Policy winds blow through Mich. forests

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.

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Big D
Thu, 02/16/2012 - 9:01am
I understand that the timber industry is currently slow, in step with the economy as a whole. Timber stands released for logging may take 2-3 years to be cut, if at all. In that situation, a push for opening more forest to logging per year seems unnecessary. They cancelled a plan in TC for electric power from "biomass"...a euphemism for burning trees to generate commercial electricity. That would be a very poor use of our forest resources, considering the many other efficient sources of electricity, and the other inefficient sources that are mandated and subsidized. 80,000 acres released per year would cycle the whole State Forest in 50 years. There would be nothing "Old Growth" about that. I tend to support reserving a whole 17% of state forest for old growth. We hike in the Chandler Hills area, and enjoy the outdoors. In other areas where logging occurs, the loggers are required to respect the trail, and restore it. Most do. Also, thinning is a much more esthetically sound approach than clear cutting, though I'm sure it's less profitable...
Dave Smethurst
Thu, 02/16/2012 - 10:33am
One more and I'm done. Thinning works great for many species. But if you want to regenerate aspen, you have to pretty much clear cut. A few trees can be left, but you have to allow enough sunlight to get to the forest floor and then the aspen root system will sprout thousands of new little trees. Our huge deer population is not on State Forest lands by in large. The huge deer population that is a problem is in southern Michigan, where there is little, if any, State Forest lands.
Sally Wagle
Thu, 02/16/2012 - 2:39pm
I think we have learned not to trust that the timber interest care about the long term environmental impact. Why should they; they are are looking for short term profit? I live in the Chandler Hill area and can see the lack of old growth. They have devastated a heavily used tourist area. In that aspect alone they have hurt our future, not even going into the effect on flora and fauna. We need logging but it needs to be regulated and not by timber interests. Thanks, Sally Wagle
Dave Smethurst
Thu, 02/16/2012 - 9:47am
The right answer is somewhere in the middle, about where Rod Stokes is on the issue. Fact 1- the State Forest must be sustainable or markets would dry up. Many, if not most, large buyers of wood fiber insist on buying from sustainable forests. That is a question of science to determine, not politicians, loggers or interest groups. Fact 2 2 - the amount of wood fiber harvested is determined by the market place, not politicians or loggers. The housing collapse has impacted the market. Putting more acres up for sale just would lower the prices and or not be sold to loggers. Putting more State owned timber up for sale would decrease the value of privately owned forests. Fact 3 - forests are renewable resources. Cut some trees down, other will take their place. Now opinion. The desire for old growth forests has some scientic merit but is largely opinion. Forest like those "originally" here might work great if we had the same population as we "originally" had, but we don't. We do need a lot more wood fiber than 500 years ago. I like toilet paper. We can't recycle or reuse that. Toilet paper, and other wood fiber based products come from cutting trees. So, I'm in Rod's corner. Set aside areas, a section here, two sections there of representative forest types, especially those that are disappearing. CAREFULLY manage the rest. The current management of the Pigeon River Country is a model. There is a section of old growth beech trees that will never be harvested. Very cool place. A huge number of acres of red and white pines is being managed to create old growth pine forests. Those places are like cathedrals to me. Yet, aspen and oaks are being manged to produce wood fiber and wildlife habitat. Good deal all around. This debate is about the extremes. Let's have policy in the middle.
Dave Smethurst
Thu, 02/16/2012 - 10:18am
By the way, anything Casperson supports should be viewed with great care. He would like to run Michigan's natural resource management his way, which does not involve science. Frank Foster, the House Chair, is beginning to show some signs of prudent natural resource management and a counter to Casperson. Oh for the days of Bill Milliken, a great conservation Governor.
Thu, 02/16/2012 - 11:49am
The gov and his leg partners tell us over and over how inefficient government is, this appears to be another one of those areas of ineffieciency. The answer, sell all the state land to private interests, then it will be utilized in the most effiecient manner. The state will not need the employees currently squandering tax $$ for no good purpose and as we all know the people/businesses that would take title to the land and use it appropriately will only do that which is good and pure for the greater good of Michigan
Dave Smethurst
Thu, 02/16/2012 - 12:40pm
Whoa!!! Let's see, put 3.9 million for sale. There goes the value of private land. Down goe the value of a tremendous state owned assest. I suspect Norm doesn't live in the northern lower where the State land is a cornerstone of our tourist economy. No place to hunt, ski, camp, etc, - no need to go north. Literally, thousands of businesses would close. Is this just polemics or a serious solution?
Thu, 02/16/2012 - 1:49pm
No Dave this is not a serious solution. It is an expression of frustration and anger over the one-sided discussion that has been driving this state for the last few years. The current talking heads have done everything that can be done to cowtow to the business leaders to create jobs jobs jobs (67000 net in 2011, undisclosed # drqiut looking, no longer qualified as a statistic or left michigan), while the gov tells us that government is the problem and if we did things like the private sector all would be well. Sorry I have a problem with this simplistic solution, but if that is the way to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, then lets do it, sell off the states assets and let the business community have at it. Realistic NO, but maybe at some point an honest discussion can be held and the fools on the extremes will not be the center of the show as it is today.
Dave Smethurst
Thu, 02/16/2012 - 2:42pm
Whew! But you are right, some think this is what should happen to one degree or another. Casperson for instance with his land cap bill.