Forest Blow Down on Alligator Hill – Which Path to Recovery?

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.

Forest Blow Down on Alligator Hill (Winter, 2016)

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.

John Dodson, Chief Glen Arbor Twp. Fire Dept.

“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.”

Kevin Skerl, Biologist Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Park

“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.

Tom Ulrich, Deputy Superintendent Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Park

“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


10 thoughts on “Forest Blow Down on Alligator Hill – Which Path to Recovery?

  1. Could some of this lumber be salvaged as firewood by residents of the area,or even commercially.Seems to me a waste if not a hazard to leave as is.Mind you I havent seen the site ,firsthand.

    1. I feel that more thought has to be put into controlling the chance of fires close to the residences, and businesses. The residents and vacationers, would not be able to do anything to protect their yards from a fire on Park property. At the time when “blow downs” happened, the area would have had far fewer residences, and visitors to the area in prime vacation season. The so called ” green wood “, will be seasoned by this summer, with all the dry leaves and small limbs for prime fuel. A little spark from a cigarette could turn the area into an inferno, unless thought is put in to firebreaks wide enough for trucks to be able to get to places far from roads. The ideas mentioned above were just the tip of the Iceberg, as far as discussion of what to do around Glen Arbor. I hope there will be a chance for people of the area to voice their opinions, and ideas as to how to deal with the huge natural resource that could decimate a small village, at a very high cost to all who enjoy it. Think people.

  2. Would the downed wood serve as new habitat for small animals? Could more deer use it for habitat? Could there be more bear in the area due to it being used as dens? I’d guess probably be more for fox or something more like that. I’d be pretty skeptical of the possibility for fire, but I’m no expert.

  3. I love to run on these trails and I’m so glad to see they are open again. I was wondering how conservationists would handle this situation. Since it’s a natural event, do you work to restore, or leave it as is? I never thought about the fire risk. Very insightful.

  4. I think that there could be an answer that would satisfy both sides of this debate. Only clean up sections of forest around the populated residential areas of Glen Arbor. I believe there is a legitimate fire danger and if I was a resident living in Glen Arbor, I would breath a little easier knowing that some steps were taken to avoid a damaging forest fire.

  5. This is an interesting and thought-provoking discussion about the most appropriate way to deal with the downed timber. I hope I can see more such weighing of the options. I am disappointed, however, in the gratuitous statement that “the realities of Climate Change mean that more extreme weather event will affect Northern Michigan in the years to come.” The climate has been warming since the end of the Little Ice Age in the 1700s. Since that time there have been times of more and less severe weather in differing parts of the world. In fact, the US has enjoyed a long relatively quiescent weather period in spite of the gradual warming. If there is any evidence relating temperature to severe weather events, recent experience would indicate a negative correlation, not a positive one. The August 2 storm doesn’t predict future weather events any more than the record cold of February 2015 predicts a coming ice age.

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