Efforts to protect hemlocks succeed in U.P. forest conservation

Photo courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Photo courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Akasha Khalsa

Casual nature-lovers and hikers may be unaware of the healing process taking place all around them as the years pass. U.P. forests still bear the scars of human interference and intense logging in the early years of settlement. But some stands of old growth trees remain in the form of elderly hemlocks and climax maple forests.

“There are some nice stands of hemlocks at the Little Presque Isle Area north of Marquette, an area I know is very popular with students,” Deputy Public Information Officer John Pepin said in an email.

When surveyors explored the unsettled U.P. to set town boundaries, they discovered that the native forest consisted of many large areas on old growth hardwood and hemlock stands, sometimes containing more than 10,000 board feet of wood per acre. However, today this number has been decreased to a maximum of 2,500 to 5,000 board feet per acre, DNR service forester Gary Willis said. 

That is not to say that the pre-settlement forests were without human influence. Native populations in the area kept some areas of jack pine forest in sandy soils quite young through the use of intentionally started fires, which helped maintain crops of berries for food, Willis said.

Despite this sparing control of the forests, much of the U.P. was covered in climax growth at the latest stages of forest succession. When lightning, wind, fire, and other phenomena do not interfere, hemlock trees can live nearly a thousand years, but many live only half that long, Peppin explained in a DNR press release. These trees, vulnerable due to their shallow root systems, are relied upon for food and shelter by creatures such as white-tailed deer, ruffed grouse and snowshoe hares.

“Today, Michigan is home to over 170 million native hemlocks. Hemlock wood is used in newsprint and wrapping paper or to make boxes and crates, as well as railroad ties and timbers used in mining operations,” Peppin explained. “The bark was stripped from hemlocks for use, as it is today, for tannin for leather.”

Due to these commercial uses for the wood, old growth forests are much fewer are farther between today. Conservation efforts through the years have begun to protect the growth of hemlocks as well as places where old growth stands are present, such as in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in the western U.P.

“When managing private, non-industrial stands, forestry consultants frequently recommend retaining hemlock, cedar, white pine and other species for wildlife,” DNR service forester Gary Willis said. “If left alone for many years, succession will eventually once again result in a climax forest similar to the pre-settlement forest.”

Some areas are also protected and conserved as state parks.

“In the early 1940s, a movement was underway to save from the woodsman’s ax the intact hemlock-hardwood stands in the western Upper Peninsula,” Peppin said.