The Once and Future Northern Forests

Credit: Gowtham, Michigan Technological University

In this photo essay, we join author, teacher and bioregionalist, Stephanie Mills on a visit to Houghton to meet Stephen Handler, a Climate Change Specialist based at the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science. We learn that Handler and his colleagues are working on research and practical tools to help forest managers put climate change information to work even as they predict the demise of many iconic Northern Michigan forest complexes.

It was a little too apt. Shortly before meeting in Houghton with Stephen Handler, a climate change adaptation specialist with the Forest Service’s Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science, much of the Keeweenaw Peninsula suffered an epic downpour of just the kind to be expected as a consequence of global warming. An intense episode of summer precipitation deluged the area with seven inches of rain inside of 24 hours.  The news footage of sinkholes and streets unmoored from their saturated substrates, the asphalt slumping down hillsides depicted full-on calamity.  Was my multipurpose jaunt to the Upper Peninsula to be a washout? A friend and I meant to hike in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and head up to the tip of the Keeweenaw to visit the Michigan Nature Association’s Estivant Pines preserve. On my way home I would stop at the Northern Forest Research Station in Houghton to learn about their work on in “practices designed to favor native populations and species likely to persist under warmer, drier conditions.”

Credit: Gowtham, Michigan Technological University

Despite serious damage to roads and homes, Houghton was functioning and Handler found us an hour to meet.  At 4PM on a Friday, the summer solstice, we sat in the Forest Service parlor to scratch the surface of an immense proposition. Handler, 35, is lean and athletic, affable and clean cut, with striking eyes and chiseled features. His speech is careful, lucid, and clipped. His zeal for his work is founded on an honest hope to contribute strategically to the persistence of Lakes States forests even as global warming intensifies.

Stephen Handler may exemplify a new generation of environmentalists–professionals, scientists and stewards who take ecological upheaval and shifting baselines as givens and who employ sophisticated technologies for data collection and analysis to chart the ways and means of community resilience. Like many in his generation, he’s a systems-thinking, process guy, a skilled facilitator,  committed to collaborating with many different parties in a swiftly changing socio-ecological climate.

Stephen Handler (Credit: Eli Sagor)

Handler’s interest in biology and ecology led him to the University of Montana for an MS in Resource Conservation.  After work as a graduate student in Mexico on habitat restoration in the Colorado River Delta, he worked for a Missoula outfit using carbon offsets to underwrite ecological restoration and community development. It’s a market-based approach to climate change mitigation through long-term forest resource conservation that guarantees a certain amount of greenhouse gas emissions will be avoided or removed in one place in exchange for sanction to emit it elsewhere. A few years ago, however, Handler and his wife fell in love with the Upper Peninsula after a visit with his twin brother who works as a sustainability researcher at Michigan Tech. Providentially, the Forest Service research position popped up, and Stephen Handler won it, finding himself amid mountains and forests quite different than those out west.

Northern Hardwoods (Credit: Stephen Handler)

Now, as coordinator of the Northwoods Climate Change Response Framework, he’s like an extension agent reaching out to the whole forestry community and working a “climate change help desk.” Among his tools: the online USFS Climate Adaptation Workbook, designed to help forest managers develop their own plans using plenty of substantive information–and their own judgment. Earlier this year in a radio interview he said, “In all aspects of my work the focus is to help people put climate information into practice.” Handler gave the interviewer to understand that regardless of the current arguments and public displays in Washington, his work is going to continue.

One big hunk of research buttressing that work is the Michigan Forest Ecosystem Vulnerability Assessment and Synthesis, a multi-author report issued in 2014, of which Handler was the lead writer and editor. Meant to be a resource for forest managers, it provides rigorous, up-to-date information on “the contemporary landscape…past climate trends …[and] a range of projected future climates.” Developed using multiple computer models, it was vetted by a multidisciplinary panel of Michigan-experienced scientists and land managers. They weighed the probable threats to Northern Michigan’s array of forest ecosystems, considering their dominant tree species, and how they might fare in the coming climate regimes of shorter, warmer winters with less snow cover, and frequent intense bursts of precipitation–like the one still fresh in memory.

Red & White Pines (Credit: Stephen Handler)

Any responsible scientist will admit that ecology is more complex than we think and more complex than we can think.  The Vulnerability Assessment’s projections don’t model other climate-influenced changes threatening Northern Michigan’s forests–like drought stress, wildfire frequency, and invasive species, pests, and pathogens, along with browsing by those pesky deer and even alien earthworms.

Handler says “It’s hard to predict how communities are going to respond. We know a lot more about individual tree species. However, communities don’t respond in lock step. We can’t expect the different ecosystems that we know now to hang together.”

“Is everything up for grabs?” I asked.

Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary                                  (Credit: Dave Egan)

“Yes, I think so,” he replied.

One forest type not to bet on in Northern Michigan’s coming climate regime will be boreal: quaking aspen paper birch, jack pine, and black spruce will, per the Assessment, lose their competitive advantage of cold adaptation. More southerly species, like American basswood, black cherry, and white oak may gain ground, but overall many of our common tree species may decline. Sustaining or restoring the historic Northwoods character of white and red pine, mixed hardwood forests may just be possible.

While Stephen Handler has a true love of nature, as a forester, he’s unlikely to cry “Woodsman, spare that tree!” Whereas I, a late sixties vintage tree-hugger, just might. This marks the difference in our respective starting points. In my youth I fell in with conservationists and wilderness advocates battling to protect old growth forests and, frankly, to minimize human exploitation as much a possible. In the half-century since, vast tracts of old growth forests on public and private lands were logged, rangeland overgrazed, and terrains fragmented by roads and settlements or violated by extractive industries.

Estivant Pines Forest Floor                                     (Credit: Dave Egan)

“All of us have had to come to grips with the losing battle,” said Handler. “When you have this Platonic ideal of the old growth forest…you’re setting yourself up for heartache. If you can loosen that a little bit it can be empowering, freeing to realize that we still have a lot of action we can take to conserve and manage our forests so that they can be healthy and vibrant.”

Heartache notwithstanding, old growth shows how nature works. It’s where, if you look for patterns, richness, grandeur, and endless fractal beauty, you’ll find it. Among the Estivant Pines that Friday morning, I craned my neck trying to see whole a white pine thrusting up a hundred feet and more. Thanks to citizen action that saved them from logging in the early 70s, these wild and untrammeled ancient pines, still lord it over the sky with their huge writhing limbs, clouds of needles, and new cones strewing infinities of pollen, the grains visible streaming by in the few shafts of light penetrating the canopy. It was a sacred glimpse of a transient world.

Catalpa Seedling                     (Credit: Christine Handler)

Handler takes heart from the fact that although “we’re going to expect several hundred years of climate change to play out, forests and trees are long-lived creatures.” If we can, by 2100, curtail greenhouse gas emissions by 100 percent and sequester carbon in living landscapes to hold global warming under two degrees, those long-lived creatures and their companions may find ways to make tomorrow’s forests; for there are familiar tree species that have good future prospects in our region.

Handler mentioned the Climate Change Tree Atlas, another online resource whose maps show possible ranges of more than a hundred kinds of North American trees under different climate projections. He says these show that the western Upper Peninsula is a “sweet spot” for sugar maple. If our societies can rise to the existential challenge of global warming, our great-great-great grandchildren can have syrup for their pancakes among the other delights of life on this lovely planet.

Hickory Seedling (Credit: Chirstine Handler)

“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree” is a saying, likely apocryphal, of Martin Luther’s. No one in Handler’s position can be a doomsayer: He’s as rational and constructive as public servants come. Projections, prospects, and personal preferences converge in his own back yard, though. There he is experimenting with more southerly trees: “I brought up some catalpa and hickory from my parents’ home in Iowa,” he said. There, too he shows his “soft spot” from hemlock, which he admires because “it can stay shaded for so long and grow so slowly.” Despite its being one of the Northwoods species in peril, he has planted a few, with some exclosures and a trusty dog to protect them from browsing deer.

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