Tom Bailey calls himself, “the luckiest man in the conservation movement.”
The longtime director of the Little Traverse Conservancy, Bailey retired recently, but knows the organization he has helmed for 34 years will continue to do well as he changes directions.
That Bailey landed in land conservation is not hard to believe. Growing up in the Upper Peninsula, Bailey watched as his father worked as a wildlife biologist. “Conservation was literally a household word,” he says.
“I grew up hiking and fishing,” Bailey explains, and after the family “took the classic family trip out west” when Bailey was 9 years old, visiting Glacier National Park, Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain National Park, “I decided that’s what I was going to be,” he says referring to the national park rangers.
Bailey’s first experience in organized land conservation came while he was a student at Marquette High School when the status of nearby Isle Royale was threatened.
“I found myself on a commercial jet for the first time in my life,” Bailey laughs, explaining he traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify before members of Congress on behalf of the park. “That taught me about working within the system,” he explains.
His early experiences taught Bailey other useful lessons as well. “You can make a difference by writing letters,” he says, adding, “You can also make a difference by showing up at public meetings.”
At Michigan State University, Bailey studied Parks and Recreation Resources on his way toward his goal of becoming a park ranger. He returned to Isle Royale as the park’s youngest seasonal ranger. “They called me ‘baby ranger,’” he laughs.
Later, back in East Lansing, Bailey took a job with the Department of Natural Resources. “I was a paper shuffling bureaucrat,” he laughs, adding he knew after his six years with the state it was time to find new direction, “There’s got to be life after government service.”
Bailey’s life soon took a new turn, however, when he fell in love with Jane Haselschwardt, an educator from Northern Michigan.
“I fell in love with her and this area at the same time,” he says. Jane, who died in 2009, secured a teaching job in Northern Michigan, and after graduate school at MSU, Bailey applied for jobs in the area as well, though there were no openings at Little Traverse Conservancy, which was still in its infancy.
Bailey eventually landed that dream job at the Little Traverse Conservancy in 1984, but says from the vantage of these many years later, “I had absolutely no inkling I’d be here 34 years.” A small local organization at the time, Bailey credits a good deal of the group’s growth to timing and providence.
In 1985, when developers announced plans to log the Colonial Point Forest, Bailey and others at the conservancy moved to protect the old growth property. Bailey says press releases he wrote found their way into the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, generating interest around the country, where several Little Traverse Conservancy members lived when away from Northern Michigan. A major fundraising campaign followed, and the veneer mill pulled out. Colonial Point is now part of the University of Michigan Biological Station and Little Traverse Conservancy owns an adjacent property. That effort, Bailey believes, “Transformed our organization. That success brought us a lot more members,” he explains.
It is not only conservation Bailey appreciates about his tenure at Little Traverse Conservancy, but also the growth of other programs, like education.
“We serve between 4,000 and 7,000 kids a year,” he enthuses. “We’re protecting land for people, not from people,” he says.
Bailey is also enthusiastic about the more recent Working Forest Reserve program, which seeks to manage woodlands sustainably.
“We can show the way to the future of sustainable forest management,” he believes. “This is not only good business, but it’s good for business,” he adds. “Land is the ultimate capital,” he declares.
New to retirement, Bailey is not planning to become idle. He and new wife, Heidi Marshall, an artist, plan to spend some time each year in the Southwest, and he will continue to serve a variety of other advisory roles. He is a member of the Lake Superior State University Board of Trustees, the Iron Belle Trail Board of Directors, as well as the Natural Resource Commission’s Michigan State Parks Advisory Committee.
After his 34 years at Little Traverse Conservancy, Bailey explains he owes his good fortunes to the generosity of a good many people who have helped along the way, as well as many fortuitous turns of events.
“There’s never enough room for the gratitude,” he says.
Written By Glen Young, Photo by Lindsey Vork