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