Establish a long term ecological/biological monitoring program of a Little Traverse Conservancy Working Forest Reserve

Client Organization: 
Little Traverse Conservancy
Summary of Project Idea: 
Goals & Objectives
Little Traverse Conservancy (LTC) recently acquired over 1,800 acres of land in our five-county service area (Charlevoix, Cheboygan, Chippewa, Emmet and Mackinac Counties) that will be managed for commercial timber production, forest health, and wildlife. This acquisition launched the organization’s Working Forest Reserve (WFR) program, a new category of land protection for LTC. Already, more WFR properties have   been acquired, logging operations have been completed on one property, and others are underway or under contract for harvest to commence in 2017-18.

This level of active management is new for LTC and the stewardship staff does not have the time, resources, or all of the necessary expertise to gather the ecological and biological data needed to track the changes over time, evaluate actions, and modify prescriptions as needed. The goal of this project is to initiate a monitoring program that will track changes over time, inform management, and provide a hands-on opportunity for local citizens to participate in conservation science. An effective monitoring program will be accomplished by 1) establishing a baseline of data from which observations and measures can be made 2) identifying consistent and clear variables of forest health (biodiversity, ecosystem function, etc.) that can be collected and informative, 3) defining what data to collect and how the collected data can be interpreted to evaluate actions and modify forest prescriptions, and 4) by developing a protocol for staff and citizen- science volunteers to follow that takes into consideration technical and time constraints and is enticing, inviting, and rewarding, 5)establish a post-harvest survey to determine any follow up treatments such as removal of exotic species.
 
Theoretical Justification, Social Benefit, or Significance
 
For 44 years, the Conservancy has protected land as “nature preserves” where active timber harvest is rare. The new category of Working Forest Reserves is yet another way to keep land protected from development, and open to non-motorized public use. Working lands are vital components to local communities and economies, further it is understood that natural areas are active and dynamic and that active management can help rejuvenate or restore static or damaged ecosystems. This understanding is not well established across the general population and there are some sentiments that cutting trees runs counter to the Conservancy’s mission to protect the beauty and diversity of northern Michigan’s natural areas.
 
Currently, LTC employs a contract forester and a volunteer wildlife biology consultant to complete forest management plans, and ensure that the WFR lands are being stewarded with the best available practices that ensure wise use and maintenance of ecological integrity. Initiating a long-term ecological/biological monitoring program will further advance the wise stewardship and public perception of this form of management. The practice of ecological monitoring, the collected data, and the experiential learning opportunities of this project will help to educate the public about the value of working lands.
The information gathered in this research project will facilitate stewardship and the conservation of natural resources as the LTC stewardship staff will have a greater capacity to manage for biodiversity and forest health while planning for future timber harvests. An established monitoring protocol and citizen-science opportunity will be promoted and used to keep the study and accumulation of data going on into the future.
 
Significant or sensitive habitats, plants, and animals, may be identified that would have otherwise remained unknown. For example, on one WFR parcel, the consulting wildlife biologist identified a high quality vernal pool pre-harvest, which will now be buffered during future harvests. Getting a better grasp of other special features and the threats these natural areas face is vital to being a good steward of these lands. Making sure active forest management is implemented in a manner that discourages invasive species, promotes native wildlife habitat, and encourages native biodiversity where possible will go a long way in having a long-term, positive impact in the local communities LTC services.

Specific Activities & Duration
 
A quick perusal of scientific literature reveals that there are numerous studies that have examined the impacts of timber harvests on water yield, plant populations, bird richness and density, amphibians, soil microbial communities, streams (water quality), carbon storage, fungi communities, and more. Mining these studies would reveal a diverse array of potential indices to peruse and methodologies to explore. The goal of this project is to conduct initial inventories that establish a baseline of data and test the usefulness or practicability of various inventory methodologies. Then, the team of students is to recommend a program that will continue their efforts on into the future. These goals could be tackled in a 16-month timeframe; the scope of how many reserves the team will examine will need to be worked out. Additional data collection and public engagement could come by way of  a 24-hour Bioblitz or utilizing and building on LTC’s current citizen-science projects such as Michigan Natural Feature Inventory’s vernal pool inventory and monitoring program, early detection invasive plant surveys, and the Michigan DNR Frog and Toad Survey project. To  help invite and excite volunteers to carry on the program the students will have established they could plan and give a presentation at LTC’s annual EcoStewards Kick Off Event in 2018 (an event geared towards the Conservancy’s citizen-science interested volunteers).
 
Integrative Approach:

The proposed project is a considerable but concise endeavor and will require a team with a diverse set of skills and interests. The team will need to conduct literary research, carry-out ecological research, develop educational and communication materials, and present and sell their final product.  The project output will potentially rely on good writing, scientific data analysis, GIS mapping, oral communications, and more skill sets.

SEAS Program Areas: 
Conservation Ecology (Aquatic Sciences, Terrestrial Ecosystems, and Conservation Biology)
Environmental Policy and Planning
Behavior, Education, and Communication
Environmental Informatics
Role for each program area: 

Conservation Ecology  - The team will be conducting ecological monitoring and/or biological inventories. Experience and knowledge in experimental design, scientific data collection equipment and procedures, plant and animal identification and survey techniques, and forest management methodology would be helpful. A willingness to learn and collaborate with various experts may substitute for gaps in the team’s experience or knowledge.

Environmental Policy and Planning - The grad-student team will shape the format of the monitoring protocol to be used by staff and volunteers with diverse backgrounds and skills. They will interpret their assessments for ecological health in the context of wise use and commercial timber management, will research and understand the public’s perception of forest management in the LTC service area, assess the need for community awareness and education, and as a result be able to develop educational materials and make recommendations on how LTC’s methods are or can be modified to be effective in promoting biodiversity and healthy forest systems.

Behavior, Education, and Communication -We hope the research team will give considerable thought to how LTC members, neighbors, and others in the public can be educated about our actions and encouraged to participate in the long-term monitoring. Some of the ideas include developing a community outreach tool or communications platform for LTC to use in future harvests, or answering the question, “How can LTC show the data/outcome/forest health improvements from timber harvest to our community members in a meaningful way on any given working forest?” Proficiency with writing and oral communication and an ability to motivate or inspire would be valuable assets.

Environmental Informatics – The students in this role will use GIS for research planning and/or monitoring program development and interpretation. They would need to be familiar with ArcGIS and available spatial data and work collaboratively with LTC staff when necessary.

Professional Career Development Benefits: 

This type of research could generate enough data and productive interpretations to submit a (or two) short research article(s) to a journal (i.e. specific methodologies that were replicated, describing the academic/applied interface, etc.). The students’ research could be presented at the annual Stewardship Network conference or other professional conference. There would be an opportunity to present at LTC’s annual EcoStewards Volunteer Kick-off event, and may be other opportunities to present to the LTC board or general members. The students would hopefully get to spend considerable time learning from and working alongside our consulting foresters and/or wildlife biologist (retired MI DNR biologist).

Funding Sources: 

Little Traverse Conservancy could provide funding of up to $2,000 to be used for travel expenses, food, materials, equipment and research materials at students’ discretion.

Identify expected products/deliverables: 

Deliverables: 

Little Traverse Conservancy would like to receive a written protocol for monitoring the ecological and biological metrics of a protected property pre and post timber harvest. A part of the protocol could include a methodology for data collection, interpreting the data, assessing forest health, and adapting management. Other potential deliverables include: presentation(s) inviting citizen scientists to participate in the long-term monitoring project, a scientific journal submission, communication pieces, and species lists or other reports of data.

Implementation: 

Little Traverse Conservancy will employ volunteers and staff to carry on the monitoring of a reserve initiated by the research team. Developing assessment metrics that are practical for staff and volunteers will be a key output the team provides to ensure successful future monitoring efforts and opportunities for adaptive management.  The results and information gathered concurrently with this project will be incorporated into our forest management plans and help to direct the implementation of reserve stewardship. Little Traverse Conservancy hosts an annual EcoStewards kick off event and encourages volunteer participation in various citizen-science activities. Implementing this protocol and any other resources or motivations developed by the research team will be a high priority for us to offer volunteers at that event. The protocol and methodology created by the research team can be shared with over 250 private conservation easement landowners as opportunities for researching and conserving biodiversity on their own properties. In addition, students have the opportunity to present to the LTC board of trustees and committee members.

Contact full name: 
Cacia Lesh
Job title: 
Volunteer & Outreach Coordinator
City: 
Harbor Springs
State or Country: 
Michigan
SEAS Faculty Advisor: 
Ines Ibáñez
Contact Phone: 
231-347-0991
Contact e-mail: 
Contact information: 
Staff member of a potential client organization
Master Students Involved in Project: 
  • Stephanie Campbell
  • Sean Hollowell
  • Melissa Selva
Project Status: 
In Progress