Preserving a bit of wilderness in the suburbs

There are 5,435 Michigan properties participating in the Michigan Department of Natural Resources' (DNR) Forest Stewardship Program, which helps landowners develop plans to manage their forestland. But until this fall there were none in Wayne County.
"After 25 years of doing forest stewardship, it seemed odd that we had 82 out of 83 counties covered but there was that one glaring absence," says DNR forest stewardship coordinator Mike Smalligan. "That seemed like a really good way to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the program, to find a landowner in Wayne County."
The Forest Stewardship Program endeavors to connect private forest owners with foresters who can help them design a responsible, long-term forest stewardship plan for their property. But Smalligan says most privately owned forests in Wayne County are rather small. So he and his colleagues did some recruitment work targeting an unusual type of landowner: schools. Smalligan contacted the Wayne County Regional Educational Service Agency, asking around for schools that owned forestland of five acres or more. The DNR found an ideal plot in Livonia's Frost Middle School–and an enthusiastic point person in the school's science teacher, Carim Calkins.
"I have a hard time saying 'no' to stuff," Calkins laughs.
Developing a forest stewardship plan is only the latest project Calkins has participated in to help improve the 12-acre forest that sits behind Frost. Ten years ago, he and a group of students from the school's "gifted" program for high-achieving students installed railings along part of the quarter-mile nature trail that runs through the plot. They also built wooden benches to create an outdoor classroom and created an interpretive guide corresponding to marked spots along the trail.
Creating a long-term plan for school use of the forest was an appealing new prospect for Calkins, who grew up around plentiful forestland on the west side of the state and has always enjoyed the little bit of suburban wilderness just outside his classroom window.
"Fifteen minutes from the center of Detroit, maybe 20 minutes, you can come in here and we have raccoons," Calkins says. "We have deer. We've seen foxes. And we're right by the highway. It's just astonishing."
Although Calkins was already pretty familiar with his school's forest, he was to learn even more in developing a forest stewardship plan with forester Dave Kossak. Calkins and Kossak began the plan by reviewing some of the school's current goals for the forest. One of Calkins' main wishes was to use the forest's resources for food-related science projects, such as using sassafras roots and bark to create root beer as it was originally made. Calkins was afraid to uproot the few small sassafras plants he'd seen on the forest floor, but Kossak quickly changed his perception.
"It turns out we had a lot more sassafras out there than I thought we did," Calkins says. "I was looking for sassafras on the ground, and [Kossak] was pointing out trees that are 35 feet tall."
The finished plan suggested a variety of other uses for the site over the next 15 years, including invasive species management and replanting some native species like white pine. One of the plans Calkins is most enthused about is mustering his environmental club students to build deer exclosures: small plots surrounded by a fence high enough to keep deer out, allowing for study of what impact the animals are having on plant populations within the forest.
Calkins says the variety of educational opportunities came at a low price. The Gaylord-based Kossak offered the school a discount because he was already in the area on other business, and the DNR provided an outreach and education grant to cover much of the remaining cost of Kossak's services.
"[If not for the forest stewardship plan,] we wouldn't have any of this and the forest would sit there," Calkins says. "Now there's an opportunity for our environmental club to do some things out there that we hadn't thought of."
While Frost Middle School now stands out as the only Forest Stewardship Program participant in Wayne County, it's also unique for being one of only about 25 schools with Forest Stewardship Plans in the entire state. And that's not due to any lack of schools with forests on their property.
"There are probably 250 schools out there who own forestland," Smalligan says. "We want to identify who those schools are and approach them and offer them similar assistance."
Calkins expresses unreserved enthusiasm for the stewardship planning process and the resulting long-term possibilities for the forest. He's worked 12 years at Frost and says he expects to be around to see the plan through for at least another 12 of the 15 years it provides guidelines for. For such an ambitious and unprecedented effort, he says the process was surprisingly simple.
"It went from an email to something that may impact the future of that forest as long as this school is here," he says. "And it did it in less than a year."
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.
This story is a part of a statewide Forest Management Community Impact series edited by Natalie Burg. Support for this series is provided by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
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