Private landowners could help Michigan’s ‘threatened’ forests

Feb 10, 2015

Credit David Cassleman

Forests in Michigan are under threat – that’s what the state wrote in the report it published last week. There are diseases to worry about and invasive species like the ubiquitous emerald ash borer.

The state and federal governments spend millions in Michigan each year trying to contain these threats. 

But that effort is complicated because most forest land in the state is privately owned.

Emerald Ash Borer

Max Yancho, a conservation district forester for Wexford and Missaukee Counties, has pulled back the bark of a young ash tree to reveal hundreds of s-shaped grooves –or galleries—in the wood.

The emerald ash borer is eating this ash tree alive.

Conservation District Forester Max Yancho uses a wedge prism in northern Wexford County.
Credit David Cassleman

The beetle has completely changed the life cycle for ash trees in most of Michigan, according to Yancho. He says the ash tree won’t disappear completely from the state’s forests.

“That’s the question I get asked all the time. ‘Well, is our ash going to go away forever?,’ Yancho says. “They won’t.”

“They’re just going to keep growing like this. They’ll get to sexual maturity, reproduce and die from the emerald ash borer. It’s just going to become a different ecological niche.”

Oak Wilt

Foresters like Yancho are trying to prevent the next emerald ash borer, whatever it might be.

Yancho says one of the more serious issues facing northern Michigan’s forests is oak wilt, which is a fungal disease.

“Very costly. Very challenging,” Yancho says. “It’s completely fatal to all oak species but particularly those in the red oak family.”

Credit David Cassleman

Some foresters are calling for more white oaks to be planted instead of red oaks because they’re more resistant to oak wilt. There are also more expensive measures to fight the disease. For example, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources sometimes digs barriers between the root systems of infected and healthy trees.

But the disease is spreading, and it’s already on the eastern edge of Wexford County and all over Traverse City.

“It’s really going be a game changer across the state of Michigan,” Yancho says.

Role of Private Landowners

Although forests often don’t have clear boundaries, land does.

Credit David Cassleman

Part of the trouble with fighting something like oak wilt is that the disease crosses between private and public land. That complicates efforts to contain its spread.

The state has been trying to get landowners to think more about taking care of their trees.

Take the Qualified Forest Program run by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. It’s a tax incentive meant primarily to promote the timber economy.

But Max Yancho says it can also help prevent the spread of diseases.

A landowner will get a forester to write up a state-approved forest management plan for the land, which takes into account the specific needs and demands of the unique forest-type. The plan might include a schedule for when to harvest timber – and a plan to address invasive species.

Yancho says many people in the program are interested in other benefits besides making money off selling timber.

“Probably the first benefit is kind of changing up the way the property looks and the way wildlife can use it,” Yancho says. “Wildlife use different cover types different times of the year.”

That makes the program attractive to many hunters who own land.

Yancho says the Qualified Forest Program also gives landowners more control over what’s growing on their property. They can contain disease and remove poorly-formed trees.

“On top of that it also helps you stay ahead of some of the invasive species that we have.”

Credit David Cassleman

Controlling diseases like oak wilt is difficult. But since many landowners don’t even know about the risk, it’s even more challenging.

That’s why getting more private land enrolled in the Qualified Forest Program could help. 

“The state can be as aggressive as they want, controlling certain pests and diseases,” Yancho says, “but if a landowner [contain them] they might be the single crack in the wall and let that slip through.

There’s about 10 million acres of privately owned forest land in the state. Right now only about two percent is enrolled in the Qualified Forest Program.

Learn more about the Qualified Forest Program here.