The Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy (SWMLC), along with four regional groups, has been selected to receive a $375,000 national grant to help improve damaged forests in Southwest Michigan. The conservancy and other partners’ project was one of 13 selected nationwide to receive funding from the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Climate Adaptation Fund, which is supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The grant will enable the five Southwest Michigan groups to work together to improve the health of some of the region’s damaged forests, and employ a proactive approach to keeping them healthy into the future amidst the many challenges local forests face, including climate change, according to the conservancy’s Stewardship Director Mitch Lettow. The conservancy, Ottawa County Parks, The Nature Conservancy-Michigan, Chikaming Open Lands (COL) and Shirley Heinze Land Trust are undertaking the $375,000 project to keep existing forests healthy and to plant new, resilient forests.
COL Executive Director Ryan Postema said that as s a partner in the grant project, the Sawyer-based land conservancy will be completing forest and savanna restoration projects at four of its local preserves.
"This will include invasive species control, tree planting, and monitoring at Chris Thompson Memorial Preserve (in conjunction with the prairie restoration in the northern half of the preserve), Edward & Elizabeth Leonard Wildlife Preserve, Merritt Family Preserve, and Younger Family Preserve."
He said the projects will create approximately 20 acres of new forest and savanna and enhance an additional 25 acres of existing forest within the preserves.
As noted in SWMLC's press release, Postema said the focus of the regional project and local restoration efforts is to create healthy forest areas with a diverse mix of tree species that may be better suited to adapt to the impacts of climate change.
One of the forests the groups intend to address is at the conservancy’s Wau-Ke-Na William Erby Smith Preserve, north of South Haven.
“Between the Emerald ash borer and heavy spring rains, this habitat has really taken a hit over the last decade or so,” Lettow said.
Over the course of two years the group plans to plant more than 40,000 trees at preserves and parks throughout West and Southwest Michigan and northern Indiana, using species and creating forest habitats that can better adapt to climate change and invasive species.
Over the next two years these partners intend to improve forest health and plant new forests across nature preserves and county parks spanning over 70 miles of latitude from northwest Indiana to the Grand River in West Michigan.
Across 14 different forested areas throughout this region, the group will take action to impact nearly 500 acres of forest by treating for invasive species, planting new forests and diversifying existing forests.
One of the invasive species that will be addressed is the Emerald ash borer that killed mature ash trees 60 feet or more in height at Wau-Ke-Na and throughout the state. As a dominant tree in the preserve’s hardwood forests, losing ash trees dealt a devastating blow to over 50 acres at the site. Sunlight now floods to the ground in a previously shady understory. “With the canopy dying back and more sunlight coming in, invasive plants are having a field day out there,” conservancy Stewardship Specialist Dave Brown said.
Emerald ash borer and invasive plants aren’t the only thorns in the sides of land managers throughout the region who are trying to keep our local forests healthy. “In the past 200 years these forests have seen major impacts that have re-shuffled the ecosystem again and again, and each time some species can adapt to the changes, some have to move elsewhere, and others we lose,” Lettow said. With climate change as another challenge thrown in the mix, Lettow and Brown are also seeing intense spring rains nearly every year impacting many of the conservancy’s preserves. Gradually changing hydrology is quietly affecting what tree species can thrive in Michigan’s forests with heavier spring rains.
“The key to creating healthy forests with climate change and forest pests will be selecting a diversity of the right species for the right place,” Lettow said.
The partners’ project area spans what ecologists call the “tension zone,” a region where northern tree species meet southern tree species and they blend together.
Any Michigander who has driven “up north” from the southern part of the state has experienced the tension zone as oaks and hickories start to give way to birches and pines. As summer temperatures become warmer and winters become milder, historically southern species like shagbark hickory are likely to do better here, while northern species like paper birch are likely to struggle and their range is likely to move further north.
At the Wau-Ke-Na Preserve, the conservancy is determining which species of planted trees may do best after invasive plants are treated in the struggling ash forests. Black gum and sycamore, for example, are two tree species that like the wet conditions found at the preserve, and if planted could help to refill the open canopy over time “I’ve seen these species a lot more in southern Michigan and northern Indiana, but at this point they’re pretty uncommon this far north,” Brown said. “If we plant them here now, not only could they handle the warmer summer temps here, but they may even thrive over time, and help keep invasives from taking over again.”