Forest Legacy project restores Michigan forest devastated by insects, floods

Don Peterson Planting White Pine

Don Peterson, former executive director of the Sustainable Resources Institute, Inc., plants a white pine tree at the project site on Oct. 20, 2021. Photo courtesy of Sustainable Resources Institute, Inc., by Karen Dugdale.

A project to restore conservation land in the wake of destructive emerald ash borer and spruce budworm infestations in the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan is well underway following a $132,442 USDA Forest Service Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant.

In addition to the infestations, this area — around the Pilgrim River, a cold-water trout stream and Lake Superior tributary in Houghton County — recently had a 1,000-year flood, followed by a 100-year flood, that harmed local ecosystems and washed away plants and soil along a long stretch of the stream bank.

“A lot of that riparian forest was white ash,” said Hunter Peterson, a project leader at the nonprofit Sustainable Resources Institute, Inc. “When those insects and diseases went through, it wiped out a lot of that riparian cover. Also, invasive reed canary grass has taken over much of the local vegetation, making regeneration of trees difficult if not impossible.”

Because the reed canary grass became established after the floods washed away the earlier vegetation, natural regeneration of trees will not occur there. The invasive grass is crowding out any newly planted tree seedlings. Workers on scene are trying to shade out this invasive grass by planting larger, containerized white pine trees and re-establishing the canopy cover. These pine trees will be installed in the riparian areas and into the erosion control netting along with other native vegetation.

“The riparian canopy cover is important because this river is an outstanding trout stream and a salmon spawning area,” said Peterson. “Now, a lot of solar or temperature pollution is making the conditions not ideal for trout. So, by re-shading the area, that should help to reduce the temperature of the stream. This also serves to strengthen the soil and reduce further erosion.”

Peterson added, “Originally, we planned for much smaller trees. But due to the stream bank work, we decided to hire a crew to do some hand grading on the banks and lay down some heavy coconut coir matting. It was very heavy work.”

Part of the restoration project includes laying down heavy matting and installing vegetation on about 4,500 square feet of exposed soil and eroded stream banks from the floods in 2018. This biodegradable matting is made from coconut fiber and is used to control stream bank erosion. Once the netting is  placed over the soil, native grasses and trees can be planted within the netting framework for stability. The netting gradually decomposes over years.

The Pilgrim River Riparian Restoration project is currently planting roughly 2,000 containerized trees, 4,000 tree plugs and 200 containerized shrubs on 110 acres within an 8.25-mile riparian buffer area along the Pilgrim River.

To date, about 80% of the planned trees have been planted, and most of the stream bank stabilization work has been completed.

The land received conservation protection in December 2017. The entire property, about 1,300 acres, is in the USDA Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program. Administered in partnership with state agencies, the program helps protect private forest lands through tools including land purchases and conservation easements.

“The privately owned project area is held in a conservation easement by the State of Michigan through the Forest Legacy Program and is enrolled in the Conservation Stewardship program,” said Dennis McDougall, a Forest Service Eastern Region stewardship forester in Minnesota. “This project will leverage partner efforts of the Michigan Wildlife Habitat Initiative and the Pilgrim River Project, among others.”

Partners for Watershed Restoration and Michigan Tech conducted a similar project on the adjacent Pilgrim River Community Forest property, which was the inspiration for this project, started by Sustainable Resources, Inc., in coordination with landowner Joe Hovel.

This grant was extended through 2024 to monitor tree survival on site and to make repairs as necessary.

coir matting is ready to control soil erosion

In this photo from July 20, 2021, the coir matting is ready to control soil erosion one month after workers secured it to the stream bank and added vegetation. Photo courtesy of Sustainable Resources Institute, Inc., by Hunter Peterson.