The August 2 super storm that pummeled the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore snapped thousands of hardwood trees like matchsticks. The damage is most visible on Alligator Hill, just west of downtown Glen Arbor.
National Park staff reopened most of Alligator Hill’s popular hiking and ski trails before Christmas. In some places the trail feels like a tunnel, with immense stacks of trees lining either side.
Meteorologists have called this “the storm of the century”, but the realities of Climate Change mean that more extreme weather events will affect Northern Michigan in the years ahead.
Amidst the awe of the August 2 storm, a debate is underway about whether all the downed timber poses a forest fire risk to the National Lakeshore and to the Glen Arbor area. Glen Lake fire chief John Dodson worries that at some point in the future, the downed trees could dry out and pose a threat that his crew wouldn’t be able to handle.
“I feel that it presents a hazard,” said Dodson. “I think it provides the community with some challenges. Should an event break out where there is fire, we have concern that an event like that would most likely happen in the summer, During the summer we have increased number of people in our community. The life hazard would be substantially greater than in the winter. We have people downtown. The smoke could create respiratory issues. It also would cause an economic impact to our community.”
Because the trees were alive until the August 2 storm, and because new wood is not prone to burn, Park biologist Kevin Skerl is hesitant to sound any alarms.
“It’s very apparent there’s more fuel on the ground,” said Skerl. “Right now we consider that fuel to be green and doesn’t pose a very high risk of fire whatsoever, and I think everyone is in agreement about that.”
“I don’t know there’s a change in the wildland fire risk from the trees being on the ground. If we think about fires that get out of control out west, it’s when the fires get up in the canopy and start moving out of control. That’s not the situation we’d see on Alligator Hill.”
“We consider intervention usually when there’s something that we have done to the environment that we need to fix or restore,” added Skerl. “But we don’t usually target nature’s actions as something that needs our interference or management. When we look at the blow down as a natural event, that disturbance is part of what northern hardwood forests are about.”
Deputy Superintendent Tom Ulrich says it’s more than the National Park’s policy at work.
“Beyond just ‘that’s our policy not to do it’, there are very good ecological reasons not to do it,” said Ulrich. “The fantastic northern hardwood forests that the settlers found here evolved with blow downs that happened with some regularity. Those blow downs have a role in the ecology of the area to provide that little window to allow a different aged structure to come up, habitat that isn’t present elsewhere, species moving in that favor that kind of habitat.”
“The recovery of the forest through its successional stages up on Alligator Hill is likely to be more rapid than it would be if you had a clear cut or tried to salvage those logs. If you went in and did some kind of salvage logging, you would set the natural process back and provide a vector for invasive species to come in.”
Unfortunately, the Park’s policies do little to ease local firefighters’ concerns.
“If a fire concerned, it would not be put out quickly,” said Dodson. “There would be an economic impact, potentially a respiratory impact or other medical issues that would develop from it, it would have a property damage element, and it would have a life safety element. Those are all things that would challenge our community, and our fire department especially. This fire department is not positioned to deal with a substantial fire of that quantity.”
While all concerned keep a wary eye on the fire hazards, Park staff sees a golden opportunity to educate visitors about what happened here on August 2, 2015, and the ecology of forest regeneration.
“People have already said how much that trail meant to them, and people feel the loss of those trees,” said Ulrich. “Often the same people who visited the first time and were aghast at losing the trees now take people there and show them because it’s really, really interesting. It’s an opportunity for us to talk about natural ecological process, to talk about disturbance in northern hardwood forests, and just to look at this very impressive natural phenomenon.
This piece was informed by Glen Arbor Sun writer Linda Dewey’s reporting in November 2015 (hyperlink to http://glenarborsun.com/township-park-officials-disagree-on-alligator-hill-wildfire-potential/)