Box turtles such as this one can be found at Paw Paw.
Eastern Box Turtle Box turtles such as this one can be found at Paw Paw. © Kent Mason

Places We Protect

Paw Paw Prairie Fen Preserve


The Paw Paw River watershed is an aquatic priority for Michigan and the Great Lakes.

It's no coincidence that the Paw Paw River watershed is also known as Michigan's "Wine Country." The temperate climate, fertile soil, and nearby river not only create idyllic conditions for vineyards, but also for land rich in biodiversity.

Wetlands, prairie fens, barrens and floodplain forests create the jewels of the Paw Paw necklace—the natural communities that feed into and rely on the waterway. Visitors to the area might spot species such as the eastern box turtle or an eastern massasauga rattlesnake. The floodplain forests along the river provide an important corridor for thousands of migratory songbirds. Anglers have been attracted to the river for years after hearing stories of trout as big as 27 inches.

Why TNC Selected This Site

Given the river’s close proximity to a cluster of growing communities from Benton Harbor to Kalamazoo, it’s only natural that incompatible development and land use changes threaten the variety of habitats here. The Paw Paw Prairie Fen site was originally slated for a housing development. The development company had removed all the topsoil, laid out a road route, and began landscaping for a neighborhood. TNC was alerted to rare wetland communities at the site and began negotiations for acquiring the land.

A fen is a unique type of wetland found in glaciated landscapes, fed by alkaline, mineral-rich groundwater that supports highly diverse and rare plant life. Bogs by contrast, which are not found at this preserve, are acidic and fed by precipitation. There are several types of fens, but prairie fens, like Paw Paw Prairie Fen, provide habitat for both wetland and prairie plants, making them especially diverse and important to the preserve.

What TNC Has Done/Is Doing

TNC owns 106 acres along the east branch of the Paw Paw River near Mattawan. Fen restoration began in 2004 with the removal of invasives including glossy buckthorn and reed canary grass. The following year, efforts to restore the native savanna began by treating invasive such as spotted knapweed, and replanting prairie grass seed of varieties native to this habitat at this location. We have removed 4 acres of full-grown spruce trees, which were planted to line the main avenue of the housing development. Professional land managers also employ prescribed fire throughout the preserve to reduce invasive species and promote healthy habitats for native plants and animals. These restoration strategies continue to be implemented throughout the preserve.

The Nature Conservancy has teamed up with farmers, the Van Buren Conservation District, the The Coca-Cola Foundation and Michigan State University to protect and improve water quality and quantity in the Paw Paw River watershed.

Fall migration of songbirds is quite immense. You are most likely to catch them on their way south during August and September. Be sure to wear a hat and sunscreen. Because of the wet and uneven ground conditions, wear waterproof boots with ankle support.

The Nature Conservancy allows hunting for white-tail deer on this preserve to reduce an unnaturally high deer population in the area and reduce threats too many deer pose to our conservation targets. All hunters are required to receive a permit from TNC as well as a Michigan deer hunting license. Additionally, hunters must report any deer taken from the preserve.

Permitted Activities:

  • Hiking: please help us protect the fen by observing it from the platform and staying in the uplands
  • Bird watching, nature study and photography
  • Research projects and educational studies with approved permit
  • Hunting with a TNC-issued permit for whitetail deer

Prohibited Activities:

  • No motorized and non-motorized vehicles, including bicycles
  • No building of new trails
  • No trespassing on adjacent land
  • No pets
  • No hunting or trapping without a TNC-issued permit
  • No removal of stakes, poles or signs.
  • No removal of plants or animals (alive or dead)
  • No removal of rocks, water, or other non-organic materials
  • No camping, bonfires, fireworks, or other fires
  • No firewood collecting
  • No littering
  • No boating
Spotlight on Nature: Paw Paw Prairie Fen Preserve Can't visit the Paw Paw Preserve in person? Take a virtual tour with this short video!