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Alumnus Profile: Zachary Branigan

By: Miranda Burel ‘17

Published on

Zak Branigan on a bike

The Saginaw Basin Land Conservancy (SBLC) is an organization in Bay City, Michigan that works to preserve the land and develop a better community for the surrounding area. It is also the site of Aquinas alumnus Zachary Branigan’s latest endeavor.

“Aquinas was an invaluable experience for me,” Branigan said. Being the most welcoming and affordable option, Branigan quickly decided that AQ was the place for him. During his time at Aquinas he participated in the study abroad program to Tully Cross, Ireland, and he was heavily involved in the on-campus arts community.

Studying abroad in Ireland was a largely positive experience for Branigan, and he believes it is what pushed him to where he is today. The small village and local people allowed him to appreciate his own hometown and the people in it. “Between my exposure to that dedicated and small world view they had in the village, and my own longing for my friends and family, I believe it was what built my loyalty to the betterment of the State of Michigan first as a planner and now as an environmentalist and conservationist.”

Branigan also had a close relationship with his Aquinas art professor and mentor, Steve Schousen. Many of the drawing lessons Branigan received from Professor Schousen have helped him accomplish projects and issues in his everyday life, emphasizing a view of the world that ranged from working with general ideas to start and moving to specific details as things become clearer.

After graduating from Aquinas in 1999 with a Bachelor of Arts in art and business, Branigan continued on to graduate school at the University of Michigan. “I had always intended to go to graduate school,” he said, “and the broad, liberal arts curriculum at Aquinas, especially the work in humanities, research, and writing, gave me the tools I feel that public school graduates do not get as strongly.”

Branigan received his Master’s in Urban Planning from University of Michigan in 2001. During his art history courses at Aquinas, Branigan said he “became fascinated with the connection of art, architecture, business, and politics that form the urban planning field. The unique dual major in business and art served me well to pursue a career in land use management and, at that time, urban planning.”

Shortly after graduating the from University of Michigan, Branigan began working as an urban planner at a private practice. He worked as a consultant to local governments all around Michigan, but it was a competitive and fast-paced lifestyle that didn’t quite seem to fit. “I felt I could lead a higher quality of life and build my career around my passion for nature,” he said. It was a stroke of luck that brought Branigan to the Saginaw Basin Land Conservancy.

“The work of a land trust requires many of the skills I had cultivated as a planner and it seemed like a great fit. Finding the SBLC, right here in Michigan’s Heartland where I grew up, was serendipitous. Now I spend my time developing nature-based programs, developing conservation projects, and connecting people with nature.”

Starting as the Executive Director in 2012, Branigan helped build the SBLC from a two person team into an organization with nearly triple the annual budget and staff. “We have been able to form the SBLC in our image to develop projects that our very progressive Board and staff enjoy,” he said. The organization recently developed a 30-acre urban mountain bike park on a formerly abandoned piece of land in the middle of Bay City. Branigan said they are also building the first public natural surface trails in the community which are reaching thousands of new people.

“To say that Aquinas has had a lasting impact on my life would be an understatement. It truly played a central role in shaping who I am today.”