Maia Turek: Keeping Michigan's native vegetation thriving | GO | – Traverse City Record Eagle

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Updated: November 11, 2022 @ 11:35 am
Volunteers and members of the Michigan Civilian Conservation Corps harvest various species of wildflowers, native grasses, and grass like species called sedges and rushes.

Volunteers and members of the Michigan Civilian Conservation Corps harvest various species of wildflowers, native grasses, and grass like species called sedges and rushes.
Michigan state parks are known for lots of things — hiking, biking, boating, camping, riding, and a so many more ways to play on public lands. However, there is a team of staff and an army of volunteers that can be found within Michigan state parks doing small tasks to make a huge impact on public lands.
Within the Department of Natural Resources is the Parks and Recreation division — the division responsible for managing state parks, trails and waterways. Within that division is a team called “Stewardship” and this small but mighty team works with dedicated volunteers to keep invasive plants at bay and help native vegetation thrive, so all the animals that rely on it can do so as well.
Collecting and planting native seed has been used by this team as a tool to repair landscapes impacted by modern agriculture and urban development, which have introduced invasive species, eliminated large herbivores, and reduced fire on the landscape that depended on it. For example, native grasslands have been reduced, by some estimates, to as little as 1 percent of their former abundance in the U.S.
These grasslands and savannas are targets for Stewardship team restoration because they can provide habitat for rare grassland bird species, create a home for uncommon native prairie plants, and support declining pollinator populations. They provide natural vegetation that takes up carbon from the atmosphere and can help protect our waterways by reducing run-off pollution. They are also important recreational destinations, providing important areas for the public to enjoy wildflowers, to bird watch, and to hunt species like the ring-necked pheasant.
The Stewardship team has focused on state parks with prairie habitat, such as Fort Custer Recreation Area, Lake Hudson Recreation Area, Highland Recreation Area, Sterling State Park, Algonac State Park, and Bay City Recreation Area — which also provides resting stations for migrating birds as they move from Canada and Upper Peninsula to their warmer winter destinations. If they can’t find the food needed in those important stop offs, their populations can be hurt.
New efforts are underway to restore portions of Fort Custer Rec Area, Waterloo Recreation Area, Coldwater State Park, and Island Lake Recreation Area.
When deciding what seed to plant, what is most ecologically appropriate and is best adapted for the site are very important considerations. Local seed from plants already growing in the park, or somewhere nearby, are preferred over non-local sources of seed. One reason is that local plants have already adapted to grow in similar soils and in the same climate for thousands of years. Seed from local sources also represents a unique set of genes that are on their own evolutionary trajectory. Preserving that unique diversity is important for the goal of protecting biodiversity in our state.
Unfortunately, not much local seed is available for purchase, so it must be collected by a team of state park stewards. Native seed is collected by several staff members and dedicated volunteers. This team possesses a specialized skill set for acquiring seed from a diverse group of species. Seed is collected from remnant populations, from areas planted in the parks with local seed, and from seed propagation plots. The DNR Stewardship Wildlife Technician collects large quantities of native warm season grass seed by pulling a seed-sweeper behind an ATV.
Volunteers and members of the Michigan Civilian Conservation Corps harvest various species of wildflowers, native grasses, and grass-like species called sedges and rushes.
Native seed collection starts as early as late May, continues through the growing season, and peaks in the fall. Harvesters maintain genetic diversity by collecting from multiple local populations, and plants from the same species with different traits.
Most importantly, plant conservation of existing populations is preserved by collecting no more than half of the available seed each year.
After seed has been collected, it must be prepared for planting by the MCCC crew at a facility in Brighton Recreation Area. Much of the seed throughout the season gets collected quickly and crudely before it drops, and therefore it is not in a state that is ready to plant. In preparing the seed for planting, the first step is drying seed material to make sure that it does not mold and loose its viability.
Some of the seed material collected needs to be dislodged from seed heads to make it easier to disperse. Also, materials such as stems, leaves, and other parts of plants need to get sifted out so that they can go through planting equipment.
Breaking up and sifting material, known as seed cleaning, requires specialized machines and hand equipment. This process is important for the staff to have a truer sense of how much seed will be planted. They can use this information to monitor results and refine future restoration practices.
After seed has been cleaned, weighed, inventoried, and mixed, it is ready to be planted. Most of the seed will be planted using specialized planting equipment pulled by a tractor called a seed drill. This method provides good coverage and protects the seed from bird predation. Some areas will be broadcast by hand because of their small size, steep topography, or slight amount of seed to be planted. Planting occurs either in the spring or in the late fall.
The DNR is only able to do this important work to preserve state park natural communities because of the help of so many committed volunteers. There is a lot of work to be done, and more than just seed collection. Consider becoming a volunteer for the DNR so you can be part of the legacy of Michigan’s public lands. Find the right opportunity for you and your family at
Maia Turek is the resource development specialist for the DNR Parks and Recreation Division, and the former marketing manager for the Record-Eagle. Turek will offer family- and pet-friendly Michigan trip and tour ideas.
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