Engaging Stewards of Land and Water in the Au Sable Watershed

Our focus on healthy water, protected places and vibrant communities is rooted in our belief that the land, water and people of Northern Michigan have an equally important role in protecting our most precious places. To us, Lake Huron Forever goes beyond the coast. It’s the culmination of our commitment to conserving the millions of acres of land and water that make up the Lake Huron Watershed in Northeast Michigan. If you find a healthy river, chances are high that there’s a healthy forest nearby.

The Au Sable River is a perfect example of a celebrated resource supported by the land that surrounds it and the people who love it. Here are some snapshots of how Huron Pines and our upstream partners are working together to keep land and water protected from headwaters to open waters.

Rachel Leggett, Heartland Restoration Team Lead for Huron Pines, talks with Grayling Middle School sixth-graders in their school forest.

The Forest Through the Trees

In September, Huron Pines joined 42 Grayling Middle School sixth-graders to explore their school forest property. This public property is the result of the Municipal Forest Act passed in 1931 which allowed schools to take over ownership of tax reverted properties to use them for educational and community benefit. Huron Pines has been partnering with Northern Michigan schools for the past five years to help them integrate school forest management and hands-on education into their classrooms.

Students collect soil samples from their school forest for later classroom study.

On this particular day, students moved between stations to learn about different aspects of the forest and forest health. Huron Pines kicked off the afternoon with an introduction to invasive species and decontamination. Each student took a turn with a boot brush to clean seed-laden soil from their shoes when they stepped off the bus to prevent invasive plants from entering their school forest.

“There aren’t many invasive species in our school forest and the students and I had a really good talk about what we can do to keep it that way,” teacher Carrie Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson aided her students in collecting jars of soil from the pine-dominant landscape that day for later analysis in the classroom to determine the soil composition of their school forest. She said the classwork and field exploration trip helped lay the foundation for future school activities and stewardship efforts at the 40-acre forest.

“The plan is to have our outdoor recreation class work on designing and building trails there and we’d love to have Huron Pines’ help with that,” Wilkinson said.

Wading Into Conservation

Huron Pines joined a group of enthusiastic volunteers in August, teaming up with members of the Au Sable North Branch Area Foundation for two days of invasive species treatment. Volunteers, decked out in waders or paddling kayaks, hand-pulled purple loosestrife or clipped and bagged its purple blossoms, effectively keeping this prolific invasive species from going to seed.

This was the third consecutive year we’ve partnered with the foundation on this stretch of river between Lovells and its confluence with the Main Branch. Starting with an inventory in 2019 followed by two seasons of treatment, the impacts of that work are starting to show.

“There was a noticeable reduction in the presence of purple loosestrife there this year which was really rewarding to see,” said Huron Pines Stewardship Program Coordinator Shelby Bauer, noting 500 acres of river corridor was treated this season. “We had five volunteers over the course of two days and, with their help, we were really able to conduct a selective treatment of that area with minimal impact to the surrounding environment.”

Energy to Action

Further downstream, Huron Pines led a day of hands-on stewardship and education at Mio Pond on the Au Sable River with volunteers from Consumers Energy.

The two organizations have collaborated since 2012 on habitat restoration projects near Consumers Energy property along the Au Sable.

“Consumers Energy employees are great volunteers because they live and work near the Au Sable and understand how important it is to our communities,” said Huron Pines Community Program Director Abigail Ertel. “We value these days spent in the field with their staff and these opportunities to help reinforce their commitment to protecting the natural resources of the communities we all serve.”

Bauer and other Huron Pines staff trained Consumers Energy employees on how to identify invasive plant species on the pond and demonstrated how to properly clean recreational equipment like kayaks and waders to prevent further spread of invasive species. The group spent the afternoon restoring a stretch of shoreline around Camp Ten Bridge, the public fishing docks and boat launch by hand-pulling purple loosestrife plants growing in shallow water, filling five contractor bags with the invasive plants.

“Our volunteers really enjoy learning about habitat conservation and soaking up the expertise from our friends at Huron Pines,” said Adam Monroe, Executive Director of Hydro Generation for Consumers Energy and one of the day’s volunteers. “We’re impressed by Huron Pines’ plans to protect Michigan’s precious resources. Gaining from their knowledge also helps us in our work to serve our Michigan customers and have a positive impact on the planet.”

Consumers Energy and Huron Pines staff clear invasive purple loosestrife from the shore of Mio Dam Pond.

In May of 2021, the Consumers Energy Foundation presented Huron Pines with a $200,000 Planet Award. The funding has helped launch the Protect Wild Places program, empowering Michigan communities to support land and water conservation by partnering with Huron Pines to restore 5,000 acres of wildlife habitat and recreational land, and 150 miles of waterways and Great Lakes shoreline. This program supports our vision of conservation driven by engaged, empowered communities as it allows us to work directly with local residents, municipalities and conservation partners to help communities build the infrastructure, best practices and skills needed to support – and eventually drive – the long-term health of the landscape for generations to come.

Participants will not only learn about natural resources, they will also be challenged to get out on the land or in the water to put new skills into practice. Some example topics to be covered through events and volunteer opportunities include invasive species prevention, leave no trace principles, native habitat restoration, forest management and water monitoring.

Now is the time to turn enthusiasm for the outdoors into action to more deeply engage communities in habitat and water quality improvements.

This piece originally appeared in our 2021 Annual Report, published April 2022.

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