Tall pine trees reach for a cloud-spotted sky, while the sun shines between branches.
Upper Peninsula Forests McMahon Lake Preserve sits in the Two Hearted River Watershed in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. © Jason Whalen/Big Foot Media

Stories in Michigan

Creating Resilient Forests

Michigan’s forests provide so many benefits to nature and people, it is vital that we safeguard them.

The northern forests of Michigan are part of a wide swath of forested habitat spanning from northern Ontario to Minnesota. Gray wolf, moose, raptors and songbirds live here, fish swim the pristine rivers, and myriad plant species grow beneath the tree canopy. The forests provide us with clean air, absorb carbon, filter water and provide year-round recreation and tourism opportunities.

Additionally, these forests are a key economic asset for the state of Michigan, as well as thousands of private landowners and local communities, by supporting a forest products sector with an annual value of over $17 billion.

Put simply, Michigan’s forests provide so many benefits to nature and people, it is vital that we safeguard them.

During the logging boom in the 1800’s, nearly all of Michigan’s old growth forests were completely cleared.  And, while much of Michigan’s forested land was restored over the last century, our forests are now threatened by invasive species, climate change and unsustainable management practices. 

Research shows that intact, healthy forests serve as a cost-effective and readily available solution to climate change. By safeguarding these forests against threats such as pests, disease, climate change, and development, we are also protecting rare and threatened plant and animal species. 

Young bull moose in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Young Bull Moose The northern forests serve as migratory corridors for many species. These corridors are becoming increasingly important as the warming climate forces species north. © Frank A. Wyzwywany

The Nature Conservancy is Working To:

  • DEMONSTRATE sustainable forestry and climate-smart restoration practices on our Two Hearted River Forest Reserve
  • DEVELOP innovative tools such as Key Ecological Attributes and Climate Informed Metrics to inform forest management and measure forest health
  • PROTECT forested land to connect habitats used by wide ranging and migratory species
  • INFLUENCE management choices of federal, state, industrial and private forest land owners

Demonstrating Sustainable Forestry

Using sustainable logging practices, we can improve the health and diversity of the forests. We promote sustainable forestry practices, such as selective logging, which involves assessing each individual tree to decide which trees should be cut for the health and diversity of the whole forest.

TNC in Michigan manages a number of its forested lands as working forests, most notably, the Two Hearted River Forest Reserve.  Since 2005, the 23,000-acre reserve has served as a "living laboratory" where new science-based techniques in forestry are tested, with the ultimate goals of increased variety of tree species and climate resiliency, while simultaneously helping to support the local timber economy. We are now using the results from this work to demonstrate the economic and ecological viability of sustainable forestry practices in other U.P. forests.

Developing Science-based Tools

We support partners in utilizing Conservancy-developed tools such as Key Ecological Attributes (KEAs) and Climate-Informed Metrics (CIMs). These tools help to plan, implement management activities and measure the diversity, health and resiliency of our forests.

KEAS measure the relative health of a timber stand, based on of seven forest attributes. We have developed protocols for measuring KEAs and have put this in place on our working forest lands.

CIMS is a measure of climate sensitivity for a given timber stand that we developed jointly with the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science. The U.S. Forest Service is now incorporating CIMs into their automated inventory management system.

The economic benefits and ecological benefits of conserving forests go hand-in-hand.

Protecting Forest Lands

Wide-ranging species such as moose, songbirds, wolves and deer require large, connected blocks of forest to survive and thrive. As we have done historically, we will continue to acquire land and easements assuring healthy, resilient, connected forests for generations to come. We assist both public and private landowners across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to secure lands and easements critical for connecting habitat.

In 2005, TNC, together with multiple partners, completed the Northern Great Lakes Forest Project—a.k.a, the "Big U.P. Deal"— a groundbreaking effort to conserve 271,000 acres located across eight counties in the Upper Peninsula, protecting some of Michigan’s most spectacular forests, lakes, rivers and streams. This project was a vast public-private partnership that protected local timber economic activity while protecting quality of life and ecological health across the Great Lakes region. It stands as the largest conservation project in Michigan’s history, made possible by the state’s leading foundations, the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, the State of Michigan and The Nature Conservancy.

View from the summit of Brockway Mountain of  Michigan's Upper Peninsula forests in peak fall colors.
View from Brockway Mountain View from the summit of Brockway Mountain of Michigan's Upper Peninsula forests in peak fall colors. © Jason Whalen/Big Foot Media

The Northern Great Lakes Forest Project, By the Numbers:

  • 248,000 acres of working forest easements held by the state, assuring sustainable forestry practices while protecting the local tax base. 
  • More than 52,000 acres of wetlands protected.
  • 23,338 acres acquired by TNC for demonstration of sustainable forestry practices and research.
  • Approximately 100,000 acres of buffer to various State Forests.


The Big U.P. Deal The Northern Great Lakes Forest Project (a.k.a. the "Big U.P. Deal") is the single largest conservation project in Michigan state history, covering 273,000 acres.

Influencing Management Choices

To improve the health of Michigan’s forests, we need to work at-scale across the state. This requires not only practicing sustainable management on our own forested lands, but also influencing the management choices of other forest landowners. We do this in two ways:

Forest Stewardship Contracting: Stewardship Contracting is a powerful tool, created by Congress, to help increase the active management and restoration of National Forests. In Michigan, The Nature Conservancy has entered into a Stewardship Contracting Agreement with the Ottawa National Forest that will use timber sale proceeds to improve the forest’s health and restore natural assets in this forest. We are exploring similar agreements with additional National Forests.

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certification: We support expanding the adoption of forest certification by increasing the awareness of benefits and the demand for certified products. Our ultimate goal is to increase the acreage of FSC-certified lands to over 5.5 million acres. Currently about 4.5 million acres, or 24%, of Michigan’s 19 million forested acres, are FSC-certified.

Happy Trails TNC and the U.S. Forest Service–Ottawa National Forest tackle a trail restoration project in a most unusual way: By using mules to help build a boardwalk nearly a mile into the Upper Peninsula's McCormick Wilderness Area, a remote, wild place where no motorized vehicles or power tools are allowed.

Connecting with Private Landowners Through Working Woodlands

To better connect forest landowners with opportunities to be involved in sustainable forestry, the Conservancy created the Working Woodlands program. Through Working Woodlands, landowners receive:

With Working Woodlands and other similar programs, the Conservancy has enrolled over 200,000 acres worldwide in carbon projects.

This connection with carbon markets is especially critical to the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions required by 2030 to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius. Scientists and economists can quantify the carbon-capturing power of forests, so by retaining these carbon-storing forests, landowners can sell their carbon credits to businesses and individuals seeking to offset their carbon dioxide emissions. Programs like Working Woodlands show that economic benefits and ecological benefits of conserving forests go hand-in-hand.


One of more than 20 lakes at Wilderness Lakes Reserve in the Michigamme Highlands region of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Wilderness Lakes Reserve This new reserve helps to create a 14,500-acre protected area that is critical to our forest conservation vision for the Michigamme Highlands. © Dietrich Ludwig

From Large Carnivores to Carbon, Managing Michigan Forests: Q&A with Kevin Swanson

Kevin Swanson is TNC’s director of forestry in Michigan. He previously served 20 years with the State of Michigan’s Departments of Environmental Quality and Natural Resources, including his last position as the large carnivore specialist for the the statewide bear, wolf and cougar programs.

Kevin works out of our Marquette office, where he supervises TNC’s conservation forestry programs and partnerships in Michigan. With his office view overlooking Lake Superior, Kevin is responsible for managing TNC’s forest reserves in the Upper Peninsula, totaling over 30,000 acres. The reserves in Luce, Schoolcraft and Baraga counties are managed to maintain and restore native biodiversity and increase the forests’ climate resilience using commercial scale management techniques that can be applied to other commercial forests across the  region.

Kevin Swanson, director of forestry for TNC's Michigan Chapter
Kevin Swanson Kevin Swanson, director of forestry for TNC's Michigan Chapter © Danielle Miller/TNC

Nature.org: What’s your favorite memory of being in a forest?

Kevin Swanson: My best memories are of my father and I fishing a lot of small streams and exploring areas seldom visited by others. He passed away last year at age 89, he lived to be so old because he was so active. Grouse hunting, deer hunting, walking in the woods, brook trout fishing, we did it all.

What drew you to TNC?

It’s a very diverse position. At the DNR, I was focused on bears (balancing population concerns) and wolves (assessing population and mortality data) and cougars (sporadic confirmations of cougars roaming through Michigan), but there’s a lot of contention and debate there. This job was getting back to forestry instead of strictly wildlife biology, back to my roots.

What do you like best about working in forests?

I have a deep appreciation of our forests and all of the ecosystem services that they provide. The forest economy is very important to Michigan and we aim to partner with other organizations to grow and diversify that economy. Water quality issues and forests, which filter about half of our nation’s water supply are of great interest to TNC. So, forest management is very important for water, plus with carbon sequestration and concerns about climate change and how our forests offset greenhouse gas emissions by filtering and storing carbon. Not to mention the wildlife habitat it provides to manage for various species. It’s a lot more than people generally know about.

What do most people think your job is? And what actually is your job?

As the director of forestry, they think I harvest trees only and it’s much broader than that. It includes managing staff, ecosystem services management, wildlife habitat conservation, water quality, reaching out to partners about new initiatives like starting a new mass timber manufacturing facility, which is actually gaining interest in Michigan. We’ve got an abundance of softwood and hardwood in Michigan for the construction of cross-laminated timber, so it makes sense to be here. No such facilities exist in this region, so we are working with universities and numerous partners to explore this exciting opportunity.

What would people find most surprising about our forests in Michigan and across the Great Lakes region today?

The soils! People don’t know a lot about soil and soils never lie. Soils matter to vegetation, habitat types and productivity for timber and wildlife species. Over half of Michigan is timberlands where we’re managing for forest, and soil health is a key factor in the overall health of our state and region.

What will our forests in the UP look like in 100 years? 500 years? What about in the Lower Peninsula?

In 50 to 100 years, Michigan is definitely going to look different. Less species that are not climate resilient, less aspen, less balsam fir, less birch. We might have more red oak and more white pine eventually, that could expand their range as the climate warms and become more prevalent. We partner with a lot of other organizations to identify ways to improve climate resilience in our forests.

What can people do to help our forests?

The best way to protect forests is to keep them as forests. We don’t want to lose any more forests. We need to increase species diversity to protect our forests, if you have a pure stand of jack pine or sugar maple or anything, you want species and age diversity -- biodiversity is always a good thing. Forests pests and pathogens are a threat, so we need to make forests more resilient. Similar to fisheries, where we tell people to eat fish, we can tell people to use American wood products. Buy local or ‘Made in the USA.’

Additional Resources

  • A 4-page fact sheet describing the strategies for protecting forests in Michigan.

    Resilient Forests


    Four-page overview of the strategies employed to protect Michigan's forests.

  • A 16-page look at the Michigan Chapter's conservation results and progress from 2017

    2017 Michigan Conservation Results Report


    An overview of the Michigan Chapter's conservation results and progress from 2017.