Bringing back ancient landscapes

Nov 25, 2012

Joseph MacIntosh clears brush at the Ft. Custer State Recreation area.
Credit Brian Petersen, WMUK

Over the past several hundred years, southwest Michigan’s landscape has changed dramatically. But what did it look like before European colonization?

Robert Clancy is an ecological restoration specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. He says that before Europeans came, savannahs and prairies dominated southwest Michigan’s landscape. But that changed soon after settlers moved in:

“Most savannas and prairies disappeared so quickly at the beginning and middle of the 1800s that most people didn’t even record that they were even here, so a lot of people don’t realize that southern Michigan was defined by extensive prairies and savannas.”

Instead of the large deciduous trees that now delight us with fall colors every year, Clancy says the landscape of the past included “A wide diversity of native plants, wildflowers, sedges and other type plants that worked and mixed in with the grass, so you would have big open treeless landscapes.”

The largely treeless grasslands were quickly converted into farms after settlers arrived. Cities and towns sprouted in areas where there were a lot of trees and the soil was less fertile. Only about a tenth of one percent of the estimated 2.5 million acres of prairies and savannahs that once existed in southwestern Michigan remains. But that’s starting to change in some places as restoration projects expand. They include habitat restoration underway at the Fort Custer State Recreation Area near Augusta and several other state parks.  

The DNR's Heidi Frei meets with restoration volunteers
Credit Brian Petersen, WMUK

Heidi Frei is the southwest Michigan natural resources steward for the Department of Natural Resources. She says there are several reasons why restoration is a good idea.

“We are protecting and restoring habitat for the ecological purposes but there are also the human reason to the social aspect of it you know that we are protecting these parks because there are folks that really like to come and bird watch and use that resource too.”

Clancy agrees but he also argues that habitat restoration also benefits people who never use the parks: “Whether that is through economics through tourism or whether it is hunting, fishing, camping, nature based recreation, bird watching and the like people benefit from the use and enjoyment that state parks and these natural landscapes have to offer.”

On a recent Saturday, Frei met with volunteers who are helping with the Fort Custer restoration project. As a steady rain fell through the trees, she talked about the project.

“We do restorations in select parks and recreation areas based on the presence of species of conservation need. A special habitat that we are looking to restore for instance the dunes or here at Fort Custer recreation area we are working to restore open oak barrens and prairies systems.”

Frei says volunteers do many things from collecting seeds from native species and planting them in the spring to removing invasive non-native species. The Department of Natural Resources also uses another practice that’s not always seen as a restoration tool: prescribed fire, as Robert Clancy explains: “Most of these native ecosystems, prairies and savannas were fire dependent so they didn’t persist unless they got periodic fire through them.”

Frei recently organized a volunteer day at Fort Custer to help facilitate prescribed fire next spring.

“Today we are stacking debris or slash that has been cut and ready for the volunteers to work with. That material is stuff that we would like to kind of get out of the way, we are doing some pre-burn work just some preparation so that when we do have a prescribed burn come through in this area we do not produce the intense kind of heat that could make it unsafe.”

Not unsafe for humans, Frei says, but for the trees: “We want to make sure it's a low enough intensity fire that the oak trees and some of the pines that can withstand a natural fire don’t have that high heat from the extra fuel. We are just trying to emulate a natural fire regime in this park.”

Many people may perceive fire as a threat but Clancy explains that when used correctly it has many benefits.

“When I say prescribed fire it’s just like a doctor might prescribe medicine he does it for a certain reason and gives you a certain dose under certain conditions.”

Despite the rain and cold weather, volunteers came ready to lend a hand restoring the prairies. One was Joseph MacIntosh, a student at Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek. MacIntosh, who’s majoring in environmental studies, says he came out for several reasons.

“I want to take the opportunity to get myself better versed in the field and to also make an impact on my local environment that really means a lot to me and my family and this is an opportunity for me to get to do those things and have a good time rain or shine.”

Frei says the work at Fort Custer wouldn’t happen without dedicated volunteers like MacIntosh.

“Restoration it is a long process, this didn’t happen overnight, we’ve got some other areas that we have been working on for several years and with fire, invasive species removal, with volunteer efforts we have made big changes just in this park.”

Restoration efforts won’t recreate the landscape of southwest Michigan’s ancient past. But the Department of Natural Resources and enthusiastic volunteers hope they’re making significant changes in state parks that produce ecological and social benefits.