sometimes the snow is thawed and the daytime temperatures are above freezing. That’s the time to collect maple sap to make sweet confections.

Alexis tapping a spile

Alexis tapping a spile

While John was teaching his son how to steward prairies, I invited Denille, Olivia and Alexis Conklin to Blue Heron Ministries’ LaTierra Sanctuary to carry on the late winter tradition of tapping maple trees. The sun was shining and the sap was flowing strongly. The girls got a taste of the maples’ first offerings.

Olivia Conklin taste testing the first sap

Olivia Conklin taste testing the first sap

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Fire Any Time? – by Nate Simons

As we try to recreate a culture of fire within our remnant and restorable prairie-oak ecosystem at home here in Lakes Country, we grapple with the question of “When should we burn?” So we look for clues from the past in order to carry on the tradition that has been handed to us by the folks who lived here before us.

Typically, land managers within the last forty years have focused on lighting fires to prairies and open oak woodlands in the spring. The fuel, oak leaves, dried grasses and wildflowers, is “cured” and dry and brown and burns readily. At recently-attended Michigan Prescribed Fire Council meetings, we listened to land managers who indicate that we are losing ground to the shade of invasive shrubs and non-oak, non-fire dependent trees. In other words, we are losing the battle to restore our fire-dependent prairie-oak ecosystems to shade-tolerant, fire-intolerant ecosystems because we can’t keep up with the number of acres that need to be burned regularly. One limiting factor to putting more fire on the ground is the practice of holding tightly to the recent tradition of burning only in the spring.

In our quest to restore more of our home landscape and to create a culture of fire, we are encouraged by the vanguard to look at as many opportunities as possible to light fire outside of the “normal” burn window. But did the region burn historically at other times of the year? We all have heard anecdotally of fire in the fall. In fact the colloquialism “Indian Summer” refers to the autumnal warm-up after a hard, killing frost. Our European forefathers coined the term referring to the smoky, hazy skies that resulted from late fall fires set by their aboriginal neighbors…skies that looked like the hazy skies on a muggy August evening.

But what about fire in the summer? Apparently the Potawatomi also burned the prairies and oak openings during the growing season as well. Below, and once again, is an excerpt from James Fenimor Cooper’s Oak Openings.

[Note: The bee-hunter was named Ben Boden or le Bourdon. Just prior to their marriage under the bur oak cathedral (see the November issue of Rustling Grass for that account), he and Margery had attended a council meeting of the Potawatomi and were on their way back to their camp in the oak openings adjacent to the Kalamazoo River. As the story began in late July, 1812, this seen likely took place in early August.]

“Boden and Margery had much to say to each other in that walk, which had a great deal about it to bring their thoughts within the circle of their own existence. As has been said, the fire had run through that region late, and the grasses were still young, offering but little impediment to their movements. As the day was now near its heat, le Bourdon led his spirited, but gentle companion, through the groves, where they had the benefit of the most delicious shade, a relief that was getting to be very grateful.”

Fire during the growing season has the positive effect of setting back brush and fire-intolerant trees better and for a longer period of time than fire in the spring. Fire during the growing season stimulates a new flush of grasses and wildflowers (especially legumes) which increases foraging ad grazing by ungulates. And if the entire area is not burned, the resulting patchiness and heterogeneity creates a more diverse habitat that can lead to more opportunities for nectaring by pollinators. In effect, the burned wildflowers sprout and bloom again later thereby extending the flowering period of the forbs.

We will be looking for more opportunities to experiment with summer fires as we did a few summers ago in Karner Blue Butterfly habitat in western Michigan.

Members of the Blue Crew string fire in an oak woods in Newaygo County Michigan to stimulate Karner Blue Butterfly habitat

Photo by Nate Simons

And what about winter? Yes, when there is no snow on the ground and the relative humidity is low enough, the short days still provide opportunities to burn. The Blue Heron Ministries crew ventured into the (prairie) field in early January with sub-freezing temperatures to cozy-up next to the fire. With no water to defend against mishaps (we had very good fire control lines) and at 22 degrees, fire still did its job to maintain the prairies. We conducted 6 prescribed fires the second week after the new year.

Josh stringing fire in an early January 2020 prescribed fire

Photo by Nate Simons

And in the spirit of recreating a culture of fire, John Brittenham took the opportunity that a weekend warm-up provided prior to this last snowfall to teach his 6-year old son, David, how to carefully burn a prairie.

David torch and water sprayer

Photo by John Brittenham


So with the erratic weather that has produced wetter than “normal” springs and falls, our new normal might be to take care of the land similarly to the traditions of people who lived here before we moved in. We can live into those traditions and burn any time conditions are favorable to carry fire…because that is when fires happened historically in our neck of the woods.

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2020 Summer Field Steward Internship

Blue Heron Ministries is looking to fill one field steward internship position for the Field Steward Internship 2020summer of 2020. We are a nonprofit Christian land conservation organization based out of Angola, Indiana. We work with other nonprofit organizations, governmental agencies, and private land owners in and around northeast Indiana and southwest Michigan. Our mission is to build communities where creation is kept and keep creation so that community may be restored. A description of this internship is as follows:

  • Intensive and arduous labor.
  • Term will be the beginning of June thru mid-August (flexible).
  • 35-40 hours a week.
  • $10/hr.
  • Invasive species control predominantly in wetlands in Steuben, LaGrange, and surrounding counties (Indiana and Michigan). Some travel and overnight stay will be required for distant projects.
  • Control of herbaceous invasive species (i.e. reed canary grass, cattails, purple loosestrife, etc.) will involve herbicide applications. Some upland and wetland brush control will be included.
  • Work conditions will be hot, wet, and poisonous (poison sumac, poison ivy, Massasaugas, etc.) but where else can you enjoy the presence of God while caring for His creation in such a tangible way?
  • Flexible to work with course requirements.
  • Able to assist with housing.
  • Intern must have a positive attitude, the willingness to learn and take direction, the ability to work independently and with a crew, and possess an attention to detail.
  • No experience necessary.
  • Intern will obtain an Indiana pesticide applicator’s license during the internship.
  • Interns will gain knowledge on a number of topics including but not limited to:
    • Plant identification and monitoring
    • The what, why, and how of ecological restoration
    • Land management practices within prairie and oak ecosystems
    • The lawful, ethical, and safe use of herbicides
    • Opportunities to network with other conservation organizations

Send resumes and cover letters to attn: Nate Simons, by February 28, 2020. Applicants will be called for interviews the following week.

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2019 Annual Report

With the close of calendar year 2019, Blue Heron Ministries completed its 18th year as a subsidiary ministry of the Presbyterian Chapel of the Lakes. Five highlights marked the year. For the first time we invited two summer interns to join us. Emily Schmidt stayed on to become a full-time field steward. Secondly, we paid cash for a lakefront property. Thirdly, we added space onto our garage…and paid cash for the work. We initiated our first “ask” for funds to acquire property since 2003 and raised over $51,000 from friends. And the stewardship staff became affectionately known as the “Blue Crew” within the conservation community.

Together we explored, worked in, and taught the wonders of God’s creation within the community. Rustling Grass e-newsletter and Facebook presence continue to inform friends of our theology, our work, and upcoming volunteer events. Scheduled public events included:

  • John Brittenham presented “Cultivating Land Awareness and Stewardship with Students at a K-12 Montessori School” at The Stewardship Network’s annual conference.
  • 17th annual Prairie Planting Party (Brennan Woods Fen) in February instead of last December.
  • Program presentations for the Pleasant Lake Lions Club, Pleasant View Church of Christ, Branch County S&WCD, and Steuben Genealogical Society.
  • Public demonstration prescribed fire at Spangler Grove.
  • John led a workshop on butterfly identification and monitoring strategies.
  • Led Mrs. Clary’s 2nd grade class on a day hike to teach stewardship in area preserves.
  • Initiated and led a bi-monthly Conservation Workshop Series at Pokagon SP.
  • Led volunteer work day at Pigeon River Fish & Wildlife Area. Controlled brush in a decadent oak savanna.
  • Presented the homily for an outdoor wedding at Badger Barrens during the wild blue lupine bloom.
  • Led volunteer work day at Badger Barrens.
  • Led a canoe/kayak trip on the Pigeon River.
  • Led ecology field labs at Grace College.
  • Four (4) October volunteer Seed Collection Tours.
  • 15th annual Thanksgiving breakfast.
  • 18th annual Prairie Planting Party at Clear Lake Nature Preserve. 24 sowers!
Volunteers pull the weedy hairy vetch at Badger Barrens Sanctuary

Volunteers pull the weedy hairy vetch at Badger Barrens Sanctuary

Land Trust
Blue Heron Ministries owns 149 acres of sanctuaries and holds conservation easements on 1,153 acres of private property. In 2019 we:

  • Closed on the Center Lake property (109 acres) after a 6 ½ year delay. Due to a
  • Bicentennial Nature Trust grant and a bargain sale, we spent no money.
    Purchased another half-acre lot on Mirror Lake adjacent to Badger Barrens.
Pale vetchling peavine is doing well in the open oak woods of Mirror Lake

Pale vetchling peavine is doing well in the open oak woods of Mirror Lake

Natural Lands Restoration
The hands-on craft of ecological restoration is the visible and active expression of our faith that relationships between God, humanity, and the rest of creation can be restored and experience substantial healing even in an imperfect world. “Stewardship of creation” is our banner. Contractual work is how we primarily fund the ministry. Blue Heron Ministries actively stewards over 1,900 acres covering over 70 separate projects for private, non-profit, and local governmental landowners. 2019 highlights included:
Controlled woody and herbaceous invasive species and conducted prescribed fires (60 this year!) in rare and declining habitats: fens, sedge meadows, prairies, sand barrens, and oak savannas and woodlands within a geographical triangle from Steuben County to Lake County, IN and Newaygo County, MI.

  • Sowed 118.5 acres of prairie using locally-genetic seed.
  • Helped search for federally-endangered Mitchell’s Satyr Butterflies in a fen in LaGrange County. Found one!
  • Completed the final year of several, large multi-year contracts including: LaGrange
  • County Park’s Pine Knob Park Fen and Savanna Restoration, Michigan Audubon Society’s Shagbark Trails, and Clear Lake Township Land Conservancy’s Clear Lake Nature Preserve.
Shelby performs some internal ignition in a white oak woods at Ferrara Savanna

Shelby performs some internal ignition in a white oak woods at Ferrara Savanna

Conservation Design
We kept up on community and local conservation needs.

  • Consulted with an Elkhart County landowner to perform a wetlands assessment.

For fiscal year January 1, 2019 – December 31, 2019 (see attached “Blue Heron Ministries Profit and Loss”), we had a net income of $10,260! Thanks, Dad, for this kind of blessing, too! Year-end account balances:

  • Unrestricted cash on hand (12/31/19): $58,583.30.
  • 12-month Certificate of Deposit (Enforcement Fund): $17,518.71.
  • Escrowed 3-month’s-worth of payroll for entire staff ($62,730.70) and 3-month’s-worth of operating expenses ($7,852.45) in case of future downtime.
  • Gave year-end bonuses to staff and increased field staff wages for 2020.

Guided by Board of Advisors (Tom Smith, Neal Lewis, Peg Zeis, and Beth Williams), organizational staff Nate Simons (exec. director) and Beth Williams (admin. assistant) along with a cohesive Blue Crew (Phil Bieberich, John Brittenham, Peter Bauson, Josh Hall, Gary Wappelhorst, and Shelby Holsinger) worked with a dedicated “family” of volunteers and part-time field crew members to fight fires, apply herbicide, gather seed, and plant prairie. Blue Heron Ministries exists as a unique opportunity for folks to apply the hand’s-on craft of ecological restoration to steward our Lord’s creation within the context of community.

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Observing God’s Beauty – by Fred Duschl

Psalm 100: 5: For God is sheer beauty,
all generous in love, loyal always and ever.
Translation by Eugene Petterson, in The Message.

“I hate snow and winter,” some people say to me.
I observe: each season is a window into God’s beauty.
“Oh, I cannot stand that wintry cold,” some of us
may be saying. Yet, I think, we are humans with great minds.
We can deal with changes in the weather.
I say: “Dress for the season.”

So I do. I get out my long johns. I unpack my lined jeans.
I find heavy socks. I put on my Mickey Mouse boots,
find a wool scarf and a wool hat, find my acrylic mittens,
and lastly, I snuggle into my heavy winter coat.
I am ready. Thank God for warm clothing.

My dogs and I face into the bracing cold weather.
We were taken aback with a three inch snowfall on November 12,
and besides that, hit with a 10 degree cold morning the day after.
Even with all of that, did you see the clear full moon?
It was beautiful.

Outside, I observed the beauty of the new fallen snow.
Did you see all those late clinging leaves
from the oaks and American beech,
now lying on top of the snow?
Leaves, black and brown, covering the white snowfall.
And over there, fire engine red leaves fallen from the Fire Bush,
placing red splotches of color onto the snow.
They are, you know, just calling attention to God’s beauty,
if we just observe.

Into the woods comes a hunter, dressed in his
camouflage suit and hat, carrying his chair and his bow.
He seats himself in a tree. After a while,
he observes racoons walking by,
just chattering,
calling out to each other.
And over there, running squirrels, filling their mouths
with acorns and hickory nuts, burying
them in dirt for a future meal.

The hunter waits for “his” buck deer,
but they are smart deer, keeping themselves at a good distance.
But the quiet slowly sinks into the hunter’s soul.
Contentedly, he prays and thanks God for sharing
beauty and love that the hunter finds in nature.

Meanwhile, I walk into the same woods.
I listen
to sounds of the forest, rustling leaves,
some now letting go from the mother tree,
slipping, floating gracefully to the snow below.

I hear
crows cawing as I come near.

I listen again
to the mournful cries of the red-tailed hawk
looking for a meal.

I recognize the
moving sound of a semi truck
in the distance traveling its way across the state route.

Thank you, God,
for the sounds of nature and of man.
The key to seeing God’s beauty around us
is observing, being attentive, and being aware
of what is around us.

So I thank God
for being able to pay attention, to observe,
to being mindful, and of seeing,

God’s gifts of nature surround us all.
Thanks be to God for His beauty, His Love, and His Faithfulness.
I bow my head in wonder and in awe.

November 24, 2019


Nates’ granddaughter, Gracie, bundled up to create some artwork in Columbus, Ohio’s first snow of the season – by Natalie Shoemaker

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Prairie Planting Party 2019 – by Fred Wooley

Always a tradition, always fun, always a culmination of a year’s effort, Blue Heron Ministries’ employees and friends gathered for our annual prairie planting for 2019 on December 7. Each year a site is selected to hand plant a one-acre plot of new and, given the site’s location, restored prairie.

BHM December Prairie Planting 12_7_2019 Brennan Woods _ Evelyn. Naomi. John Brittenham _ by Fred Wooley

Evelyn, Naomi, and John Brittenham – by Fred Wooley

The work for the project begins during this year’s growing and fruiting season. Seeds of prairie grasses, sedges, and forbs are gathered in late summer and all fall. The bulk material is dried and stored in breathable bags. Throughout the wet and cold days of November and early December, those seeds are cleaned, separated from the chaff, leaves, and stems, weighed and carefully labeled and recorded.

The work at the planting site usually begins two growing seasons before planting with carefully applied herbicides and plant removal. A one-acre site is selected on one of the properties managed during the year by Blue Heron Ministries.


Cheryl Taylor scattering seeds – by Fred Wooley

It then all comes together the first Saturday of December. The first Saturday of Advent, we gather to plant an acre of prairie, recognize the preparation of the Christmas season, and celebrate the coming of both a restored prairie and the birth of the Christ child.

This year 24 people, ranging in age from 3 to 83, participated. We gathered at the Presbyterian Chapel of the Lakes (BHM headquarters) and caravanned to Clear Lake and the Clear Lake Township Land Conservancy-owned Clear Lake Nature Preserve. Approximately 12 acres of former old field within the 45-acre preserve is being converted to prairie by Blue Heron Ministries. Within the 12 acres, this year’s one-acre plot was staked out in quarter-acre blocks and ready for us.

It was a cool and cloudy day, but all bundled, we were ready. Two huge tubs of prairie seed were mixed with oats on site; the oat seeds serving as a “carrier” for the tiny prairie seeds. The contents of those two tubs were divided into four portions and four times, director Nate Simons scooped the mix into the buckets of 24 eager seed spreaders. We then four-times stretched out over a long line and walked from one side of each quarter-acre plot to the other dispersing our seeds.

It is a simple process. Now nature takes over. The winter rains and snows carry the seeds into a receptive earth and next spring germination occurs and a prairie begins.

BHM December Prairie Planting 12_7_2019 Brennan Woods _ 24 in a line! by Fred Wooley

 24 in a line! – by Fred Wooley

After the planting, participants reconvened at the home of CLTLC Director Bridget Harrison. We enjoyed refreshments and reviewed our day and gave thanks and praise during this beginning of the Advent season.

It is always a wonderful mix of people on these events. We have BHM fulltime and part time employees and family members. That is a tribute to any organization when an employee “gives up” a Saturday, a day off, to participate in a work related event. That speaks to both the dedication of employees and the notion our work is as much mission as it is paycheck. We have volunteers who find great satisfaction seeing their fruits, literally the “fruits” of their efforts, come full circle. And we have friends, supporters of BHM who support us from near and afar and while not always able to be on site for every event they find equal satisfaction of seeing and showing their support for and love of preservation and restoration in action.

24 seed sowers at Clear lake Preserve 12.7.19 by Don Luepke

24 seed sowers at Clear Lake Nature Preserve – by Don Luepke