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Privately Owned Forests Keep Michigan’s Water Clean, Provide Resources

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Over half the land in Michigan is occupied by forests. The majority of that wilderness — 20 million acres — is in the hands of private citizens. This land is vital to keeping the state’s natural resources bountiful, including one of the largest freshwater supplies in the world, the Great Lakes.

How Forests Keep Water Clean

Protecting water quality in Michigan starts in the woods.

Mike Smalligan works for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources as a coordinator of the Forest Stewardship Program. The U.S. Forest Service works in partnership with state forestry agencies to connect private landowners with the information and tools needed to manage their forests and woodlands. Actively regulated forests provide timber, fuel wood, wildlife habitat, watershed protection, recreational opportunities.


“I’m trying to get people to think about connections between forests and water quality — in our drinking water, in particular,” Smalligan said. “Forest are really important. A little more than half of the water in Michigan is flowing through forests.”

The permanent vegetation in wilderness slows the movement of water that falls from the sky and moves along beneath the surface. Undisturbed leaf litter and soil on the forest floor minimizes erosion and encourages infiltration of water into the soil. Forests also have relatively little infrastructure, the cardinal cause of pollution. Impermeable surfaces such as parking lots or concrete bridges over waterways introduce pollutants to the water system. These surfaces are unable to absorb substances like road salts or car oil. Rain washes the pollutants off the road, into storm drains and ultimately end up moving through the water cycle.

“The Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy is measuring higher levels of salt in the Great Lakes because of winter road salts,” Smalligan said.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 30 million people rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water— 10 percent of the U.S. population and 30 percent of the Canadian population. Of the five Great Lakes, those with greatest land cover provide the highest-quality water.

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Lake Erie has the least amount of land cover and consequently has an algae problem.

“The reason that Lake Erie is green with algae is because it has 19% forest in its watershed and 61% agriculture and 18% urban. A lot of farms are introducing nitrogen and phosphorus and manure that is moving off the farm and into Lake Erie,” Smalligan said.

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Drain tiles, a common farming practice in Michigan, contribute to the moving of material. The tiles or pipes buried in the ground at a shallow depth help remove excess water from saturated soil. These systems wick away water from snowmelt and spring rains, allowing farmers to plant earlier in the year.

“Even if a farmer puts in a riparian forest, or any permanently vegetated buffer between the farm field and surface water, you’ve got a drain tile going right underneath the surface vegetation,” Smalligan said. “You’re still shuttling nitrogen and phosphorus right into the river. So there’s not simple solutions.”


Forest to MI Faucet is a new campaign to help foresters, loggers, landowners and the public understand how forests contribute to clean drinking water. The project includes 12 conservation organizations in the Upper Peninsula and throughout the Lower Peninsula.

Majority of Michigan Forests Owned by Citizens

The federal and state governments own and manage 8 million acres of wilderness, largely in Northern Michigan. However, private individuals and families own more than 9 million acres or 45% of the forests in the state. In all, the 400,000 family forest owners in Michigan are by far the largest group of forest owners in Michigan.

Resources are offered to private landowners to ensure the long-term success of land.

The Forest Stewardship Program

Since 1990, more than 7,300 landowners in Michigan have utilized the Forest Stewardship Program (FSP) to help manage, protect and enjoy 1.2 million acres of forestland.


FSP couples landowners with professional foresters to establish a forest stewardship plan. The DNR has trained a total of 150 foresters and 10 biologists in the private sector, with several foresters available in every county. Landowners can hire a forester any time of the year.

Ben Pinti, member of the Bay City Hunting and Fishing Club, helps manage 240 acres in Crawford County incorporated by the club in 1912. The Hunting and Fishing Club developed a management plan with the help of the Forest Stewardship Program to care for their woodlands.

“I highly encourage people manage your forest. It’s underutilized tool that people need to do to,” Pinti said. “If you’re not working with a forester and doing your cutting, your management plan is no management.”

What are Foresters?

Foresters play different roles based on the landowners’ needs. They offer services such as management plans, administering timber sales or enrolling in property tax reduction programs. In Michigan, there are three main types of foresters: consulting, industrial and governmental.

Consulting Foresters

Independent consultants work directly for the landowner at a fee. They serve only the interests of their client, the landowner. Common services include writing forest management plans, planting trees, enhancing wildlife habitat, enrolling in programs and organizing timber harvests.

The Bay City Hunting and Fishing Club developed their management plan with the help of consulting forester Ivan Witt. The company Ivan Witt Forestry and Consulting Inc is located in Gaylord. They also work with biologists and foresters at Huron Pines out of Gaylord.

“The most important thing that I tell people that they need to find a consulting forester,” Pinti said. “There’s plenty of good ones around and they will help you manage that land for the betterment of the land, and you can earn a little income as well off your timber.”

Industrial Foresters

Working directly for local sawmills, these consultants manage materials for the forest product companies. They operate by managing forest land owned by their company, or buying timber from private landowners.

Government Foresters

Government Foresters are funded by tax dollars. They work for public universities and government agencies to provide free information, educational workshops and forestry programs for the public.

“Here in Michigan, government foresters are primarily in the information business,” Smalligan said. “We’re providing information to landowners, and helping to connect them with people and programs that will help them be successful in their woods. In Michigan, government foresters do not write forest management plans or administer timber sales, or do direct work for landowners,” Smalligan said.

Forest Management Plans

Management plans help landowners enroll in property tax reduction programs, obtain forest certification, plan for timber harvests, protect water quality and improve wildlife habitat. The landowner’s goals for their woods is the foundation of any management plan.

“There’s three major elements in a good management plan,” Smalligan explains.

The first element is understanding what property owners want their forest to look like decades down the road.

“Landowners sometimes have a hard time articulating what their goals are. So walking in the woods with a professional forester, having a conversation about things that are important to them, is a helpful conversation to clarify and think through and put on paper what do they want their woods to look like,” Smalligan said.

For the Bay City Hunting Club, the highest priority is a healthy forest. Additional goals include managing wildlife and generating income from timber sales.

After goals are established, the forester takes a comprehensive evaluation of what’s currently in the woods. Soil samples, tree documentation, water sources, wildlife habitat, forest health issues, insects, diseases, invasive plants are all accounted for.

Pinti said the hunting club is continually uncovering more about their land after each assessment with their forester.

“It’s ongoing learning process. We have Huron Pines out once a year to do invasive species treatment on our property,” Pinti said.

Finally, the professional forester makes recommendations on activities that the landowner can do over the next one to 20 years to accomplish their goals.

“It’s an immense learning opportunity to manage your land in a way that will be benefit forests, wildlife and your enjoyment of it,” Pinti said.

A management plan creates opportunities for landowners to participate in other programs too.

“The most popular programs that require a management plan are Michigan’s property tax reduction programs,” Smalligan said.

The Commercial Forest Program and Qualified Forest Program, require a landowner to hire a forester to develop a management plan to manage their forest effectively. In exchange, the state of Michigan gives them a significant property tax reduction anywhere from 30% and 95%. The Commercial Forest Program has a minimum of 40 acres, and the Qualified Forest Program has a minimum of 20 acres.

Forest management plans also benefit owners when preparing for a timber sale.

“A well-planned timber sale should have both economic benefits for you and ecological benefits for your forest,” Smalligan said.

A forest management plan helps determine what trees to sell, and more importantly, what trees to keep to improve your forest after the timber is harvested.

“All timber sales should be conducted to accomplish your stated goals for your forest, whether those are improving wildlife habitat, increasing access for recreation, removing diseased trees, modifying the species composition, improving ‘crop trees’ for future harvest, or generating some current income,” Smalligan said.

Additional resources

Through voluntary conservation programs, Natural Resources Conservation Service, helps producers, soil and water conservation districts, and other partners protect and conserve natural resources on private lands throughout the United States. With approximately 2,500 offices in communities nationwide, employees provide the information, tools, and delivery systems necessary for producers to conserve, maintain, and improve their natural resources

The Farm Bill became law in December 2018, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began implementing programs. The Conservation Reserve Program has two programs to help with funding for stewardship. State Acres For Wildlife Enhancement or SAFE, aims to create diverse grasslands in 18 southern Michigan counties and pollinator habitat in 22 counties in the western Lower Peninsula. Landowners who choose to participate in the practice may receive 90 to 100 percent of the cost of converting cropland into wildlife habitat. The Conservation Reserve Program offered to agricultural producers helps safeguard environmentally sensitive land. Producers enrolled in it plant long-term, resource-conserving covers to improve the quality of water, control soil erosion, and enhance wildlife habitat. In return, participants receive help with rental payments and cost-share assistance.

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