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Trees and Detroit Skyline Detroit, Michigan © Michael D-L Jordan/dlp

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Partners Plan to Plant 40,000 Trees in Southwest Michigan

Ecological “Tension Zone” Offers Place to Try Climate Solutions

More than 40,000 new trees will be planted over the next two years through a collaborative project that recently received generous funding from the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Climate Adaptation Fund, supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

The competitive grant will support a $375,000 project to keep existing forests healthy and to plant new and resilient forests in southwest Michigan. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) along with Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy (SWMLC), Ottawa County Parks, Chikaming Open Lands and Shirley Heinze Land Trust will work together on creating forest habitats that can better adapt to climate change and invasive species.

Over the next two years, these partners will improve forest health and plant new forests across nature preserves and county parks spanning over 70 miles of latitude from northwest Indiana to the Grand River in west Michigan. Across 14 different forested areas throughout this region, the group will take action to positively impact nearly 500 acres of forest by treating for invasive species, planting new forests, and diversifying existing forests.

From invasive pests and pathogens to combatting climate change effects, southern Michigan forests have suffered greatly in the past two centuries, losing species diversity and ultimately depth and composition.

“Between the emerald ash borer and heavy spring rains, this habitat has really taken a hit over the last decade or so,” said Helen Taylor, TNC’s state director for Michigan. “We actually need to remove trees to help the forest and wetlands overall.”

TNC’s 1,500-acre Ross Coastal Plain Marsh Preserve includes about 45 acres of non-native red and scotch pine plantations that will be selectively removed and replaced by native tree species as part of the project. About 2,300 new seedlings being planted over the next decade will likely play a critical role in regional species migration and climate resilience.  

“The key to creating healthy forests with climate change and forest pests will be selecting a diversity of the right species for the right place,” SWMLC Stewardship Director Mitch Lettow said.

The partners’ project area spans what ecologists call the “tension zone,” a region where northern tree species meet southern tree species and they blend together.

“Any Michigander who has driven ‘up north’ from the southern part of the state has experienced the tension zone as oaks and hickories start to give way to birches and pines,” Lettow said. “As summer temperatures become warmer and winters become milder, historically southern species like shagbark hickory are likely to do better here, while northern species like paper birch are likely to struggle and their range is likely to move further north.”

Taylor said TNC’s Ross Coastal Plain Marsh Preserve and its adjacent lands have been identified as a key climate corridor in TNC’s Resilient Connected Network Project, a global initiative. She said this area will likely play a critical role in regional species migration and climate resilience.

“This project is also unique in that it has the opportunity to serve as a model for transitioning other pine plantations in southern Michigan back to a native forest type with climate resilience considerations,” she said. “As members of the Michigan Dune Alliance, TNC and our other project patterns are well positioned to amplify these efforts across the west Michigan coastal geography.”

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, TNC works to create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to the world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. Learn more online at nature.org/michigan

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 79 countries and territories, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.