Leelanau News and Events

Kama Ross Wants You To Be A Forester In Your Own Backyard

By Emily Tyra | Sept. 14, 2020

Forty-three percent of Leelanau's land is forest, and one of its primary protectors says that despite the current demand to clear land for residential development, the trees are still winning.

Kama Ross, district forester for the Leelanau, Grand Traverse, and Benzie Conservation Districts, explains that the greatest tree loss in the region is due to “what we call land conversion — turning beautiful woods into developments. And I get it that it sells, and it’s a commodity.”

But the good news for Leelanau: The volume of tree growth is still greater than volume harvested. “We are not running out of trees,” she says, “but the sad fact is that we lose more to insects and disease than we harvest.”

While the region’s trees are being inundated by non-native insect and disease threats, plus aging and climate change, “my role, through the Leelanau Conservation District’s Forestry Assistance Program is to help more county landowners become active stewards. We do need to work hard make sure every acre of forest is producing at capacity and providing all the benefits that we need every day,” she says.

And what’s amazing, says Ross, is with the major forest stresses facing our trees, it is private property owners who are the true frontline defense.

“In Michigan, most of our forestland is owned by private individuals,” says Ross.

But currently, only 20 percent of private landowners actively manage their woodlots.

Ross loans out her expertise to county residents free of charge, via grants funded through the State Department of Agriculture.

She coaches landowners how to mitigate impacts of disease through seasonal inspections: “Monitoring and making decisions quickly, that’s how we detect outbreaks of insects or diseases and prevent tree loss. Just be out there, be an observant steward of your property, notice changes and if something doesn’t sit right with you, be that active person who contacts a certified arborist or someone like me for help. Take a picture with smart phone and email it to me. I can come out to your property at no cost. If we don’t have the resources to address it, we know the professionals you should contact next.”

She says in addition, organizations such as Michigan’s Oat Wilt Coalition offer free resources to teach homeowners how to recognize, prevent and treat oak wilt, while MSU Extension staff are available to talk about the impact of insects on trees in Leelanau's backyards. 

She adds, “I am a forester, so I am a utilizer of the woods, and not afraid to make changes. We can guide you in thinning or removing diseased and unhealthy trees and talk about more diversity and how to fill that void.”

Right now, the initiative to “fill the void” that is exciting her most: The Assisted Tree Range Expansion Project — a citizen science initiative focused on having residents in northwest Michigan plant trees from southern and mid-Michigan and tracking their survival and growth.

“We are doing what Mother Nature can’t — which is cross highways with these southern Michigan species.” Ross says by adjusting to the next climate shifts that scientists are warning are coming our way and establishing species that are predicted to thrive and reproduce in those climates, we can increase ecosystem diversity, offset widespread tree die-offs, and ultimately improve the resilience of our future forests.

She stresses that county residents do not have to own large parcels to make a difference.

“I live on only .8 of an acre north of Cedar and have planted a variety of shrubs and trees — it is doable on a very small level. Of course, when get a call from a resident saying, ‘I have 100 aces,’ I get excited, but it can also be a 3-acre woodlot where people are active in increasing tree diversity to attract pollinators and songbirds.”

She says also unique to Leelanau County is its vast shoreline, and the best protection for it are forests. “Lake Michigan shorelines are very difficult to regenerate so keeping tree cover there is essential. Cedar and birch trees — this is not their first rodeo. They are adapted to take quite a bit and coexist with fluctuating water tables and help hold the soil from eroding.” 

Ross adds that Leelanau landowners in the last century — particularly those with agricultural property — were far more proactive about planting trees on their parcels. “On a lot of the early farmsteads that I visit, they GOT it,” she says. “Another thing that’s obvious, coming into fall, are the sugar maple trees that our ancestors found in woods and transplanted along our roadsides. These majestic maples are aging out, and we are not replanting to fill the void.”

A strong counterbalance of younger trees to northern Michigan’s more vulnerable older tree population is crucial, especially as risks of insects and diseases could worsen as weather patterns change due to climate change.

Most have heard of the invasive emerald ash borer which decimated ash tree populations across Michigan in recent years. The newest threat? Beech bark disease.

Ross says 99 percent of the region’s beech forest will be wiped out. “It is staggering, and with the trees’ huge, spreading canopies, when they come crashing down it will create a lot of mess and be hazardous. There is not a forest in Leelanau that doesn’t have it, and there is nothing proactive to do, as the scale is carried by wind, mammals and humans. But on an individual tree, in a private woodlot, people can definitely talk to a certified arborist to see what care and treatment can be done.”

Ross is doing her best to tackle the issues of disease head-on, sharing her expertise with Leelanau municipalities, agencies and nonprofits that do not employ foresters on-staff. “Unfortunately this summer there are four new sites where oak wilt — a fungal disease that very quickly spreads underground — has occurred on the western side of the peninsula in the Glen Arbor area, so I am aggressively working with the Leelanau Conservancy, private landowners and the National Park Service to treat it this fall after the trees go dormant.”

Ross says that major disturbances are now thrown at our forests at such a fast pace that the subsequent tree loss could create a less-diverse landscape that does not fulfill the needs for all organisms — such as pollinators — nor for those relationships that we are still investigating and learning about.

Still, the results of implementing management practices based on science to preserve forests as a natural resource can be powerful, she says.

Case in point: “This summer I saw ash trees I thought were dead, with life coming up. The resilience of these trees is amazing. They are connecting tissue over large areas the [emerald ash borer] beetle obliterated. This is the first time that I have thought, ‘okay, if I am patient enough and work hard, and we get a great growing season, the ash trees will show us they are not giving up — and we shouldn’t either.’”

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