SWMLC and Partners Receive National Grant


Keeping forests healthy in the face of climate change

Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy and four regional partners are excited to announce that they were one of only thirteen selected (from more than 80 projects submitted nationwide) to receive grant funds from the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Climate Adaptation Fund, which is generously supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

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.

Banding together, SWMLC, Ottawa County Parks, The Nature Conservancy-Michigan, Chikaming Open Lands, and Shirley Heinze Land Trust are undertaking this $375,000 project to keep existing forests healthy and to plant new and resilient forests. Over the course of two years the group plans to plant over 40,000 trees, using species and creating forest habitats that can better adapt to climate change and invasive species. Over the next two years these partners will improve forest health and plant new forests across nature preserves and county parks spanning over 70 miles of latitude from northwest Indiana to the Grand River in west Michigan. Across 14 different forested areas throughout this region, the group will take action to positively impact nearly 500 acres of forest by treating for invasive species, planting new forests, and diversifying existing forests.

For example, at SWMLC’s Wau-Ke-Na, William Erby Smith Preserve, SWMLC Stewardship Director Mitch Lettow stated, “Between the Emerald ash borer and heavy spring rains, this habitat has really taken a hit over the last decade or so.”

The infamous 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, losing ashes dealt a devastating blow to over 50 acres at the site. Sunlight now floods to the ground in a previously shady understory. SWMLC Stewardship Specialist Dave Brown notes, “With the canopy dying back and more sunlight coming in, invasive plants are having a field day out there.”

Volunteers plant trees at Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy's Black River Preserve.

Emerald ash borer and invasive plants aren’t the only thorns in the sides of 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,” reflects Lettow. With climate change as another challenge thrown in the mix, Lettow and Brown are also seeing intense spring rains nearly every year impacting many of the SWMLC preserves. Gradually changing hydrology is 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.”

Mitch Lettow

Stewardship Director, Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy

Volunteers at SWMLC's Wau-Ke-Na preserve learn from DNR expert in Forest Health Heidi Frei how to examine Eastern hemlock branches for the invasive insect hemlock woolly adelgid.

The partners’ 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. 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.”

Dave Brown

Stewardship Specialist , Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy

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 any easier, but the optimism of SWMLC and its partners keeps them focused on solutions instead of problems. Lettow states, “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.”