Partnership protects Michigan forests in perpetuity

An active river filled with large rocks is lined with green trees.
The Presque Isle River cascades through Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains and the Ottawa National Forest before emptying into Lake Superior. Photo: Richard Baumer

Almost 10 years in the making, the “big U.P. deal” draws to a climax in September when The Michigan Nature Conservancy, Midland’s Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation co-host a gathering in Flint to celebrate the permanent protection of more than 271,000 acres of forests, lakes, rivers and streams in the state’s Upper Peninsula.

The celebration marks the purchase of the sixth and final easement and the capitalization of an endowment fund that will support ongoing stewardship of the property. Mott has granted $10 million since 2004 in support of the multiphase, $56 million project.

With the help of several Michigan-based foundations, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the state government and The Forestland Group LLC — the timber investment management organization that owns 248,000 acres on which the working forest easement is held — have put together the largest conservation project in the state’s history, according to Helen Taylor, TNC’s state director.

The Northern Great Lakes Forest Project — as the “big U.P. deal” is known formally — will help prevent land fragmentation and incompatible development by using the protected property to link 2 million acres across eight counties in the U.P.

Using a combination of direct ownership and working forest conservation easements, the project establishes buffers around major sites such as the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Tahquamenon Falls State Park and Porcupine Mountains Wilderness Park. It also protects more than 300 natural lakes, 192 miles of Class I trout streams — including the Two Hearted River made famous by Ernest Hemingway* — and 52,000 acres of wetlands.

“By adopting a ‘working-lands’ approach to conservation, along with providing permanent public access, the project not only protects some of our state’s most treasured landscapes, but also helps protect thousands of timber and tourism jobs,” Taylor said.

The genesis of the Northern Great Lakes Forest Project occurred in 2001, when TNC learned that the land was for sale and initiated an evaluation of its ecological and economic value. Although The Forestland Group outbid TNC to become the new owners, the conservancy brokered an agreement with the company and the state to purchase a working forest easement of the most important acreage — land ripe for subdivision and sale.

Together with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, TNC and the Forestland Group formed a partnership to protect environmentally sensitive areas while preserving local economies dependent upon lumbering and tourism.

Working forest conservation easements are legal agreements between a landowner and a government entity or nonprofit conservation organization. They are an effective tool for protecting large areas of land — even entire ecosystems — while enabling landowners to “continue to derive economic value from the land to support the ongoing costs of ownership and stewardship,” according to Brenda Lind, in an article for the Land Trust Alliance, another Mott grantee. Easements also allow permanent public access for recreational purposes, such as snowmobiling, hunting and hiking.

When a working forest easement is chosen, however, experienced easement professionals and foresters are needed to draft and monitor provisions governing forest management, Lind says.

In 2005, after three years of negotiating, an agreement was struck to acquire 248,000 acres of working forest conservation easements to be held by the state. TNC also purchased another 23,338 acres adjacent to its existing nature preserve in the Two Hearted River watershed to establish the Two Hearted Forest Reserve. That learning laboratory is designed to explore and test forest management and restoration practices while demonstrating their profitability.

Northern Great Lakes Forest Project map.

Cold Springs Forestry, headquartered in Au Train, Michigan, was hired to develop a management plan for the Two Hearted Reserve to help restore the U.P.’s forests “to the diverse, healthy, resilient ecosystem of their origin,” according to Melissa Soule, marketing manager for TNC in Michigan.

“The project is pushing our understanding of sustainable forestry management and expanding important knowledge that can be shared with industry and government partners across the country,” Soule said.

“Michigan now owns more forestland  about 4.1 million acres — than any other state. We see this as an opportunity for the state to become a leader by encouraging biodiversity and by producing and harvesting timber sustainably with a return on investment.”

Jon Fosgitt, co-owner of Cold Springs Forestry, and his crew of 13 handle the day-to-day management of several tracts of forest for both TNC and the Forestland Group.

“In addition to managing the Two Hearted River Forest Reserve, we manage 90,000 acres of eased land and another 90,000 of non-eased property,” says Fosgitt, who refers to this work as “restoration forestry.”

Human activities such as road building, over-harvesting and fire suppression interrupt the natural life cycle of forests, Fosgitt says. In Michigan’s case, this has resulted in an unnatural abundance of sugar maple and red maple trees, which choke out other species — yellow birch, white pine and hemlock — that once flourished.

Restoring Michigan’s forests requires not only mapping, inventory and planning, but also marking trees for cutting and sale.

“We pride ourselves in careful and conscience selection of trees for harvest,” Fosgitt said. “Timber is the lifeblood of the U.P. Using a working-lands approach to conservation allows us — the environmentalists and the loggers — to have our cake and eat it, too.”

Cold Springs Forestry has teamed up with TNC to determine how effective working forest easements can be in terms of conservation and commercial use.

“We’re using the Two Hearted Reserve as a living laboratory,” Fosgitt said.

In partnership with regional universities, local high schools and adjacent private landowners, conservancy staff and foresters are using computer modeling, GIS (Geographic Information System) change detection analysis and other long-term, on-the-ground monitoring methods to protect the forests and enhance biodiversity.

A dimly lit forest shows light breaking through a view of tree trunks.
Conservancy staff and consulting foresters have developed a comprehensive management plan for the Two Hearted River Forest Reserve. Photo: Richard Baume

Fosgitt applauds TNC’s efforts to embrace the working-lands principles and involve the local community in protecting the state’s timberland.

“There’s a difference between preservation and conservation,” he said, “and the conservancy has approached this project from a purely conservationist point of view — that land can be protected for future generations while serving the economic needs of today.”

For TNC, the Northern Great Lakes Forest Project has been transformative, Taylor says.

“It’s difficult to believe that back in 2001, we had the audacity to think that our small organization could raise nearly $56 million and put together the partnerships that have made this project a success,” she said.

About $26 million in funding for the project was obtained from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund and the Federal Forest Legacy Program. More than $30 million was provided by several of Michigan’s leading foundations, including the Carls, Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow, Frey, Gerstacker, Kellogg, Kresge, Mott, Towsley, and Wege foundations.

To cover the costs of ongoing stewardship activities, TNC is continuing to raise contributions for an endowment fund, which received seed funding through the Mott grant and the Seevers Family Foundation.

“I hope — I believe — this project is symbolic for Michigan,” Taylor said.

“It sets a precedent across the country in terms of how public and private interests can work together to protect land that is both environmentally and economically valuable.

“The payoff will be tremendous for the future — and a legacy for all of us.”

* The river’s name was used by Hemingway in his short story, “Big Two-Hearted River,” apparently because of its unusual name. However, scholars believe Hemingway was describing a different trout stream, the Fox River near Seney.