Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Michigan Road Preserve Stewardship

Bill Collins, Executive Director, Thumb Land Conservancy

Since 2011, the Thumb Land Conservancy has been under contract with the Saint Clair County Drain Commissioner, Saint Clair County Road Commission, and Pro-Tel Development to monitor and steward a 51-acre preserve along the east side of Michigan Road, north of Dove Road and south of the Canadian National Railway tracks in Port Huron Township. The preserve is just a small part of a large remnant of northern forest complex typical of the Port Huron area, an extensive lakeplain wetland crossed by many upland sand ridges left by higher waters of the early Great Lakes. The land was preserved as wetland mitigation for two separate projects permitted by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Ownership of the land was then transferred to the SCCDC. As a condition of the two permits, the MDEQ required monitoring and stewardship of both parcels for 5 years by a third party conservation organization.

In 2010, the MDEQ issued a permit to Pro-Tel Development authorizing impact of 2.85 acres of State-regulated wetland for commercial development at the southeast corner of Wadhams Road and Griswold Road in Kimball Township. As mitigation, Pro-Tel placed a conservation easement on a 38.4-acre parcel containing approximately 23.78 acres of existing natural wetland determined to be high quality by the MDEQ.   

In 2011, the MDEQ issued a permit to the SCCRC authorizing impact of 0.83 acre of State-regulated wetland for construction of Phase 1 of the Port Huron NAFTA Corridor Congestion Mitigation Project. Specifically, this part of the project was the expansion of the Michigan Road crossing of the North Branch of Bunce Creek and construction of the new bridge over the Canadian National Railway which borders the north side of the Michigan Road preserve. As mitigation, the SCCRC placed a conservation easement on a 13.04-acre parcel containing approximately 8.28 acres of existing natural wetland determined to be high quality by the MDEQ.

In early 2011, the TLC was contacted about the possibility of providing the monitoring and stewardship required by the MDEQ. To be honest, I was somewhat reluctant to be involved because the Pro-Tel project had wiped out a nice grove of large trees at the corner of Wadhams and Griswold that I had known since I was a kid. It was a little thing compared to the destruction happening all over, but it gave me pause. For one thing, I never want to be a “sell-out”. It still kind of bothers me, but I reasoned that not accepting the monitoring and stewardship opportunity was not going to bring the trees back.

To add to my misgivings, the monitoring and stewardship work got off to a rocky start with the MDEQ. Over the past few years, the MDEQ has attempted to adopt federal wetland mitigation standards in response to recent legislative changes in Michigan’s wetland statute. Michigan is one of only a few states in the US to assume jurisdiction over most wetland jointly with the US Environmental Protection Agency and US Army Corps of Engineers. In most other states, wetland protection is administered only federally by the Army Corps with EPA oversight, with no state jurisdiction. As part of our stewardship contract, the TLC needed to produce approved management plans for both the SCCRC and Pro-Tel sites that incorporate relatively new federal standards that Michigan is now trying to use. Without getting into a lot of detail, I’ll just say that, in my opinion, the MDEQ really needs to develop model templates for management plans, monitoring reports, baseline reports, and other documents they require for wetland mitigation areas. It would make everything much clearer and easier, allowing us as stewards to concentrate on actual stewardship rather than guessing what standards and text are acceptable. We seem to be past those problems for now.

Beyond writing the management plans, the TLC has inspected the two preserve sites annually for four years now, from 2011 through 2014, and performed some stewardship activities. We have one more year of monitoring and stewardship in 2015. Annual reports to the MDEQ include description of general ecological conditions, vegetation data from sampling plots, description of impacts such as litter, trails, and invasive species, description of adjoining land use, description of management and maintenance activities, and lots of photographs. So far, the Michigan Road preserve remains quite isolated from human impact for a natural area so close to Port Huron. There is almost no litter, no major trails, and the only human presence other than mine appears to be a few deer hunters, which is a good thing for the trillium and other woodland wildflowers.

One of the conservation easement signs on the Michigan Road preserve.

Our stewardship activities have been somewhat limited by circumstances beyond our control. Initially, we spent a lot of time and effort simply trying to clarify the management plan requirements with the MDEQ. For the first two years we were unable to obtain approval for the controlled burning we felt would improve the vegetation in some areas. Then, after we did get approval, with much thanks to Port Huron Township Fire Department Chief Craig Miller, our burning weather was not good at all. We finally did get two small burns done last spring, in April of 2014. Lack of volunteer recruitment is another problem we’ve had. The biggest management concern on the Michigan Road preserve is the occurrence of invasive Glossy Buckthorn – Rhamnus frangula which can eventually overrun and dominate much of the forest understory. The only effective control for Glossy Buckthorn, in addition to repeated burning in open wetlands, is hand-removal by pulling and cutting. This is very labor-intensive and requires a lot of people to make progress.

Despite the occurrence of Glossy Buckthorn, the Michigan Road preserve is a valuable piece of the Port Huron area’s natural history. It’s a fascinating complex of forested swamp and upland sand ridges bordering an almost impenetrable shrub swamp. The forest is a second-growth community composed of northern species like Red Maple, Paper Birch, Wintergreen, Bracken Fern, Wild Sarsaparilla, and Canada Mayflower mixed with southern species like Black Oak and Smooth Highbush Blueberry. Interior portions of the preserve are covered by disturbed northern shrub swamp dominated by dense thickets of Tag Alder and Black Chokeberry, mixed with invasive Glossy Buckthorn and Common Reed.

Paper Birch, Red Maple, and Black Cherry on low tip-up mounds on the Michigan Road preserve.

Complex of wetland and tip-up mounds on the preserve. This is Painted Trillium habitat.

Up on one of the sand ridges on the preserve.

Down in the shrub swamp with Tag Alder, Black Chokeberry, and Royal Fern.

The shrub swamp gets even thicker than this.

This is more like it. Not fun to walk through.

While not yet found on the preserve, it appears well suited for Michigan Endangered Painted Trillium - Trillium undulatum known to occur on other sites nearby. Saint Clair County is an isolated outpost for Painted Trillium on the western edge of its range in North America, reflecting the Blue Water Area’s unique natural history. Its occurrence strongly coincides with the interface of Rousseau fine sand or Chelsea-Croswell sand ridges and the lower and wetter Wainola-Deford fine sands, such as on the Michigan Road preserve. Plants are often found along the base of sand ridges, near wetland. Painted Trillium also shows a strong affinity for distinct and dense tip-up mounds. All of these landscape elements are extensive on the Michigan Road preserve and I am hopeful that with further searching, Painted Trillium will be found there, if the deer don’t get to them first.

Michigan Endangered Painted Trillium may very well occur on the Michigan Road preserve. The habitat is there.

A unique aspect of the vegetation on the preserve is the northern flora represented by Red Maple, Paper Birch, Black Ash, Tag Alder, Nannyberry, Black Chokeberry, Blueberry, Bunchberry, Wintergreen, Gay-wings, Dwarf Raspberry, Partridge Berry, Bracken Fern, Wild Sarsaparilla, Starflower, and Marsh Saint John’s-wort. While these species occur throughout Michigan, their distribution is generally concentrated north of Michigan’s Transition Zone, the broad division between northern and southern flora in Michigan running roughly from Muskegon east to the Saginaw Bay and across the Thumb. The northern plant community on the preserve is somewhat disjunct from its usual location north of the Transition Zone, but this is characteristic of the flora in the Port Huron area, influenced by the cooler growing season and extensive sand soils near Lake Huron. Historic fire disturbance may also have been another important factor in maintaining the northern flora. At the same time, the occurrence of southern species enhances the diversity of these areas, creating a blend of northern and southern flora unique to Saint Clair County. This north-south quality of the area’s vegetation was described about 100 years ago by noted Port Huron botanist Charles K. Dodge. Distinctly southern species on the preserve include Black Oak, Black Gum, Sassafras, Juneberry, and Smooth Highbush Blueberry.

Eastern White Pine and Paper Birch on the Michigan Road preserve. It looks like "up North".

And then there are big ole Sassafras trees. It looks like "down South". 

A few patches of Marsh Saint John’s-wort -Triadenum fraseri were found in the shrub swamp in the central part of the preserve. This is a northern species rarely encountered in Saint Clair County, but more common in northern Michigan. Marsh Saint John’s-wort is indicative of wet sandy soils, occurring in alder thickets, such as on the preserve, but also bogs and sedge meadows, suggesting it may be remnant of a more open, fire-maintained community.

Most of the large oaks on the upland sand ridges through the Michigan Road preserve key out to Northern Pin Oak - Quercus ellipsoidalis according to dominant characteristics of the acorns, buds, and leaves. However, in Michigan Flora, Part II, Voss considers Northern Pin Oak to be a northern small-fruited variation of Scarlet Oak - Quercus coccinea, likely part of a single complex of oak species according to the work of William R. Overlease in 1977. Voss suggests that hybrids between what are considered Northern Pin Oak and Black Oak may be called Quercus x palaeolithicola, which is inclusive of Scarlet Oak and Black Oak hybrids. Some of the oaks on the preserve appear to share characteristics of Black, Northern Pin, and Scarlet Oak species. The unique character of what appear to be hybrid populations of Scarlet Oak and Black Oak particular to eastern Saint Clair County has been noted by other botanists. Such trees were noted on uplands preserved on the Super Kmart and Sam’s Club property in Port Huron Township, only about 1 mile northeast of the Michigan Road preserve.

Northern Pin Oak and possibly hybrids of Black Oak and Scarlet Oak up on a sand ridge. 
One of the long sand ridges extending through the preserve.

If anyone is interested in assisting the TLC with stewardship of the Michigan Road preserve, or any of our three sanctuaries, please contact us. We may be conducting another controlled burn this spring. Buckthorn removal will be conducted in the fall and winter.

Glossy Buckthorn along the west edge of the preserve.