Cutting down oak trees to protect a rare oak-pine barren
Like a teenager who’s partied past curfew, nature preserves need tough love, too.
That’s why a group of us found ourselves in Rockford last week, cutting down perfectly good trees in a nature preserve.
Invasives? Nope. These were oaks, mostly, with some maples and cherries too. Quite the opposite of invasive, these are some of Michigan’s most iconic native forest species.
Oak-pine barrens: a rare landscape supporting endangered species
The trouble is, though, that the Maas Family Nature Preserve isn’t a forest. It’s an exceedingly rare ecosystem called an oak-pine barrens, which despite its tree-themed moniker, is really defined by an abundance of grasses and wildflowers and only a few scattered trees.
Oak-pine barrens were once a prevalent feature of the Michigan landscape, but have become so rare that only a small handful are left in the state. And because of their rarity, many of the species they support – like the endangered Karner blue butterfly – are in precipitous decline well.
So oak trees aren’t bad, of course – we’re in an oak-pine barrens, after all – but too many trees turn a barrens into a forest, and the suite of plants and animals that depend on open, sunny habitat are soon snuffed out by the shade of a dense canopy.
Over the past few decades, that’s what’s begun to happen at the Maas preserve, and that’s why we found ourselves last Thursday hacking and clearing our way through a vigorous, aspiring young forest.
Providing relief and restoring sunshine for butterflies and birds
Well-intentioned or not, there’s a funny feeling when you rev up a chainsaw and slice into the base of a perfectly fine oak tree. This is particularly unsettling when you consider that we’re planting oaks on other preserves.
But I suspect the butterflies and birds and other critters at the Maas preserve don’t hold any such reservations. I suspect that if they feel anything, it’s relief. Relief that guys like Vaughn, Mike, Dwight, and Pete spent the better part of last Thursday out on the preserve, chainsaws in hand, restoring a piece of nature that’s in need of a little tough love.