Oak Savanna

While I was in Michigan earlier this summer, I went on a tour of the MacCready Reserve where there are multiple research projects and restoration efforts active.  I’m not very familiar at all with midwestern ecosystems, so I was pleased at the opportunity to go on a guided tour with a brand new PhD who’d done her work on the reserve.

Back in the 1930s, oak savanna at the reserve was planted over with pine to harvest later.  However, the trees were planted very densely and unmanaged for decades.  Restoration has involved destroying invasive buckthorn and thinning the spindly pine while leaving enough shade for the newly planted oak  saplings.

Oak Savanna Restoration in Progress

Despite thinning, the pine is still quite dense. The oak saplings are planted in plastic tubes to protect them from deer browse.

Removing buckthorn and keeping it from reestablishing seems to be incredibly labor intensive – and very expensive, but absolutely necessary for restoration.  Oak savanna is now a very rare ecosystem type and is likely to remain so because restoration is so expensive and the benefits are far from immediate and often indirect.

As much as I want to support restoration efforts, I often feel that the areas we restore are too small to do more than serve as a reminder of what we’ve lost.  I also worry that restoration efforts in ecosystems as destroyed as oak savanna are pointless in the face of climate change.  By the time these oaks reach maturity, will Michigan’s climate even be suitable for oak savanna?