Video: Conservation Stewardship Director Steve Woods and Associate Director Lisha Ramsdell discuss Great Lakes Stewardship while highlighting a few Huron Pines projects to protect and restore wildlife habitat and recreation access in Northern Michigan’s Pigeon River Country State Forest.
The reasons we each enjoy Northern Michigan are as varied as the landscape of our region but what connects conservationists, recreationists, tourists and wildlife enthusiasts is our love for this special place.
There’s a lot to love. Species exist here that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. There are trout streams that are rated some of the best in the country. With access to thousands of acres of public land, there’s plenty of room to connect — with space for everyone.
According to Huron Pines Conservation Stewardship Director Steve Woods, good stewardship will protect all the things about Northern Michigan that we love. “We want to allow land to realize its fullest potential and that means the land and water must be able to function as they naturally should,” he said.
Sometimes achieving that natural state requires interventions like removing a dam to let a river find its natural course, connecting neighboring lands to create wildlife corridors or encouraging responsible recreation through volunteer conservation projects. Huron Pines is committed to leading by example in these efforts, and connecting communities — and new stewards — to nature. We want to educate and inspire people to take an interest in and recognize the benefits of good stewardship.
As members of the Northern Michigan community it is our duty to protect Michigan’s most unique and special resources. Every action we take on the land impacts the quality of the water across the region and throughout the state, from feeder creeks to the Great Lakes. One place that is most evident in Northern Michigan is in the Pigeon River Country State Forest (PRC).
This 106,000-acre swath of protected land is home to three blue-ribbon trout streams, more than a dozen small lakes and Michigan’s only wild elk herd. The land and water throughout the PRC connect directly to major waterways throughout the region including some of Michigan’s largest inland lakes — Burt, Black and Mullett.
“Much of the water quality for the entire region relies on the PRC remaining wild,” Woods said. “It’s a place we can demonstrate land and water stewardship principles we want to promote more broadly. It’s a good place to start because it’s so wild already.”
A Return to Nature
Not every corner of this sprawl of land and water was as wild as it is today.
Lisha Ramsdell, Associate Director at Huron Pines, has been deeply involved with many significant projects within the PRC.
At the top of that list is the removal of a private dam on the upper Pigeon River. A 2008 failure of the dam caused a major fish kill for miles downstream and eventually led to the removal of the dam in 2015. What was once a 40-acre pond upstream of the dam is now a natural river winding through a meadow of wildflowers.
“That was a big deal and one of the single most important projects Huron Pines has ever done,” Ramsdell said. “That dam cannot fail again because it’s not there—it’s been permanently removed from the river system and that will have a positive impact for generations.”
A 2014 project at three sinkhole lakes gave the public an opportunity to help protect their natural resources while striking a balance between restoration and improved recreational access to these rare, unique features of the PRC. For years, foot traffic along unstable banks caused sand and soil to wash into the turquoise waters of Section Four Lake and North and South Blue Lakes. Teams of volunteers joined Huron Pines to build timber terraces down the steep slopes to the water, preserving access for hikers and anglers while reducing damage from erosion.
“What was really cool about that project was that it lent itself so well to engaging volunteers,” Ramsdell said. “We were able to get so many people out there working and they became the stewards and guardians of those lakes. We’re trying to engage people in natural resource restoration and land protection in ways that still allow them to access these really unique places.”
This June, the Huron Pines staff spent a day in the PRC planting fruit and nut trees in an effort to restore two retired oil and gas well sites to a more natural state. There are thousands of oil and gas wells across Northern Michigan. Their presence on public lands like the PRC, has been contentious over the years. One positive to come out of arguments over the sites was the creation of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF) in 1976, which receives revenue from mineral extraction on state land to acquire publicly accessible lands and develop public parks. To date, the MNRTF has invested $1.1billion across the state.
As oil and gas wells retire from operation, they leave thousands of acres of land with the potential to be restored. Huron Pines has partnered with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to create a set of best practices that can be applied across the state to return that land back to natural habitat. Data gathered from soil samples and test plots like those planted by Huron Pines this June, will help determine how best to provide food and habitat for wildlife and prevent the growth and spread of invasive species.
While Michigan is lucky to have an abundance of public land, the acreage alone is not enough to protect the woods, water and wildlife in the region. Private landowners have an important role to play in natural resource protection as well.
Twenty years ago, Huron Pines partnered with the DNR, Little Traverse Conservancy and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation on an initiative to enhance or permanently protect private land as corridors for deer, elk, turkeys and other species that require large and diverse expanses of wilderness to thrive.
“Animals don’t understand the difference between public and private land,” Ramsdell said. “Working with state and private landowners is really important when it involves habitat connectivity.”
Huron Pines and our partners met with landowners to create forest stewardship plans customized to the wildlife goals of each landowner. Outcomes included sharing costs to enhance wildlife vegetation and habitat, installing native plants to create greenbelts along the river and establishing conservation easements for long-term land protection.
Roughly 100 landowners were involved in the effort, resulting in the protection of 8 wildlife corridors. Several thousand acres were protected through permanent conservation easements and thousands more were enhanced and protected through forest stewardship plans.
“They really found that connection to conservation and were able to help improve this space that was near and dear to them,” Ramsdell said.
Everyone came together to become better stewards of the land. Partnerships that were built twenty years ago between private landowners, conservation agencies and nonprofit organizations have had a lasting impact on the people and wildlife of the PRC.
Whether it’s 2 acres or 2,000, whether the land is public or private, it’s all part of the diverse landscape that makes this a place worth protecting. Setting the highest standard for stewardship and conservation ensures a future full of new reasons to fall in love with Northern Michigan.
Huron Pines staff plant trees inside fenced enclosures at a retired gas and oil well site in the PRC to restore wildlife habitat in the clearing. The project was supported in part by the Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Habitat Program and the Pigeon River Country Association.