Helping the Leelanau Conservancy in “Saving the Palmer Woods”

Over the past 40 years or so, Dr. Daniel Palmer and his wife, Helen, purchased more than a dozen adjacent parcels of forest land to create the largest privately held tract of forest in Leelanau County.Morel All this time, the land has been carefully managed for sustainable timber production with the guidance of professional forester, Richard Cooper.

Last week, the Leelanau Conservancy announced their intention to purchase about 700 acres of the Palmer Woods to create a special forest reserve. The Conservany’s goal is to preserve this working forest and open it to the public for passive recreation such as hiking and cross-country skiing. The fund-raising effort is now in full swing.woods_hikers_small

To support that effort, I was asked to develop a video that would very briefly explain what this project is and why it’s needed. My work included helping to develop the script, shooting all the video, collecting audio, editing, and post production work. A special thanks to my friend, Jim Anderson for getting me up in the air and safely down again for those aerial shots. You can find the video, “Saving the Palmer Woods” in HD on YouTube here.

A more detailed description of the effort to create the Palmer Woods Forest Reserve can be found on the Leelanau Conservancy’s website.

In addition to protecting a large part of the Glen Lake Watershed, the Palmer Woods will give all of us a very visible example of what sustainable forestry looks like in this time of increasing rapid climate change.

Interview with Christopher Hoving, Adaptation Specialist


A couple of months ago, I found myself waiting in the drafty security area that sits between the two halves of Constitution Hall in Lansing while a guard called Christopher L. Hoving to come down and escort me into the building. The two halves house Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Department of Natural Resources (DNR). In the Wildlife Division of the DNR, Chris is the Adaptation Specialist who works with counterparts in other Great Lakes States in assessing how best to manage wildlife. He is also the lead author of a report issued nearly two years ago called Changing Climate – Changing WildlifeThe report describes the results of an effort to assess the vulnerability of Michigan’s best known wildlife species to the impacts of climate change.

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse

Chris had agreed to talk with me about the report and the implications of what he is learning. Though the conference room was a bit noisy and I am a novice at managing my own video equipment for interviews, we both gave it a go. What follows is short summary of our one-hour discussion with links to a few short video clips from the interview.

The Interview

Working with a number of different experts in the DNR and the Michigan Natural Features Inventory (, Chris helped to characterize the vulnerability of individual wildlife species to the various impacts of climate changes now overtaking Michigan. The methodology for this assessment was provided by NatureServe, a respected conservation science group with many partners. In general, vulnerability can be seen as a combination of a creature’s sensitivity to changes in a specific environmental factor such as heat together with that creature’s ability to avoid exposure to unacceptable factors, such as moving to cooler locations. Other vulnerabilities arise when sources of food and shelter change or are lost as climates shift. Ultimately Chris and his colleagues pulled together the information and completed climate change vulnerability assessments on 400 of Michigan’s wildlife species. As Chris describes in the first video segment, the DNR’s vulnerability assessment addresses the risks of population decline by mid-century due to changes in Michigan’s climate. Given the amount of carbon dioxide already in our atmosphere, there will be a 5 degree Fahrenheit increase in average temperatures and a drying of many soils across Michigan by mid-century. The vulnerability assessment shows that many our wildlife species will not be able to cope with these changes. VIDEO – SEGMENT 1

Other climate changes are also already underway, with more anticipated. For example increases in the frequency and severity of extreme storm events have been measured over the past couple of decades and climate models indicate a continuing increasing storminess in the decades ahead. Although these storms include severe downpours, the water runs off quickly to cause flooding downstream, but fails to return lasting moisture to the soils.

Blanchard's Cricket Frog

Blanchard’s Cricket Frog

Some examples of climate-vulnerable wildlife species are frogs, toads and salamanders. Chris points out that these species tend to breed in temporary spring ponds that often dry up in the summer. However, temperature increases and highly variable storm events, as well as human development, are already reducing these temporary breeding ponds. Population decline is already evident with some species like the Blanchard’s cricket frog. VIDEO – SEGMENT 2

In fact, about 2/5ths or 40% of the 400 wildlife species evaluated are significantly vulnerable to the climate changes expected over the next 20 to 25 years. Chris provided a number of other examples of wildlife species that are considered vulnerable and not likely to be able to cope with the new climate of mid-century Michigan, including ruffed grouse and moose.

Young Aspen Forest

Young Aspen Forest

In some cases, the vulnerability of a species is to the loss of habitat caused by climate change. Chris pointed out that ruffed grouse depend on young aspen forest habitat in Lower Michigan. However, young aspen forests are threatened by drying soils. With less habitat, there will be far fewer grouse. VIDEO – SEGMENT 3

The extent of wildlife changes predicted in the report by mid-century in Michigan was quite stunning to me.  But, as Chris reminded me, these changes are only the beginning. If discharges of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases continue at current levels, our state’s climate will be similar to present day Arkansas by the end of this century or sooner. Under those circumstances, there will be no northern wildlife species in Lower Michigan. VIDEO – SEGMENT 4

When I asked about what’s being done to address these concerns, Chris described DNR’s efforts to better manage wildlife habitat under changing conditions, including efforts to protect habitat. For example, the state built a series of dams many years ago to create flooded and wet wildlife areas. Given the increasing severity of storms and the age of these dams, substantial improvements are needed to protect the habitat. Chris also described a difficult policy discussion now underway in the DNR about the possible re-location of wildlife species. The question is, should wildlife managers move or transplant endangered species areas in the south to new locations further north to help them survive the changing climate. For example, existing populations of massassauga rattlesnake are unlikely to survive without intervention. But it they are to be moved, when and where? The so-called translocation of species is becoming a very hot topic among conservation scientists. VIDEO – SEGMENT 5

In closing our discussion, Chris said there are lots of outdoor enthusiasts from hunters and fishermen to birders and hikers who are raising their voices of concern. He described an effort to bring together a large number of conservation organizations to help wildlife management efforts in coping with climate change – Beyond Seasons End ( Repeating the words of Dan Ashe, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Chris said that climate change presents humankind the challenge of our century.

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:

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.

December Reflection

The gentle exhalation of Lake Michigan is caught up this morning in hoarfrost and rime, ghosting weedy stems and low shrubs and the jagged bright lines of tree branches. From here, Bohemian Valley appears in delicate patterns, like receding layers of white and brown feathers.


Taking a break, I’m glad to be away from my desk for a while; glad to wander in the woods and fields close to home. With so little daylight in December, there never seems to be enough time to wander.

These days, I spend hours reading reports and papers on atmospheric chemistry, climate change and the loss of species in the inevitable shift of ecosystems. And there are long conversations with the researchers working to prepare us for what’s next. They say things like adaptation, assisted migration.

But this week, I said goodbye to a dear friend in a Lansing hospice and the feeling of it pulls on me. I see light flicker across the hillsides and ridges furry with maples and remember her last visit here. We spent an August evening celebrating fifty-something, her last birthday, watching the orange and crimson light ripple across the water and up the slope into some beech trees. She wanted to talk about how to save more of it, to preserve the trees and openings of Leelanau County.

As old friends do, we talked of families and friends, recent trips, and the surprising passage of time. A simple conversation turned poignant. We did not talk of death and dying, the ephemeral nature of life. There was still business to be taken care of, a legacy to consider.

From that perspective, I think, one separates from the day-to-day complaints, wants, and disappointments. Our institutionalized system of consumption and greed is laid bare; maybe we finally rise above it to see humanity within the context of real earth systems. Of course, it is an inescapable truth that all life is dependent on these distinctly limited systems; but the meaning of that truth seems so brightly lit at the end of day.

BOOK REVIEW: The Big Ratchet by Ruth DeFries

In one of his most influential and important works, The Practice of the Wild (1990), Gary Snyder reminds us of the conditional nature of life on earth. As he put it:  Two conditions – gravity and a livable temperature range between freezing and boiling – have given us fluids and flesh. Thankfully, our planet is in just the right orbital around the sun, massive enough to hold an atmosphere, a stable tilt providing predictable seasons, a molten core that recycles carbon, and a magnetic field that protects us from the solar wind. In a relatively short time of stability, humans have evolved. Snyder points out that fingers and toes, eyes and ears, even our wagging tongues owe something to our evolution as land-striders, tree climbers and weather-watchers.Big_Ratchet_Cover

Something in Snyder’s earth sense was brought to mind while reading this brand new book by Ruth DeFries, The Big Ratchet – How Humanity Thrives in theFace of Natural Crisis (Basic Books, 2014). While not a poet, DeFries shares a perspective with Snyder that comes from careful observation and deep reflection. As a geographer and environmental scientist, she’s taken a different road to understanding earth systems and human systems, but her conclusions are similar to the Buddhist poet.

To be sure, this is a short, easy-reading book with a conversational tone. The language is straightforward and approachable, offering a clear narrative interlacing stories of technical innovations with the exponential growth of human populations. What makes us different from other species, DeFries says, is not our ability to manipulate our surroundings; rather, we have developed and extraordinary ability to twist food from nature. Our ability to pass knowledge across generations has given us a remarkable capacity to try, fail and adapt. If one experiment fails, we lurch, stumble, and try some other path.

And that is a key focus of the book, how human populations and societies have grown or ratcheted up to the limits of food production, suffered starvation and other loss (i.e., the hatchet), but somehow managed to discover or unearth a solution (i.e., pivot). For example, DeFries reminds us that natural limits to bio-available nitrogen once greatly limited food production. By the nineteenth century, expanding urban populations were facing food shortages as all the supplies of recycled wastes and imported guano failed to keep pace with demand. Then, German chemist Fritz Haber came along to add a spark to humanity’s accumulated knowledge and show how electricity could be used to fix nitrogen from the air producing ammonia fertilizer. Cleverly joining invention, innovation with accumulated knowledge, human kind has continued to prosper and grow at an exponential rate.

This is a hopeful story, a hopeful book – within limits. DeFries clearly states that: there are three fundamental requirements needed for a habitable planet: a stable climate, a planetary recycling apparatus and a smorgasbord of life. As she points out, there are limits to planet’s support system and the massive increase in population and food demand over the last 60 years or so strikes at these fundamental requirements. An increasingly unstable climate threatens to disrupt food production across the globe. Unpredictable planting seasons, drought, heat waves and storms are worldwide climatic changes that threaten food supplies everywhere. We greatly complicate matters by disrupting the recycling of nutrients, discharging them as sewage to rivers  and oceans and into the air.

Still, DeFries takes a long view and sees reason for hope. In the final chapter of her book, she says that human ingenuity is once again leading to positive change. While acknowledging the impacts of exponential population growth, she says the end of the demographic upheaval is in sight. She also sees humanity beginning to pivot away from wasteful business-as-usual, finding new ways to recycle nutrients, re-localize food production, reduce food wastes, and adopt healthier diets.

However, she leaves us with caution. After the big ratchet up of population over the last century, we face a time of great change and global challenges. She says we are learning that urban lives are connected with nature only against strong headwinds driven by the push to consume more. All of us, she says, need to do much more to keep the hatchets from falling too severely.