An hour’s drive south of the Mackinac Bridge, a 67,000-acre patch of state forest known as Chandler Hills offers a stunning glimpse of how Michigan appeared in 1800, before a century of logging left much of the state looking like a moonscape.
The hiss of wind coursing through towering hardwoods and the gurgle of a brook that bursts forth from a ravine are often the only sounds in the densely wooded forest.
There is scant evidence of human activity at Chandler Hills: A few trails that are used primarily by locals who know about this densely wooded oasis between U.S. 131 and Interstate 75, and colored marks spray-painted on intermittent trees.
Those orange marks might as well be war paint.
Chandler Hills has become a rallying point for environmentalists who claim the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, under the tutelage of Gov. Rick Snyder’s business-friendly administration, has shifted its focus from managing state forests to promoting timber harvests that could generate revenue and bolster Michigan’s $12 billion forest products industry.
The state says its changes will be better for all interests, from forest health to the timber industry to wildlife.
“We’ve been working for 20 years to get a portion of the state forests protected so that the priority is on protecting biodiversity and not meeting timber harvest targets,” said Tim Flynn, who has worked with a DNR committee on such issues. “We developed a program that would have been state of the art and put Michigan on the map for restoring the original landscape, but now that vision is now gone. Elections have consequences and this is one of the consequences.”
DNR Director Rodney Stokes, who was appointed after Snyder was elected in 2010, enacted several major changes in recent months that made the agency more accommodating to the timber industry that the agency also regulates.
Stokes revamped the DNR’s Forest Management Division, ousted the state’s top two forestry officials and renamed it the Forest Resources Division.
He created a committee dominated by timber industry representatives to advise the DNR on forestry policy.
And he weakened the state’s ambitious Living Legacy Project. Two decades in the works, the project was part of a 1992 law that required the DNR to preserve native plants and animal species and promote the re-establishment of old growth forests on state land.
Critics said the actions by Stokes signaled a shift within the DNR that could affect state forests for years, if not decades, to come.
“There is a very clear resource extraction agenda in the DNR these days,” said Marvin Roberson, a forest ecologist for the Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter.
Stokes said reorganizing the DNR’s forestry division -- and shuttling programs that managed state forest campgrounds and trails to other divisions within the agency -- would lead to healthier forests, more wildlife and better recreational programs.
“This is not about cutting more timber,” Stokes said in a recent interview. “The goal is to listen to the timber industry -- they are a vital player in managing our state forests.”
Last October, Stokes told the state’s Forest Management Advisory Committee that he made sweeping changes in the forestry division because the governor, Legislature and the timber industry were pressuring him to permit more logging in state forests.
In a recent email to DNR personnel, obtained by Bridge, Stokes said the agency’s new Forest Resources Division will “manage state forests and be a major partner in Michigan’s vital timber industry.”
“Manage” is timber industry jargon for cutting trees.
Politicians, industry demand more logging
At the heart of changes in the DNR’s forestry programs are demands that the agency increase timber harvests in Michigan’s 4 million acres of state forests.
In the fiscal 2012 DNR budget, the Legislature demanded the agency permit a 50 percent increase in commercial timber harvesting in state forests. Lawmakers want commercial loggers to have access to 79,000 acres of state forests this year, up from an average of 53,000 acres that were harvested annually over the past two decades, according to state data.
The timber industry also is pushing for a 50 percent increase in the volume of timber harvested in state forests, from roughly 800,000 cords of wood annually to 1.2 million cords.
“Biologically, we could be cutting twice as much wood and still have sustainable forests,” said Scott Robbins, director of sustainable forestry and public affairs for the Michigan Forest Products Council. “Michigan has the largest growth-to-harvest ratio in the nation.”
Over the past decade, Michigan grew twice as much timber as was harvested. The state currently has the nation’s largest wood fiber surplus, according to government data.
Half of Michigan’s landscape, about 20 million acres of land, is forested. State forests span 4 million acres, but only 2.3 million acres of that is suitable for logging, according to DNR data. Private landowners, the federal government and corporations account for most of the remaining 16 million acres of forestland.
Timber industry officials said allowing more logging in state and federal forests would create jobs. The forest products industry is credited with 150,000 workers in Michigan, though those figures include not just loggers, but everything from sawmills to paper mills to furniture manufacturers.
Environmentalists fear expanded logging could decimate natural features that have finally recovered from unchecked logging that laid waste to Michigan’s forests a century ago.
Forest conservation project ignites debate
The debate over how much timber harvesting the DNR should allow in state forests came to head last year, when the agency was putting the final touches on what is now known as the Living Legacy Project.
Originally called the Biodiversity Conservation Planning Process, the Living Legacy Project was supposed to identify unique ecosystems in state forests and protect those. It was also supposed to designate state forests worthy of being protected as old growth forests. The Legislature mandated the project in 1992 as part of Michigan’s Biological Conservation Diversity Act.
The law required the DNR to: draft a formal plan for conserving native plant and animal species in state forests; make the preservation of native biodiversity a top priority when making forestry management decisions; and develop a network of Biodiversity Stewardship Areas (BSAs) in state forests and manage those for “the primary purpose of biodiversity conservation.”
The project was a chance for Michigan to reclaim a fraction of the old growth forests that were mowed down in the 1800s, Flynn said. “We have 20 million acres of forest in Michigan ... We could protect at least 2 million acres of that without affecting the timber industry,” Flynn said.
Allowing some forests to revert to natural conditions and become old growth forests would improve the genetic health of forests and everything that resides in them, said Bill O’Neill, the DNR’s acting forester.
But timber industry officials view the Living Legacy Project as a threat to their livelihood, Stokes said. He said hunting groups feared preserving biological diversity would mean fewer clear cuts and fewer aspen stands in state forests, both of which create habitat for deer -- the foundation of Michigan’s billion-dollar hunting industry.
The timber hit the proverbial fan last summer, when the DNR proposed designating 678,427 acres of state forest as Biodiversity Stewardship Areas. The designations wouldn’t ban logging or recreational activities in all BSAs, but they could restrict those activities in certain areas, according to the terms of the Living Legacy Project.
Under withering criticism from the timber industry, Stokes last July altered the Living Legacy Project. He ruled that the network of Biodiversity Stewardship Areas would only be approved if current levels of logging, hunting and other recreational activities were protected.
Stokes said he merely “refocused and modified” the Living Legacy Project. Environmentalists said he emasculated it.
“Those modifications are like saying, ‘I’m giving you a Yugo instead of a Mercedes and then calling it a modified Mercedes,” said the Sierra Club’s Roberson. “The bottom line is that Michigan undertook the most ambitious biodiversity conservation program in history and then, as it was about to be implemented, the DNR killed it.”
More controversy on the horizon
Stokes said the Living Legacy Project is alive and well. He said the DNR would unveil a revised list of proposed Biodiversity Stewardship Areas in spring 2013.
When that happens, the timber industry will oppose it.
“The DNR wants to take and put these little islands of biodiversity, kind of like quasi-wilderness areas, all across state forestland,” said Robbins of the Michigan Forest Products Council. “We oppose this project; we don’t think it’s needed.”
State Sen. Tom Casperson, an Escanaba Republican who chairs the Senate Natural Resources, Environment and Great Lakes Committee, also questioned the need for the Living Legacy Project.
“One of the questions I have is what’s the problem?” Casperson said. “Why do we need this plan when nature has brought our forests back?”
Supporters of the Living Legacy Project said it would add a new dimension -- old growth forests -- to Michigan’s landscape.
Casperson, a former logger, said the DNR should reduce environmental regulations in state forests and permit more logging.
“The state has swung too far toward environmental protection,” he said. “I just want to see some balance (between using and protecting natural resources). The state is currently out of balance.”
As of now, some of Michigan’s most scenic forests remain open to logging, including: Chandler Hills, the Mason Tract along the Au Sable River, the forested interior of Beaver Island and an area of Pigeon River Country near Vanderbilt known as “The Big Wild.”
Margaret Minerick, a Sagola businesswoman whose family runs a large logging operation in the western Upper Peninsula, said Michigan has plenty of natural areas where logging is prohibited. She said increased timber harvests would create badly needed jobs, especially in the U.P.
“The Sierra Club isn’t going to be happy until we’re not harvesting any trees,” said Minerick, who was appointed to the DNR’s new Timber Advisory Council.
Sierra's Roberson said such claims are inaccurate and misinterpret concerns about changes in the DNR’s forestry division.
“Neither I nor the Sierra Club want to shut down the forest products industry; a robust forest products industry is good for Michigan,” Roberson said. “We just don’t think timber harvests should be the only thing our forest managers think about.”
Jeff Alexander is owner of J. Alexander Communications LLC, as well as a writer and media consultant at the National Wildlife Federation. He’s a former staff writer for the Muskegon Chronicle.