Why the clear-cutting on Benzonia Trail?

From staff reports

A number of concerned locals have contacted Glen Lake School about the clear-cutting of aspen trees on the school-owned property on County Road 677 (Benzonia Trail), just north of the M-72 intersection — a 180-acre plot that the local public school typically calls the “Benzie Trail Property”. To address those concerns, Glen Lake posted the following interview with its forester, Richard Cooper, from nearby Honor, on its website, www.glenlakeschools.org.

According to Glen Lake, “the school board chose Cooper as its forester based on the respect he has both within the environmental community and the logging community as somebody who takes a careful approach to timber management. We asked him to provide some perspective on the forestry management plan that is in place for the property and to explain why clear-cutting was used on the aspen stand.”

Glen Lake: Before we get into the specifics of the forestry management plan, can you take us back a little further in time and explain how the school got the property in the first place and why special deed restrictions on the property require the school to cut trees on it.

Cooper: It originally became part of school property back in the 1940’s or so through a DNR program. Schools could get tax-reverted land for forestry purposes. The deed restriction you refer to requires timber management, requires some logging for the school district to maintain the ownership. If not managed for timber and education, the land can revert back to the state, which would mean the school district would lose a very valuable asset. An interesting historical aside, some of the older people in the Empire area remember planting the pine trees out there as kids, in the old abandoned agricultural fields. They planted red pine, jack pine and white pine for soil erosion control and educational purposes.

Glen Lake: So if the deed requires logging, why has the school never done that until recently, yet was obviously able to maintain ownership of the property for the past several decades?

Cooper: The school district has been managing the forest since the 1940’s by planting trees, protecting the forest from fires, building trials, conducting field trips and classes, on-site camping, cutting firewood, and recently harvesting some trees. Cutting trees is only a small part of managing a forest. Also, the forest was maturing during all those years, and it has just recently reached the point where the timber is ready to harvest. We’ve had four timber sales on Glen Lake Community Schools property over the past fifteen or so years and the timber has generated in excess of $125,000 for the school. In addition, the first thinning of the pine was conducted perhaps twenty years ago and was handled by the Leelanau County forester, Rick Moore. So it is not correct to assume the Glen Lake Community Schools land was never managed nor logged previously.

Glen Lake: How did the forestry management plan take shape?

Cooper: First we do an inventory of the timber to see what timber types and volumes we have to work with. This property had about 150 acres in upland hardwoods—maple beech forest. There are also three types of pine on the property: red pine, jack pine and white pine, which total about 12 acres. And the aspen, which covers about 18 acres, about 10 percent of the property.

Glen Lake: So we have thinned some types of timber but clearcut the aspen. Can you explain why the different approaches are used?

Cooper: There are three different cutting techniques used on this parcel of land, one for each timber type. With the pine, we “thin from below.” The smaller trees are taken, leaving the dominant and co-dominant trees for future growth and harvests. Other issues can also determine the approach and timing. For example, the red pine stand had a small infestation of pine beetle, and I was concerned that the beetle would really flourish. We cut the infested trees in 2008, a little ahead of schedule because it’s very hard to get rid of the pine beetle once it gets established.

A selective harvest cutting technique is used in the hardwood stand. Every 10 years or so, individual trees are marked and harvested to open up small areas for regeneration. Generally trees are harvested at age 100 in the hardwood stands, and you manage it so there are about 10 harvests over 100 years.

Glen Lake: The aspen clearcut, which is so visible from the road, is what has people most upset; can you explain the strategy on that?

Cooper: As for the aspen stand, the trees were nearing the end of their natural lives and they were beginning to die off. We wanted to keep aspen on the property for diversity and educational purposes. To regenerate a healthy aspen stand, a clearcut is used to allow full sunlight to hit the roots. If only partial sun hits the root system, the new aspen shoots are not as strong and viable. If we had thinned the aspen stand or left it alone, the aspen would have died out and natural forest succession would have eventually replaced the aspen with poorer quality hardwoods. Aspen are a very important food source and cover for many animals, like whitetail deer, woodcock, lots of songbirds and grouse, so providing habitat was one reason we wanted to keep it. We also plan on leaving some large logs from this harvest around the aspen type for grouse to use as drumming logs—those are logs that the male grouse sits on and drums to attract females, so that was also a habitat decision. Aspen doesn’t live long, about 50 to 70 years, but it grows very quickly. Even by next May the aspen shoots will be about a foot high and by next fall aspen reproduction should be about 5 to 6 feet tall. By the time today’s kindergartners graduate in 12 years, the aspen will be 50 to 60 feet tall.

Glen Lake: Also, some people have complained about how messy the forest is still. What’s going to happen as far as cleanup goes?

Cooper: Yes, it is muddy out there right now with all the recent rain. By contract, the logger is required to smooth the trails and roads. Most of the slash will be chipped for pulpwood. But there will be some limbs and slash that will be left to decompose over the next few years, enriching the soil. I hold a cash bond on the purchaser to hire another contractor for cleanup if he does not fulfill his obligation in that regard.

Glen Lake: Any final thoughts about the property’s forest you’d like to share?

Cooper: It’s important to keep in mind that the forest is an amazingly resilient system. After European settlement, the lake states were clearcut. We stumped, farmed and pastured the land. It eroded. We abandoned it. It burned. We walked away from it, and 4 million acres reverted to state of Michigan ownership back in the 1930’s. In spite of all of that, the forest came back and is now ready for cutting today. Imagine what our forests would look like if we had tried to grow trees! We obviously manage the land with infinitely more thought, understanding and care than what happened a hundred years ago. Absolutely no comparison. So the people of the school district can know that even though this forest is not currently managed to become an old growth forest, and current deed restrictions prevent that, it will continue to be a healthy forest and provide an outstanding outdoor classroom resource for studying sustainable forestry and forest science. Please let teachers know that I would be happy to lead classes out there for field study.

This GlenArbor.com story is sponsored by Forest Gallery and Center Gallery, ground zero for Glen Arbor’s art scene.