Michigan’s Forests, Clear Cuts & Diversity

Recently, I was invited by Eric Ellis to look over a forest clear-cutting operation a few miles east of City of Cheboygan and just a little south of Lake Huron’s shoreline. Eric is a wildlife biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society and helps guide habitat restoration and management projects in Michigan, Ohio and other locations. The contradiction inherent in a dedicated wildlife conservationist helping to guide a forest clear cut suggested the right kind of dissonance for the opening of a radio story. The story was on Interlochen Public Radio recently. There’s a link to the audio file here: http://interlochenpublicradio.org/post/spreading-good-news-about-clear-cuts

For many of us, the term forest clear cut raises some horrifying images of denuded mountain slopes or those thousand-acre scenes of tree stumps and slash. Referring to sites in California, the Sierra Club said, “Clearcutting is an extreme form of logging that replaces natural forests with tree plantations . . . ” And, of course, that can be all too true.

What Eric wanted to show me was nothing like the single-purpose, forest clear cut of environmentalists’ nightmares. Rather, this is a pattern of 7 – 10 acre cuts in different locations through a large tract of woodland designed to re-create patches of young forest habitat. It’s a big project with the costs split between the land owner and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

Eric Ellis & the Habitat Machine

Eric Ellis & the Habitat Machine

The problem, Eric says, is that American Woodcock populations are declining all across the country and have been since 1968 (1% each year). And the cause of this decline is loss of adequate habitat – specifically, young forest habitat. Woodcock, yellow-winged warblers, chestnut-sided warblers and many other migratory birds look for dense stands of young alder and aspen to rest and feed in during their migrations. Young forests also offer year-round cover and food to ruffed grouse. Warblers, woodcock and a host of other animals (including deer) are rely on this habitat seasonally.

As described by Heather Rawlings, a wildlife specialist with the USFWS, the cut is designed to create or re-create the kind of habitat American woodcock, grouse and many species of warblers need. Dense stands of young alder and aspen (3- 15 years old) provide cover and protection from predators as well as lots of food opportunities, from the tree buds and catkins to an abundance of insects.

Heather Rawlings

Heather Rawlings

Heather described the project as involving a pattern of six patches this year, followed by a new set of clear cuts in neighboring locations five years later. Then, another set of cuts next to those after another five years have passed. The result will be a mix of forest age classes, many composed of aspen and alder. While other stands of older hemlock will be left in place to age toward a mature or climax forest.

As the pictures suggest, this requires some heavy equipment. What the Ruffed Grouse Society has called their Habitat Machine is designed to take down most of the smaller trees and shrubs, turning them into a woody mulch. The bulldozer-like machine has a whirling drum of big metal teeth mounted on the front that grinds down everything in its path. The sound is deafening.

Why cut everything? While some individual trees may be left behind, the goal is to open up large areas to the sun. The open sunny conditions are necessary to allow the alder and aspen to regenerate. As Heather pointed out, aspen sprout from their roots and alder sprout from their small stumps densely and prolifically – if they get the sun. When that sun shines in, these trees can be well on their way within a few years, reforming that very dense young forest.

Grinding a Clear Cut

Grinding a Clear Cut

The primary purpose of all this work is to enhance forest diversity, encouraging a diversity of tree species as well as a diversity of forest age classes. That’s one path to maintaining a diversity of forest habitats supporting a wide variety of wildlife. Heather and Eric encourage forest land owners to work with a certified forester to develop a management plan. That plan might include selective logging for profit, but might also include improvement to wildlife habitat.

As we ended our interview, I asked Eric and Heather what they thought of a recent research Habitat_Machine_3report from the U.S. Forest Service that says on-going climate change threatens the continued viability of birch-aspen-alder forest complexes throughout Lower Michigan. Eric pointed out that this type of habitat is essential to preserve some of Michigan’s favorite and iconic birds like woodcock, ruffed grouse and many warblers. And that’s why this work has to continue, even in the face of climate change. Diversity of all kinds will give us the best chance of adapting to the change that are coming.

Before ending this short report, I need to note that Michigan’s forests remain a work-in-progress. It wasn’t all that long ago, as forests go, that European settlers cut almost all the trees across the state. After that first cut in the mid to late 1800’s, additional cuts have been made. Some foresters seem to be encouraging selective cuts every decade or so. When I look around, I can’t find a fully mature or climax forest, except in isolated places.

As Eric and Heather pointed out, Michigan is short on young forest habitat. So it appears we lack diversity at both ends of the age spectrum. Apparently, gaining diversity in age classes will require careful management and lots of restraint.

Oak Wilt Disease Discovered in Leelanau County

Foresters in Leelanau County are trying to tamp down another outbreak of tree disease. It’s just the latest in a series of problems disrupting forests in northern Michigan and experts are calling for some heavy-duty responses.

Kama Ross spotted the first outbreak of oak wilt disease in Leelanau County just east of Lake Leelanau in Bingham Township. As the forester for three county conservation districts, including Benzie, Grand Traverse and Leelanau Counties, she’s seen it before.

“It’s been confirmed in all the other surrounding counties,” said Ross. “But this summer we did take two lab samples down to the MSU laboratories and the second sample came back positive.”

Oak wilt disease is caused by a tree-killing fungus spread by beetles. It’s also transferred from tree to tree through the roots. The disease is particularly deadly to red oaks.

Ross said these trees will need to be cut down and carefully removed or buried on site. After that, the sites will need to be contained by a five-foot trench.

Oak wilt is only one of several diseases changing the entire forested landscape of northern Michigan. Ross said over 90 percent of white ash trees will succumb to the Emerald Ash Borer within a few years. And now beech bark disease has begun to kill most of the beech trees as well.

The Leelanau Conservancy helps manage many tracts of forested land throughout the county. Executive Director Brian Price said the loss of so many trees throughout Leelanau is highly visible and a growing concern for forest managers.

“Everybody knows there’s significant forest change underway,” said Price. “Most anybody that has their eyes open as they drive up and down the roads has some sense that we are losing … whole species of trees from our forest component.”

And it could get worse. A report issued by the U.S. Forest Service in March said climate change could make invasive pests and diseases even more damaging.

Stephen Handler is the report’s lead author. He said a warming climate is changing things for both for the trees and the bugs, including the beetles that spread oak wilt.

“As winters become shorter and growing seasons extend, beetles are likely to become active earlier and may become active later into the season as well,” said Handler. “Some of these pests and these disease agents may become even more damaging if they interact with trees that are already stressed from weather or climate.”

Handler said there are things people can do, like growing trees that are common farther south – trees that are adjusted to a warmer climate such as white oak and hickory.

But the key is keeping forests diverse. A diverse forest, he said, includes many different species of trees and different age ranges – young, mature and older trees.

Handler said property owners need to be aware of the risks posed by climate change to make the right choices for the future of northern Michigan’s forests.

“It’s not like growing an agricultural crop where you have the ability to reset every year,” he said. “We’re making decisions now that we will live with for decades.”

Forest Change Underway in Leelanau County

Kama_Beech_Bark_DiseaseOn her way to work one morning this past summer, Kama Ross noticed some sick-looking oak trees near a recently cleared right-of-way in Bingham County. Luckily, Ross knew what she was looking at: the first confirmed case of oak wilt disease in Leelanau County.

As the forester for three conservation districts, Ross regularly provides help and advice to forest owners all over Benzie, Grand Traverse and Leelanau Counties. She’s both an energetic advocate for healthy forests and a gentle teacher. She explained that Oak wilt is a tree-killing fungus that is spread by beetles as well as through tree roots.

“Oak tree roots graft. So a tree that has the fungus in it will graft with a healthy tree and the fungus will go into the system of the healthy tree,” Ross said. “Also, a little beetle active in Michigan loves the fungus that’s in the sap of the infected oak tree. So any pruning or any cutting of an oak tree that allows sap to open, will attract this beetle.” The beetle can then spread the fungus to other trees up to a mile away.

To contain this infestation, Ross said all the infected oaks and some of the surrounding trees will need to be cut and either buried on right site or disposed of very carefully to prevent further infection. Then, the roots at the edge of the area must be cut and separated.

“We’ll take a vibratory plow and encircle all the diseased trees,” she said, cutting “five foot down into the ground. And we try to go two times around.” Additionally, insecticide spraying may be needed outside of the encircled area.

Planned for next spring, this will be a big effort requiring the cooperation of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Michigan State University, the Leelanau County Conservation District and the Cherry Electric Cooperative.

Ross encourages people who may be concerned about unhealthy red oaks in their woods or forests to get in touch with the Conservation District or contact an arborist to help identify the problem. There are a number of much-less threatening reasons that red oaks may appear stressed, but oak wilt disease is very aggressive. So, rapid detection and response is critical to combating the spread of this disease. She encourages owners to avoid cutting or wounding red oaks during the beetles’ active period from mid-April through July.

Ross hopes that this outbreak will help raise awareness in Leelanau County. “I’m actually very optimistic that we can use this outbreak to maybe minimize where oak wilt is going to go,” she said. “Maybe we won’t repeat what we’ve seen in some of the other counties.”

Unfortunately, this is only one of the challenges facing Leelanau’s forests. As most residents know, the Emerald Ash Borer invaded the area about 10 years ago. Having hitched a ride with some goods imported from Asia, this pest has been killing trees across the upper Midwest ever since. The results are quite visible from almost any roadway in the county. Over 90 percent of all Leelanau’s ash trees will die within a few years, Ross said.

And even more trouble is coming to the woods. A tiny, soft-bodied insect called beech scale is also invading Leelanau’s forests, drilling little holes in the bark of American Beech trees. The holes allow another tree-killing fungus to weaken and kill beech trees. Ultimately, this “beech bark disease” may kill most of the county’s beech trees.

“I don’t know where this is going to end up,” Ross said, “but our experience in the Upper Peninsula is very devastating.”

Clearly, Leelanau County’s forests are changing. These invasive pests and diseases are removing whole species from the community of trees that make up our forests. Brian Price, executive director of the Leelanau Conservancy says there are actually several factors at work.

“There are three major things or factors that we’re dealing with that are extremely disruptive in our forests,” Price said. “First, the pests and diseases are a huge factor and extremely troubling.”

Second, with the on-going loss of ash and beech trees, large openings are being created in the forests. These openings allow sunlight in that encourages new tree growth. But that’s when another “huge” influence on forest composition takes over. Price puts it this way.

“The only thing coming us is what the deer won’t eat. We have so many deer to over-browse the young trees that come back up to replace the ones that are dying, we’re going to only get the trees that the deer won’t eat.”

The third big factor influencing the composition of our future forests, Price said, is climate change. “Certainly, climate change is having an impact. But it’s hard to see the direct impact.”

Apparently, the US Forest Service is also concerned about the impact of climate change on the forests of northern forests. The Michigan Forest Ecosystem Vulnerability Assessment and Synthesis, a report issued by the Northern Research Station in March discusses a number of changes underway and anticipated.

According to Stephen Handler, the report’s lead author, the interaction of climate and forests is complicated. There are many forest stressors at work, including diseases, suburban development, fire and a large deer herd. But some climate-related changes have been observed.

For instance, he said, “the red maple, typically a southern or temperate species, is all of the sudden regenerating more successfully up in northern Minnesota, where it wouldn’t have previously been.”

Handler and the Forest Service see climate change as presenting new risks to forest managers. Like an approaching storm, it’s difficult to predict exactly what the results will be, but to stay safe, people need to be cautious. Forest owners should not bother waiting around for a crystal ball that shows what the future’s going to look like. “We know enough now to begin taking action,” he said.

Handler points out that all the climate models predict an increase in average temperatures for Northern Michigan over the coming decades. Additionally, precipitation is more likely to come in the form of large downpours, resulting in a lot of runoff. That combination of higher temperatures and less water staying in the soils may stress many of the region’s tree species.

“We’ve got some potential for pests and diseases and other stress agents to become more damaging,” Handler said. For example, “as winters become shorter and growing seasons extend, beetles are likely to become active earlier and may become active later into the season as well. Some of these pests and these disease agents may become even more damaging if they interact with trees that are already stressed from weather or climate.”

While all this change can be overwhelming, even frightening, there are lots of things people can do to help forests and woodlots adapt to climate change. Handler said he’s even optimistic because most of the recommended actions will encourage healthy forests, whether climate changes are severe or not. He calls them “no-regrets” strategies.

“The first thing is to focus on diversity,” Handler said. “That’s a diversity of species, age classes and a diversity of genetics.” For instance, forest owners should maintain and plant a variety of native tree species. Some landowners may want to plant trees that may have been more common in the southern part of Michigan such as hackberry or white oak to hedge their bets. Additionally, tree plantings should be tried in different locations such as slopes facing different directions.

Landowners interested in learning more about tree health and forestry can contact the Leelanau County Conservation District. Additionally the Forestry Division of the Department of Natural Resources offers direct assistance to promote vigorous forests throughout the state.

– See more at: http://glenarborsun.com/forest-change-underway-in-leelanau-county/#sthash.CqnpdSrI.dpuf