TRAVERSE CITY — On some days, Steve Largent wears waders to work — not unusual garb for a wildlife biologist who wrote the first erosion study of the Boardman River in 1991.
The study signaled serious sediment problems in the river and launched a local and state protection effort.
Today Largent is Boardman River program coordinator for the Grand Traverse Conservation District which manages the city's 1,310-acre Brown Bridge Quiet Area and the county's 505-acre Grand Traverse Natural Education Reserve.
Both are now the site of the state's largest ever dam removal and restoration project.
Largent is one of several members on the project's Implementation Team and has the longest hands-on experience. He has worked for 24 years along the river with local governments, Boardman River Valley communities, organizations, paddlers and anglers, on everything from work bees and cleanups to management and master plans.
He doesn't recall a defining moment in his late 20s when his environmental awareness took root and he decided to go to college to study wildlife biology.
He was making concrete blocks then at a local construction supply company.
He remembers feeling "torn apart" in the 1970s and 1980s as the Traverse City area grappled with urban sprawl and mall proposals.
A 1976 Traverse City Central High graduate, he grew up in the Spider Lake area.
He loved the outdoors "and everything in it" because of early years in Boy Scouts and hunting.
"I wanted to see development and growth for our area, but it wasn't happening in a managed way," he said.
In 1986, he headed to the University of Montana to earn his four-year degree.
Since then, Largent has played an integral part in conservation district, city, county, state and local Rotary efforts to protect the Boardman.
His work experience began during his last two years of college in 1988 and 1989 when he got a seasonal city job supervising youth and prison work crews in the Brown Bridge Quiet Area.
The university had given him a scholarship to do a water quality study that first summer, but a vial of water-testing chemicals provided by the university broke.
Largent shifted focus to an erosion study along 10 miles of river frontage from Brown Bridge Dam to the Grand Traverse/Kalkaska county line — a fortuitous decision.
He identified 80 sites. Lew Coulter, the district director then, applied for a one-year state "clean water" planning grant to fund an erosion inventory of the entire 287-square-mile watershed.
In 1989, Largent began the inventory of the river and its 22 tributaries. When grant funds ran out, he said he volunteered almost a year of his own time to finish the report in 1991.
The results shocked him and others: 450 total erosion sites, with 85 percent caused by human activity upstream at public accesses, road and utility crossings.
Brown Bridge Pond was filling with sediment and degrading water quality.
"Stream bank erosion had dumped tens of thousands of cubic yards of sediment into the river," Largent said.
In 1992, Largent went to work full time as the conservation district's Boardman River program coordinator.
Over the last 20 years, the district has systematically restored the erosion sites with the help of community volunteers, summer work crews and "tremendous" financial and other community support, he said.
Largent wrote the Brown Bridge Quiet Area management plan for the city in the early 1990s. He helped East Bay, Union and Paradise townships develop the Boardman River Master Plan in 2001, with Rotary funding.
As the conservation district's land management director from 2006-2010 he wrote grant requests to the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund to bring 70 acres of private property into the Brown Bridge Quiet Area to protect Grasshopper Creek, its headwaters and the connectivity of the river.
"Fragmentation of our landscape is the biggest threat to our wildlife and recreational corridors," he said.
The purchase added a half-mile of river frontage to the Brown Bridge Quiet Area.
He also worked with Rotary Camps & Services to preserve some 800 acres in the estate of Mary Dunn Edwards and her husband, Howard, who in 1993 bequeathed three separate parcels of wild lands to Rotary Camps & Services. That land allowed Rotary to create a permanent green belt and wildlife corridor in the Boardman River Valley, the 560-acre Rotary East Creek Reserve, the 80-acre Howard and Mary Edwards Preserve near Mayfield and the 40-acre Mayfield Pond Park in Paradise Township.