Sustainability Tour Talking Points

by Steve Keto, Manager of Natural Areas and Preserves


Over 300 years ago, when the first European saw Kalamazoo County, 1 in every 8 acres were wetland. The site where Western Michigan University now stands was best described as a bur oak opening and oak savanna. This now rare ecosystem included mature trees—oak, hickory and other hardwoods growing in and around grasslands that represent yet another rare habitat, prairie. After settlement of the Kalamazoo region the area was logged, drained and farmed for many decades. In the 1890s, this was a successful horse farm that reared the famous trotting horse, Peter the Great (memorial rock outside the Administration Building). The Historic Oakland’s Residence is the stately farm home from that time. WMU, originally known as “Western Normal School “ was founded in 1903 on Prospect Hill, now known as East Campus. Before the college expanded west across Stadium Drive, the area that is now Main Campus was the Arcadia Brook Golf Course (1927-43). The school was renamed “Western Michigan University” in 1957.


During our time here as Broncos—studying, working and teaching—we are stewards of this beautiful landscape we call Western Michigan University. As a good steward, WMU has committed to sustainable practices that will protect our surface and groundwater, improve biodiversity and save resources here on campus and in southwest Michigan.

The water you drink in Kalamazoo comes right from under your feet and WMU has launched an ambitious initiative to become "stormwater neutral". That means taking responsibility for all the rain and snow that falls on impervious surfaces (roof, lots walks,). In the past, most of this water was sent through bigger and bigger pipes to a local stream, resulting in sedimentation, pollution and erosion to local waterways.

As part of a plan to protect the Arcadia creek (West campus), Axtell creek (East campus) and downstream destinations—the Portage Creek, Kalamazoo river and Lake Michigan—Western is striving to actively manage the water that falls on campus and release it  in beneficial ways.  

One way is detention ponds (lot 23 south of Miller, along Stadium Drive near Stadium drive Apartments, The Goldsworth Valley pond). These structures will temporarily hold the water in wetland impoundments and release it slowly to ease erosion and drop out sediments before they enters local waterways. These working landscapes are planted with native plants that will trap nutrients, impurities and trash before they go downstream. These landscapes also provide habitat for campus wildlife.

Another way WMU is working to protect water resources is retention sites. In these areas, (steps to nowhere, under Sangren Hall), rain water will collect in shallow surface rock beds or in underground cisterns, allowing water to percolate back underground into the aquifer slowly through the soil.

 Rain gardens, plantings that absorb rain runoff from lots, building or walks also function to prevent water from leaving campus without being filtered by soil and plants.  (Grass beds from flagpole to Miller plaza)

Here is a list of stormwater features on campus we have designed:

  • Valleys: lot 54 cisterns, Goldworth Valley Pond, native plantings.
  • Sangren Hall: Green roof, Rain Gardens, underground cisterns, native plantings.
  • Chemistry Building: Steps to nowhere, grass gardens.
  • Brown Hall: rock canyon.
  • Korhmann Hall: underground cisterns.
  • Elmwood: Lot 23 pond, native plantings.
  • Stadium Drive: pond, native plantings.
  • Asylum Lake: Rain gardens, native plantings.
  • College of Engineering: central parkway prairie ponds.

Other water protection initiatives:

  • WMU has eliminated phosphorus from lawn fertilizer
  • Computerized irrigation to respond to weather opportunities
  • Created buffer strips around sensitive areas
  • Reduced general herbicide use.

Snow removal

Kalamazoo averages over 70 inches of snow per year, and thanks to Landscape Services, Western's campus has the best snow removal in area. The University rarely closes due to snow. Many rock beds that serve as water recharge sites also function to store snow piles during the winter and prevent salt laden snow from killing gardens and trees. Western has also installed heated concrete slabs at entrances to, Brown Hall, Chemistry, Dalton, and the College of Engineering; these help reduce salt use and make for safer cleaner building entrances. Landscape Services also uses a MI produced Beet juice byproducts that are sprayed on walks to improve salt efficiency and reduce ice formation on walks.

Haenicke Memorial Garden

Dr. Diether H. Haenicke was president of WMU twice in our history (1985-88) and (2006-07) and he had a love and appreciation for safe clean and beautiful university landscapes and their positive effect on student recruitment and retention. His love of conifers is reflected in the unusual varieties of dwarf pine, spruce, fir and other evergreen trees in this garden. With an ever changing color of trees, shrubs, annuals and perennials this garden is beautiful in all 4 Michigan seasons and a campus destination.


Landscape has a budget to beautify campus during the glorious Michigan growing season and works smart to place the right plant in the right place. Kalamazoo County is one of the top bedding plant producers in America and we celebrate that history here in creative ways. The use of many planters or “mobile gardens” allows landscape to maximize color for graduation or football or other events where traditional gardens are not practical.

We have many horticultural professionals on staff including, arborists, horticulturalist, turf grass specialists, master gardeners and gardeners who maintain plantings sustainably, using principles of Integrated Pest management to monitor and maintain plant health.

Other sustainable initiatives

Vegetable oil mower

Department of Sustainability and Landscape Services collaborated to introduce our first vegetable oil powered mower. Dining Services supplies used fryer oil to run the mower all season.

Electric vehicles

Facilities Management has a fleet of 10 all electric maintenance vehicles for campus use. There are over 10 electric charging stations on campus for the campus fleet and others visitors to campus with electric vehicles.

Solar panels

Solar panel array near Miller Theatre, power 8 charging stations the excess energy is returned to the WMU grid.

Western Michigan University is a “Tree Campus U.S.A.”  and we care for the trees. 

Landscape employs 2 full time certified arborists to care for the planting and pruning, needs of over 6500 landscape trees all of which are mapped by GPS technology.  WMU arborists also monitor the health and safety of over 110 acres of tree canopy in our natural areas and preserves, on and off main campus. Several others members of our supervisors and staff are certified arborists as well.

As part of Tree Campus USA: 

  • Western tree policy is guided by a tree advisory Committee that is involved in all issues related to tree health and protection on campus.
  • WMU has a detailed tree care plan and woodlot management plan for all of campus.
  • WMU has detailed management plans for all natural areas and preserves.
  • WMU observes Arbor Day with a public tree dedication on campus
  • WMU is dedicated to tree biodiversity and chooses the right tree for right site to enhance aesthetics and habitat on campus.
  • WMU is dedicated to sharing information on trees with the community through events, tours and well-­‐maintained healthy campus trees.

In the landscape around Wood Hall is the WMU campus tree tour route. This can be a self—guided tour with information on the Landscape Services website, or staff guided tours can be arranged through the Landscape Services department.

Steps to nowhere

Accepts stormwater from the Wood Hall, Dalton and Chemistry Building area and allows it to return to the groundwater slowly. Plants as buffers around stormwater features reduce salts, fertilizers and pollutants before they enter the basin.

Finch Greenhouse

This is a Biology Department Conservatory, dedicated to WMU plant collection. The greenhouse is open to students and houses student and faculty research projects and a permanent exotic plant collection. Finch Greenhouse Partners with WMU Natural Areas Program and Landscape Services to harvest propagate and replant Michigan native plants on WMU properties.

Between Chemistry and Wood Hall

The line of ornamental grass filled in beds along the walk from the flagpoles to Miller Plaza is a water infiltration area filled with low maintenance plants that look good (no irrigation no fertilizer, maintained by cutting back once a year). Rock beds provide snow storage sites and stormwater infiltration sites.

Sangren Hall

WMU has 20 buildings with some level of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.  A "green roof" ( sedums, alliums and other drought resistant plants)absorb rain before it leaves the roof, reduces reflected heat and keeps building roof cooler. Underground cisterns release water to aquifer and rain gardens surrounding the building absorb and use rain water in beautiful ways.

Oaklands residence

Before this side of Stadium drive was WMU, this land was Arcadia Brook Golf Course from 1927-43. Before that, in the 1890s, this house was the family home for a successful horse farm that raised a famous trotting horse “Peter the Great. The monument is just outside the Administration building provides detail. The Oaklands is now a public bed and breakfast, an event venue and a meeting place.  This historic building is surrounded with heritage oaks that predate the University as well as a holly and fir tree collection.

Some of the most beautiful annual plantings can be seen on this site during the summer.

Natural Areas and Preserves

One important way that WMU shows its commitment to the environment is the creation of a Natural Areas and Preserves Program in Facilities Management. Along with Landscape Services, this department oversees the ecological health of over 400 acres of natural landscape. These areas are maintained by WMU for the entire West Michigan Community to enjoy. Locations include:

  • Asylum Lake Preserve next to the Parkview Campus.
  • Kleinstuck Preserve off of Oakland Drive Valley woods.
  • Valley pass.
  • Business College woods.
  • Lawson woods.
  • WVA woods.

 By harnessing the power of students, staff, faculty and volunteers, the Natural Areas Program Staff gets the monumental jobs of managing land done:

  • Picking up trash.
  • Removing invasive species.
  • Planting natives, improving trails.
  • Facilitating research.
  • Managing stormwater.
  • Providing outdoor education opportunities.
  • Improving wildlife habitat.


Our natural areas and campuses support a wide variety of wildlife. There are many migratory and resident birds such as bluebirds, woodpeckers, hawks and owl species. It is not uncommon to see white-tail deer, rabbit, red and grey fox, muskrat, raccoon, skunk and mink around campus. Many waterfowl visit and nest around the various water features on campus including wood ducks, mallards, Canadian geese, herons, egrets and a pair of captive nesting mute swans.