By Michelle Werts
I never knew that walking through a forest could feel like walking on the beach, but that was the experience I had last week on the west coast of Michigan.
On Thursday, my forest restoration colleagues and I were in Muskegon visiting the project sites of work we’ve supported through the American Forests and Alcoa Foundation Partnership for Trees Program. Three years ago, we partnered with Alcoa Foundation on this 10-year initiative to identify restoration needs near Alcoa plant locations throughout the world. That led us to Muskegon and the dedicated Muskegon Conservation District, which has been conserving local natural resources since 1938.
The Muskegon Conservation District conducts a variety of conservation activities, from watershed health — one of their major recent projects has been helping restore White Lake, which they are hoping to get removed from the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Areas of Concern” list — to protecting and managing more than 1,200 acres of forested land. This, of course, is where the district’s work and our interests align.
Over the last three years, three Muskegon Conservation District projects have been funded through the American Forests and Alcoa Foundation Partnership for Trees, and we got to see all of them during our trip last week. These projects have been focused on helping some of Muskegon’s forests recover from outbreaks of bark beetles and the disease diplodia, which have been affecting the area’s red pine — a species with an interesting history in Michigan.
A native species to the state, much of the red pine was cleared to make way for agriculture as the state was settled. Then, during the era of the Civilian Conservation Corps, that enterprising group of men restored stands of red pine to Michigan. After that, the U.S. Forest Service used red pine stands in Muskegon for various experiments for management and other research purposes. After decades under Forest Service management, these experimental stands were passed along to the Muskegon Conservation District, and because of their monoculture of red pine due to the experiments, when the beetles and disease struck, they struck hard.
Our hosts in Michigan walked us through multiple sites planted through the financial help of American Forests and Alcoa, explaining how they had salvaged what they could of the damaged red pine while preparing the forest sites for replanting. Over the last three years, more than 55,000 trees have been planted in the Muskegon area through our Partnership for Trees with Alcoa Foundation. Each year, Alcoa employees have joined the Muskegon Conservation District to assist in tree planting and restoration work.
From a restoration perspective, one of the most exciting things about these projects to our team is the diversity of tree species and age that the district is using in their plantings — more than a dozen different species are being used. Through a combination of hardwoods and conifers of varying ages, a healthy, diverse forest stand will develop in this Michigan community. As for that sandy soil I mentioned at the beginning, it’s very common in this part of Michigan — being on the coast of Lake Michigan — so all of the species being planted must be compatible with these unique growing conditions. Of course, the Muskegon Conservation District has this covered: only trees native to the area are being used and only ones that can survive a beach-like soil. Seeing these little seedlings flourishing in this environment was heart-warming.
Overall, we had a lovely trip and are proud of the work we’ve been able to accomplish in Michigan with the help of the Muskegon Conservation District and Alcoa Foundation.