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Planting for Resilience

Wau-Ke-Na’s North Tract receives 1,860 baby trees!

In a field of sweet-smelling wood chips and scraggly grass, the strange puzzle of white posts looks a little like a military cemetery – or a defunct drive-in movie theater. But instead of signaling something’s end, these posts mark the hopeful beginning of something remarkable.
Baby white and chinkapin oaks await planting at Wau-Ke-Na, North Tract.   |  NWS-WKNA
Visitors to Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy’s Wau-Ke-Na, W.E. Smith Preserve – North Tract may recall that work began last summer with the removal of many sickly non-native Douglas firs. Those trees were chipped into giant mounds, then spread evenly to create an almost surreal, 4-inch deep sea of wood chips. Now that it’s spring, we’ve started planting trees in this area – but visitors will need to wait a few more years before the transplants look anything like a forest!
The Crew has gotten the planting steps down to a quick art form. | NWS-WKNA
The project is part of a grant that SWMLC received in 2020 from the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Climate Adaptation Fund (which is generously supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation) that allows us to explore new ways to improve forest habitat in the face of climate change. Along with the important work of removing invasive plants, thinning areas that are dominated by a single tree species (making them vulnerable to disease), and trying new methods of fending off forest pests, SWMLC is experimenting with a new mix of tree species in the places we’re reforesting.
Baby white and chinkapin oaks await planting at Wau-Ke-Na, North Tract.   |  NWS-WKNA
Many foresters agree that some of our familiar “northern” tree species may not survive the higher temperatures and heavier rain events that are predicted for southwest Michigan in the coming years. As depressing as this is, it’s important to consider this when selecting tree species for a reforestation project like this. So SWMLC has chosen trees with “southern roots” for this project – species with natural ranges that barely extend northward into southwest Michigan (such as Ohio buckeye, pawpaw, and chinkapin oak), familiar species with more southerly genetics (like white oak), and even a few true southerners like common persimmon – in hopes that these species will be better able to handle the challenges to come.



Every single one of the 1,860 trees and shrubs is pressed into the soil by hand.  |  NWS-WKNA
So this spring, SWMLC’s Stewardship Crew is planting 1,860 trees in the preserve, with nearly 2,400 more to go in the south tract later in the season. It’s a huge undertaking!
With the non-native Douglas firs rendered into perfumey mulch, our friends from Generation III Excavating prepped the site for us by digging the planting holes with a tractor-driven auger, saving hours of back-breaking work.
The trees arrived as "bare-root" plants, hardly more than twigs.  |  NWS-WKNA
Meanwhile, the shipment of baby trees and shrubs arrived, mere “whips” swaddled in bundles of wet sphagnum moss and hope. Our friend Jared Foster at Native Connections kindly allowed us to store the young trees in his cooler so our whips didn’t start outgrowing their bundles before it was time for them to be planted – and before the essential protective tubing was ready.
Tubes made of recycled milk jugs protect young trees from wind and animals, but allow sunlight and water to get in. | NWS-WKNA
Easier and faster to install than the usual tree cages, these special 5-foot tall tubes are made from recycled plastic milk jugs and act as mini greenhouses, translucent enough to let in light while still keeping the seedlings warm  and moist. They’re open at the top and have holes in the sides to let water and air in and out, while still protecting the growing trees from wind and hungry deer and rabbits. They’re so special, in fact, that Stewardship Specialist Dave Brown had to embark on a mini-roadtrip to central Indiana pick them up.
SWMLC Staff: Anna McClurkan, Stewardship Crew; Dave Brown, Stewardship Specialist; Megan Martin, Stewardship Crew Leader . . . still smiling!  |  NWS-WKNA
Anna distributing protective tubes around the work site. | NWS-WKNA
Planting over 100 trees a day, the Stewardship Crew (left to right in the photo: Anna McClurkan, Dave Brown, and Megan Martin) and valiant volunteers have found a rhythm and method to the work. All day long, they walk to and from the truck, staging the 8-acre planting site with equipment, supplies, and baby trees.
Who says tree planting has to be serious? Not volunteers Kristi and Steve Chapman! | NWS-WKNA
The planting holes were made by a tractor-driven auger but fine-tuning must be done by hand with a dibbling tool. | NWS-WKNA
A crew member strides across the uneven ground, pitching wooden stakes at the planting holes with admirable accuracy. Another one stops to hack at one of the holes with a metal “dibble” tool, loosening and evening out the sandy soil. She then rummages around in a rubber satchel and pulls out a 2-foot long whip, then squats to tuck it into the dirt, mindful of the rampant poison ivy and frequent angry ants.
Anna making sure the baby tree is firmly and safely placed. | NWS-WKNA
Stewardship Crew Leader Megan Martin pounds in the stake that will hold the protective plastic tube in place. | NWS-WKNA
After tucking soil around the little roots and standing the shoot upright, she pounds a stake into the ground using a sledge hammer, just in time for another co-worker to slide a 6-foot tube down the stake, mindfully guiding the tiny plant into its new protective housing. Zip-ties quickly lock the tube into place and the name of the species is written in waterproof marker on the tube.
On to the next one.
Megan attaching the protective tube to the stake with zipties. | NWS-WKNA
Wednesday Warrior volunteers labeling protective tubes by species name. | NWS-WKNA
After planting, each tiny tree gets water with a quick zip from a backpack sprayer normally used during controlled burns. | NWS-WKNA
Unless rain is predicted (which hasn’t happened much lately), someone trudges through the site with 5 gallons (40 pounds!) of water strapped to their back, getting the new plantings off to a good start with a healthy squirt.
Anna wearing the backpack sprayer with swagger! | NWS-WKNA
Every single one of the 1,860 trees and shrubs is pressed into the soil by hand.  |  NWS-WKNA
Hopes are high that these babies will grow into vigorous specimens. Other native tree species will fill in around them, a diverse understory of plants and wildflowers will grow at their feet, nutritious fungal-rich soil will build, insects will be plentiful, the songs of birds will fill the morning air, and people will visit this healthy, resilient forest to find peace in its shade.
That’s the dream, anyway.
“To uphold our mission to preserve wild and scenic places for today and keep them healthy for tomorrow, we must be willing to adapt to changing conditions for the health of our natural areas. It’s not an easy task, but if we stay optimistic and focus on solutions to ecological problems, we can keep our promise to the next generation.”
Mitch Lettow

Director of Stewardship, Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy

If you’re interested in helping to plant trees, please join us for a tree planting session at Wau-Ke-Na, South Tract, Thursday June 17th, 10 am – 1 pm.
Learn more about this huge, on-going SWMLC project that’s funded by Wildlife Conservation Society’s Climate Adaptation Grant funding by reading these past stories:
SWMLC and Partners Receive National Grant
Keeping forests healthy in the face of climate change.
Making Omelettes
Removing non-native Douglas fir trees at Wau-Ke-Na, WE Smith Preserve.
Hemlocks for the Holidays
Highlighting the work that SWMLC and our project partners are doing locally to stop Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, a devastating forest pest.
Tree Planting with a Twist
Page 6, Protecting Nature, Autumn 2020, Vol. 29, No. 3

Story, Amelia Hansen with Mitch Lettow.
Photos, Amelia Hansen, Mitch Lettow, Dave Brown