Branching Out

Tending to the trees as well as the forest and beyond, the Muskegon Conservation District is at the root of environmental health. \\ Photography by Roger Wilmers
Branching out

Once the daffodils break ground and tiny, purple Hepaticas brighten forest floors, Jeff Auch’s phone will begin to ring in earnest. The callers may be gardeners or landowners seeking advice about woodlots or wildlife, but most will be looking to buy seedling trees — literally thousands — to plant in their yards and back forties.

Auch is the executive director for the Muskegon Conservation District (MCD), an organization that works to solve a myriad of local conservation problems. Tree planting and reforestation work are core parts of its mission. The organization’s spring tree sale has been popular for 75 years.

Planting trees helps to reduce carbon dioxide concentrations, one of the primary greenhouse gasses causing climate change. It helps birds and animals by restoring degraded habitat and to control soil erosion.

“What’s funny is that forestry is a smaller part of what we do,” Auch says. “Shoreline habitat, wetland and lakeshore restoration are bigger program areas, but in terms of the acreage that is affected, it’s one of our largest projects.”

The district sells 40,000 to 50,000 native Michigan seedling trees each year. Thirty varieties are offered including white pine, sugar maple, white and red oak and shagbark hickory. Auch and his staff also work with school groups on reforestation projects.

“It’s our way to make good on the sins of the past, given that the USDA, U.S. Forest Service and our entity once pushed autumn olive and Russian olive,” Auch shares. Both are now considered troublesome, invasive species.

MCD’s forestry program is rooted in its agricultural beginnings. It is an outgrowth of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Soil Conservation Service, created in the 1930s following the nation’s tragic Dust Bowl Era, a period when halting soil erosion became a national priority. More than one million seedling trees have since been sold by MCD for wildlife, forestry and farm planting, according to Auch. He and his staff have also planted more than 10 miles of wind breaks to prevent erosion.

The district’s Forest Assistance Program is another way the MDC reaches the public, offering advice about the best way to manage private forests and wood lots, whether for timber value, wildlife potential or other recreation. Nearly 50 percent of Michigan’s forest land is in private hands and much of it is not managed, Auch notes.

“We work with landowners to achieve their personal goals,” he says. “That might be to get the most out of the timber on the property — or it might be to enhance and attract wildlife.”

Out of the Woods

Muskegon Conservation District is a multi-faceted conservation problem solver that works primarily in Muskegon County, but also with landowners in surrounding counties. MDC programs include:

• “The Shoreline Naturalist,” a series of field workshops about medicinal plants, mushrooms, aquatic ecosystems, prairies and other topics that’s open to the public;

• Shoreline Restorations, solving shoreline erosion and bank stabilization problems on streams, rivers and lakes;

• Invasive Plants Treatment, providing consultation and eradication services for invasive plants like phragmities, Japanese knotweed, purple loosestrife and autumn olive;

• Fish Habitat Restoration, advising and/or restoring fish habitat in private and public streams and ponds, as well as

• Outdoor Youth Education: Teaching youngsters about ecolology, forestry, and conservation.

For details, visit

To learn more, visit or call (231) 828-5097. Award-winning writer and BLUE Undercurrents columnist Howard Meyerson resides in Grand Rapids.

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