Old trees grow on Oden Island

A small tract of woods on an inhabited island in northern Michigan has gotten a rare designation among forests in the United States.

The 50-acre forest of eastern hemlocks, white pines and sugar maples on Oden Island has been recognized as an “Old-Growth Forest” by the Old-Growth Forest Network, a national nonprofit organization working to protect old-growth native forests across the country. Its goal is to locate and designate at least one protected forest in every U.S. county.

The forest in the Oden Island Nature Preserve is just one of five in Michigan designated as an old-growth forest by the organization. The others are in the lower peninsula as well, the closest being Hartwick Pines State Park in Grayling.

“Old-growth is much more than just a collection of tired old trees. These forests are absolutely critical to biodiversity in our landscape, and oftentimes represent the last stronghold for rare and threatened species,” said Nicholas Sanchez, a certified forester and network manager for the Old-Growth Forest Network. "They store massive amounts of carbon and are increasingly important in the fight to slow climate change.” 

Less than 1 percent of old growth forests remain in the eastern United States, and that number is less than 5 percent in the West.

The forest is located in the northeast portion of the island, which sits nearly in the center of Crooked Lake, about 10 miles from Petoskey.  

Oden Island Nature Preserve received its designation as an old-growth forest earlier in October.

“It’s really a mature forest, on its way to becoming an old-growth forest,” said Amy Lipson, a conservation specialist with the Little Traverse Land Conservancy, which owns the property and works to preserve significant land and scenic areas in the northern lower and upper peninsulas. “When you walk through the forest, you can see the level of maturity among the different trees – it’s really a special place.”

There have not been any timber harvests on the island since the 1950s, according to aerial imagery, Lipson said. It’s likely been much longer since any logging has occurred, and conservationists believe some trees may even predate the logging boom of the late 1800s.

“We do think some of the trees were not logged,” she said. “The island would have been ideal to log because it’s an ideal spot on the inland waterway. We think some trees were skipped because they were too small or not up to quality.”

Many of the trees are 20 inches to 30 inches in diameter – “too big to hug,” she said. The conservancy noted the preserve approached “old-growth forest characteristics” in its master plan, updated earlier this year. 

Those characteristics include the presence of older trees, standing dead trees, logs in various forms of decay, and 'pit and mounding' on the forest floor. This micro-topography can indicate hundreds of years of trees falling to the forest floor, pulling their roots and a mound of soil up to the surface. The depression left by the roots creates a shallow pool which provides habitat for moisture loving plants and animals . 

Dead trees and logs are important for wildlife and also for other trees. Large fallen trees like hemlocks hold moisture and are slow to decompose, creating a “sort of hotel and buffet for salamanders, fungi, invertebrates, and many other species unseen,” Sanchez said. As they age, some tree species develop deep crevices in their bark which provides hiding places for insects and even a resting place for animals like bats. Some birds even cache food in these crevices or hop up and down the tree hunting for insects in the crevices of the bark. 

“Once the dominant condition across Michigan’s forested landscape, old-growth is now extremely rare due to logging and land use changes like development and agricultural production,” Sanchez said. “As many of our forests approach or exceed a century of growth since the historic cutover, we have a tremendous opportunity to be deliberate about protecting and restoring forests for future old-growth."

Creating a network of old-growth forests connects people to these unique places; many of whom are being introduced to old forests for the first time, he said. 

Old-growth forests, he said, will remain rare unless Americans are very intentional about demonstrating and showcasing the value of these places and protecting and restoring old-growth forests to better balance the landscape. 

Depending on local climate and soils, old-growth forest conditions can take hundreds of years to develop and can remain intact without severe disturbance for thousands of years, he said. “These forests are priceless when it comes to their value for recreation and spiritual connection, they also foster a sense of appreciation and curiosity for life on our planet,” he said. 

The Old-Growth Forest Network approached Little Traverse Land Conservancy about possible candidates for the designation in the counties the organization serves – Emmet, Charlevoix, Cheboygan, Chippewa and Mackinac counties. Anyone, however, can nominate a local public forest for the designation (see the Network’s website). Once nominated, the organization works with local volunteers to ground-truth them.

“The best candidate forest is ideally the oldest forest in the county and has minimal invasive species present, a safe place for people to park and a trail system that allows people to visit the older part of the forest in a relatively short amount of time,” Sanchez said.

Once that forest is identified, the Network seeks permission and partnership with the land-owning organization. To be added to the Network, the forest must have some kind of protections in place that protects the forest for its values outside of commercial forest products. If no logging protections are in place, the organization works with the land-owning organization to seek those protections, he said. 

The Little Traverse Land Conservancy purchased the forested tract, also home to a hardwood-conifer swamp, in 2000, following a successful fund-raising campaign to protect the waterfront property from development. Almost $1 million was raised for the purchase.  A developer had proposed constructing a sewer line under the lake to the parcel to serve a controversial 34-unit subdivision. 

 The preserve protects a valuable shoreline forest that helps keep the water clean for swimming, boating, and fishing on Crooked Lake. The lake lies near the upper portion of the Inland Waterway, a 40-mile navigable waterway that boaters can take into Lake Huron at Cheboygan. The preserve is open to the public and is popular with runners and dog walkers. Kayakers and canoeists also stop by the site to picnic and relax.

Sanchez said there are several old-growth locations of varying sizes throughout Michigan that have not yet been added to the network. 

“Old-growth is extremely rare and the majority of counties in Michigan may not have any old-growth remaining at all,” he said. “These are places where the best option for the future will be to protect and restore healthy mature forests to allow old-growth characteristics to develop over time, what we call future old-growth sites. These future old-growth forests are also eligible for inclusion in the Network.”
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