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Improving Forest Habitat In Michigan: RCPP in Action

Cutting down trees can be a controversial practice for an organization dedicated to preserving land. The Little Traverse Conservancy (LTC) is demonstrating how harvesting trees can benefit targeted wildlife, the local economy and the organization’s efforts to protect additional lands.

LTC’s recent efforts to improve wildlife habitat through targeted tree harvests is receiving assistance from the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s  Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). Specifically, LTC is receiving assistance through an RCPP project led by the American Bird Conservancy to improve forest habitat for potentially-threatened bird species, including the golden-winged warbler.

“It was perfect timing for us, we were looking for grant opportunities,” said Derek Shiels, director of stewardship for LTC.

LTC acquired the 640-acre Jack & Tucker Harris Working Forest Reserve in Cheboygan County in 2016. The land had a history of logging, grazing and contained buildings and trailers that had to be removed. “It’s a great piece of land to experiment with,” said Shiels. LTC only recently began designating land as Working Forest Reserves where it will conduct sustainable timber harvests in order to improve forest habitat, produce revenue, and participate in the region’s forest products industry. LTC is planning to harvest trees on about 120 acres in four locations on this reserve, said Shiels.

LTC hired a private consulting forester, Bryce Metcalfe, to develop a forest management plan for the Harris Reserve that would meet the habitat goals of LTC and the RCPP project while offsetting some of the costs with a commercial tree harvest. The habitat goal was to create forest openings that benefit the golden-winged warbler and other threatened bird species. The plan called for leaving at least 5 to 15 higher canopy broadleaf trees, like maples, on every acre cleared for perching.

Metcalfe started with a forest management plan including a species inventory and timber value assessment. The Harris Reserve had a broad range of wildlife habitats but not much timber potential, Metcalfe said. After he determined what areas would be harvested and what trees would remain, he solicited bids for logging the tracts during winter of 2018. No bids were received as the site contained mostly pulp woods. Eventually Metcalfe was able to negotiate a harvest through an area wood mill.

Improving wildlife habitat and managing for healthy forests is LTC’s goal when conducting harvests. Revenue from tree harvests is used to offset the cost of managing the forests and for acquiring more land, said Shiels. “Bryce is our advocate to get the most out of it.”

“If you want the habitat improvement you have to get the harvest done,” said Metcalfe. In addition to wildlife, the timber industry, including consulting foresters, loggers, truckers and mills, benefit from working forest reserves like the Harris Reserve.

Metcalfe has worked with many landowners to improve forest habitat on their land. The results of a selective tree harvest aren’t esthetically appealing right away which can upset some landowners, even when they’ve been shown photos of what the results will look like. “You have to try to see the beauty in the mess,” he said.

“Bird species including brown thrashers, eastern whip-poor-wills, yellow warblers, chestnut-sided warblers, woodcock and grouse will benefit right away from the selective tree clearings,” said Kayla Knoll, a biologist with American Bird Conservancy working out of Marquette. Other animals like deer and elk also benefit, she said. Golden-winged warblers will experience the most habitat benefits a couple of years after the harvest when shrubs become established. Sightings of the golden-winged warbler have been recorded near the Harris Reserve.

Forestland owners anywhere in Michigan can utilize NRCS assistance to improve wildlife habitat for birds or other desired species.

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program is a partner-driven approach to conservation that funds solutions to natural resource challenges on agricultural land. By leveraging collective resources and collaborating on common goals, RCPP demonstrates the power of public-private partnerships in delivering results for agriculture and conservation.

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