By KATE BASSETT/HARBOR LIGHT on May 4-10, 2016
Conservation is a word that carries a lot of weight in northern Michigan. It conjures up images of protected forests, shorelines, and meadowlands; the nature preserves that serve as a huge source of pride (and respite) for local communities.
It also brings to mind the Little Traverse Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that’s been the leader in land protection and care in this region since 1970. That second piece— care of protected lands— rarely gets the spotlight. However, a project at the Offield Nature Preserve just east of Harbor Springs (bordering Quick and Hathaway Roads) is bringing attention to this critical part of the Conservancy’s mission. As a property that has long been enrolled in the Michigan Commercial Forest program as a “working forest,” the preserve is about to undergo some forest management.
In other words, there will be some logging…which may cause some alarm for folks, particularly because Offield Preserves is one of the Conservancy’s most visited proper- ties. The preserve will remain open throughout the process.
Executive director Tom Bailey said he wants people to understand the forest management plan that is in place for the property, the steps the Conservancy is taking to protect the biodiversity there, and most importantly, to trust that even something that seems counterintuitive to land protection can, in fact, be an important tool in the conservation movement.
“In particular, what is now the Of- field Preserve was land that was fragmented into a number of cutover farms in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Rolly Stebbins assembled these parcels and they were cared for by the Stebbins family. They enrolled the land in the commercial forest program, which means for decades the property has been managed for the production of timber/fiber.
“To be part of this program, the property owners must file a plan that has to then be approved by the state. They receive a break in property taxes in return; the land must also be open to the public for hunting and trapping. When the Offield family started a $10 million, 10 year challenge plan and we began to build what is now known as the “emerald necklace” (a collection of protected spaces around Harbor Springs) the Stebbins property was clearly the jewel in the crown. We acquired it as a working forest parcel, which means we also took on the obligation to continue to manage it as a commercial forest.”
What Bailey was quick to add is perhaps the most important piece of this story: forest management can be a really good thing. While it’s hard for those who flock to places like Offield Preserve to believe that commercial logging equipment can be beneficial on protected spaces, the truth is, this provides a unique opportunity for education and restoration, Bailey noted.
“The first thing we did was update the forest management plan. We wanted to give top priority to protecting sensitive areas and to ensure the management maintained— and benefitted— the wildlife and public recreation that occurs there.”
To do so, the Conservancy teamed up with not only a forest management service, but also, a volunteer biologist.
“The conservation movement has evolved and matured in the 20th century,” Bailey said. “Most preserves were managed in a very hands-off way. There is now a new class of conservancy properties— the Working Forest Preserve— and the plan that was generated for the Offield Nature Preserve was created as an effort to embody all the lessons learned in the 19th century. We want this to be a flagship example of how working lands can be outstanding resources for nature study, biodiversity and recreation all at once, while also providing an economic sustainability piece through forest management.”
In fact, a key piece of the Offield Preserve’s management plan is to recreate some of the “big trees” that existed in the area pre-European settlement.
“We are going to manage the hardwoods stands so that people get a chance to see what the forest was like here, back when there were big beech trees where the passenger pigeons used to roost,” Bailey said.
He added that the Conservancy will be mindful when it comes to tree selection, particularly because of the issues plaguing ash and beech trees.
“You can’t put the bad genie back in the bottle and expect it to change, but what we can do is mimic natural disturbances that used to occur here. At one point in time in this area, trees were broken down by the sheer number of passenger pigeons that would roost in them. We are looking to have the same sort of impact as would have occurred naturally.
Most of the trails currently used within the Offield Preserve are old logging routes. Bailey said the Conservancy will work with the timber operators to use existing trails and incorporate any new pathways into the trail system. Modern, low impact equipment will be used and some tree tops will be left on the ground, an important way to support plant growth, fungi, and wildlife.
“Just as when Mother Nature sends a wind storm or fire, this is a disturbance in the forest. We are doing our best to make sure that in the long term, we are working to return
this land to something similar to a native forest,” he said. While the option to remove the preserve from the Working Forest registry exists, Bailey said it would be extremely expensive. It would also be “inconsistent with management goals.” “We want this land to be more consistent with what it was before, which means taking out things like human-planted pine stands that would have fallen anyway. We are simply speeding up the process by decades.” In many ways, what will take place at the Offield Nature Preserve is representative of the overall evolution of the conservation movement.
“Working lands are more and more threatened,” Bailey explained. “We see this all across northern Michigan, with a lot of conversion of farm or forest lands to other uses. It is an important conservation priority to not only preserve lands, but also to preserve working lands as well. As this movement has ‘grown up,’ people in conservation are realizing it’s important to preserve land not only for recreation and safe keeping, but also, for use of renewable resources in a sustainable manner for our sake and for the Earth’s sake.”
Science also plays a key role in this ever-expanding view of conservation. Knowing that a growing forest will sequester more carbon is important. Locally, working alongside biologi- cal stations from the University of Michigan, Lake Superior State University, Central Michigan University, more and more it has become apparent protected lands can serve as education and nature study tools, recreational spaces, and economic sustainability all at once.
“There is no one right answer in conservation, and we know some people will agree with the way we are managing this land and some people will be concerned. That’s okay. We want folks to know that ecologically, we are doing what we believe is best practice.
“We are big believers in the public domain. It’s one of the main things that makes us Americans, our relationship with the land, the birthright of every child to wander, hike, explore…Be a kid. In northern Michigan we’re so fortunate to have lands like this available to us.”
While some trails will be closed for a time, the plan is to keep Offield Preserve as accessible as possible while the work is being done. Little Traverse Conservancy also has a mobile “app” that allows users to get information and directions to all of its preserves. For more information visit www. landtrust.org.