Climate change, climate variability and invasive species threaten the future of natural resources in Northwest Lower Michigan. Changes in rainfall patterns and increased storminess are already challenging managers concerned about water quality in rivers and lakes. Forests and critical wildlife habitats are under attack by invasive species of plants, insects and pathogens. With even greater instability on the way, we need to be proactive in protecting critical resources while looking for ways to adapt to rapidly changing conditions.
These are some of the comments and conclusions drawn by a panel of experts representing six of our region’s leading conservation organizations. Gathered for the Future of Nature Symposium on September 30th at the Haggerty Conference Center in Traverse City, these experts were invited to share their views by moderator Peter Payette, News Director for Interlochen Public Radio.
“When I’m thinking about concerns for the future, there are two main things that come to mind,” Katie Grzesiak said. As the Coordinator of the Northwest Michigan Invasive Species Network, her first concern is the occurrence or emergence of new invasive species in the region. For example, both Black and Pale Swallow-worts (highly aggressive vines that form monocultures and out-compete native plants) are causing problems in the Ann Arbor area today. “We really don’t want those here,” she said.
Katie’s second concern is that the changing climate appears to be giving some invasive species an advantage or, at least, a head start over native plants. Garlic mustard is one example. The shorter winter seasons allow some invasive plants to grow earlier and longer. In the past, Michigan’s colder winters have limited the growth of some invasive plants.
“You’ve probably heard about kudzu – the plant that ate the south,” Katie said. “We actually have a population of that in the Benzie area that we’ve been working on managing, but it’s not thriving. But if our climate changes to the point where it’s more suitable for kudzu, that could be a really major issue for us.”
Kim Balke, Project Manager for Conservation Resource Alliance described the increasing threats of erosion and sedimentation in rivers caused by the increasing frequency of heavy rain events. She noted that our road system is a big challenge because so many of the stream crossings were built to handle flood events considered normal decades ago. These older road-stream crossings are beginning to fail and causing very serious erosion and sedimentation problems.
“The combined snow melt and heavy rain wreaks havoc on a lot of the rivers and their tributaries,” she said. Upgrading these road-stream crossings to handle present and future flows is a priority for CRA.
Sarah U’Ren, Project Director for the Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay, followed up on Kim’s comments noting that the changing climate also affects the summer base flow of streams. With more rain falling on snow and frozen ground, more of that water runs off into the streams and causes them to be more flashy. The result is more runoff going directly to the lakes with less water trickling into the earth to move slowly as cool groundwater replenishes the streams.
Stormwater also runs off from buildings and parking lots adding to the fast-moving flow. Worse, this stormwater picks up pollutants flushed off of pavement, yards and rooftops and may also be warmed before reaching a stream or lake. That’s why the Watershed Center is working to design green infrastructure systems like rain gardens to help capture and slow stormwater, allowing it to infiltrate into the earth.
According to Sarah and the Watershed Center, the existing design standards need to be changed. “We need to address the storms that are occurring today and predicted to occur tomorrow.”
Nikki Rothwell, Coordinator for the Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Station, described some of the challenges confronting our region’s fruit growers, including the impacts of climate change. She said that the loss of the cherry crop due to extreme weather conditions in 2002 and again in 2012 were both considered once-in-a-lifetime events.
Since farmers in our region have experienced such extremely unusual weather events, they’re more willing to talk about climate change. Niki said farmers note other changes as well.
“Now, we can’t rely on rain water in summer months. We now need irrigation. Farmers see that we need things now that we didn’t in the past,” Nikki said. She believes farmers are much more open to working together to find solutions. “Cooperation is part of our future.”
The Little Traverse Conservancy works with private land owners to develop conservation easements, including agricultural land, according to Executive Director Tom Bailey. Noting that we can’t predict the kind of changes that will take place with certainty, we need to make sure the land base is available for agriculture.
Tom asks what happens to other vegetative communities. They see that the forests are changing. Invasive species are killing whole species and climate change is shifting the geography of growing conditions.
“At what rate are forests going to migrate in response to anticipated and predicted changes in climate?” Tom asked. The properties managed by conservancies can help address these uncertainties, by providing control sites. “We can wait and see what mother nature will do. We can study and watch and learn.”
Additionally, some conservancy lands are actively managed where invasive species are removed and forests managed for timber production. In some of these cases, Tom said, the conservancies can test replacing species with trees that are common a little further south. “Maybe we’ll start to experiment with different varieties of the same kinds of trees in the area to see how they do and learn about forest migration.”
Brian Price, Palmer Woods Forest Manager, reflected on his 20-plus years as Executive Director for the Leelanau Conservancy saying they worked to protect valuable native habitats from the impacts of development as sprawl.
“We were aware of invasive species problems 25 or 30 years ago,” he said. “We were aware of climate change; although we didn’t know what trajectory it would take and it was kind of theoretical.”
Today, they recognize that our forests are undergoing rapid change and decline because of these two drivers of change. “We are at the killing front of Beech bark disease. We’re going to lose in many hardwood tracts of our region, 30% of the trees.”
As a result, there will be big gaps in our forests that need to be regenerated, but the overabundance of deer in our region is a problem. The only tree species that will regenerate and actually grow are those species deer won’t eat.
“We will only have what the deer don’t want to eat and that appears to be beech,” Brian said. “The beech grow up only so much then die of the same beech bark disease. You can see the problem.”
This lively panel discussion was recorded for presentation on Northwest Lower Michigan’s public access, cable TV – Channel 189 and for replay over the internet by LIAA’s UpNorth Media Center. We encourage Nature Change readers and viewers to watch the full one-hour discussion. Our region’s expert resource managers are working hard to manage changes in our natural resources and offer many reasons to believe that we can adapt and become more resilient in the face climate change.