Land Conservancy and partners receive a $375,000 grant to keep forests healthy as climate changes

More than 40,000 trees chosen for their ability to create forest habitats adapted for climate change and to withstand invasive species will be planted in southwest Michigan over the next two years. 

Work will be done in 14 different forested areas throughout the region to improve nearly 500 acres of forest by addressing invasive species, planting new forests, and diversifying existing forests. 

It's part of a project to improve the health of existing forests and grow new forests in nature preserves and county parks spanning over 70 miles of latitude from northwest Indiana to the Grand River in West Michigan. Trees will be planted by The Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy (SWMLC) and four regional partners—Ottawa County Parks, The Nature Conservancy-Michigan, Chikaming Open Lands, and Shirley Heinze Land Trust.

Dead ash trees will be removed and replaced with native tree species from the southern edge of our range that are expected to adapt well in the face of climate change and keep forests healthy.

The  $375,000 project is made possible by a grant from Wildlife Conservation Society’s Climate Adaptation Fund, which is supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The forest regeneration project was among 80 nationwide to compete for the grant funding and one of 13 to receive funding.

This grant will help the partners 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.

An example of the work to be done can be seen at SWMLC’s Wau-Ke-Na William Erby Smith Preserve. “Between the Emerald ash borer and heavy spring rains, this habitat has really taken a hit over the last decade or so,” says SWMLC Stewardship Director Mitch Lettow.

The  Emerald ash borer 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, the death of the ashes dealt a devastating blow to over 50 acres at the preserve. 

Sunlight now floods to the ground in a previously shady understory. SWMLC Stewardship Specialist Dave Brown says, “With the canopy dying back and more sunlight coming in, invasive plants are having a field day out there.”

Emerald ash borer and invasive plants aren’t the only problems facing 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,” says Lettow. 

As climate change progresses, Lettow and Brown are also seeing intense spring rains nearly every year changing many of the SWMLC preserves, 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,” says Lettow. The 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, SWMLC is strategizing about 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 says. “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.”

The Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy’s mission is to conserve wild and scenic places for today and keep them healthy for tomorrow. Keeping those places healthy is not getting easier, but the optimism of SWMLC and its partners keeps them focused on solutions instead of problems, says Lettow. “We owe it to our community, future generations, and the same environment that has sustained us to fix these problems we’ve created, and we actually love doing it.”

The Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy serves the nine counties of southwest Michigan and has worked with regional landowners to protect over 17,000 acres since its inception as an all-volunteer organization in 1991. The Conservancy currently has nine staff and 150 active volunteers and is supported by over 1,250 household memberships. SWMLC’s work is diverse and far-reaching. SWMLC is active in maintaining over 50 nature preserves, enforcing over 100 conservation easements, and convening regional partners to create conservation plans and engage people in the natural world.   
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Read more articles by Kathy Jennings.

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.