GRAND HAVEN, Mich. (WOOD) — One of West Michigan’s most unique parks faces a trio of invasive species, threatening to decimate a piece of forest that has been mostly untouched for centuries. Two professors from Grand Valley State University are leading the charge to save it.
Duncan Memorial Park, often referred to simply as Duncan Woods, is approximately 40 acres of virgin forest in the heart of Grand Haven. The property once belonged to Robert Duncan, a lawyer who saw the lumber industry starting to boom across Michigan. The avid outdoorsman purchased the land to make sure some part of the local ecosystem would be spared. To honor her husband’s memory, Martha Huntington Duncan donated the land to the city in 1913 to preserve as a park.
Duncan Woods is full of giant trees, some more than 200 years old. But without the action of local groups and two GVSU professors, that forest could die.
Professors Ali Locher and Larry Burns are leading the push to save Duncan Woods.
Locher, a professor of natural resource management, is handling the technical end, working alongside her students to identify and tag trees that are at risk or fighting one of these threats.
Burns, a psychology professor, is the hands and heart of the project. After discovering Locher’s tags during one of his many hikes in the park, he launched a nonprofit dedicated to working alongside park staff and providing the treatments to save the trees — treatments the former vineyard manager administers himself.
For both Locher and Burns, it’s about preserving what we have and protecting the lakeshore. Locher says the forest provides countless benefits for the local ecosystem.
“Those trees do a lot to stabilize the soil. They intercept storm water so that we don’t have erosion on the dunes. They absorb carbon because we are putting so much carbon into the air. They provide wildlife habitat, they provide food, they provide nutrients that go back into the soil. They even clean the soil and absorb some of the toxins in the environment,” Locher said. “All of those ecological services are aside from the aesthetic reasons why people love to go there and walk their dogs or decompress from work and just have a good experience outside.”
Burns is one of many people that visit the park to decompress and get some exercise. In 2019, during one of his many walks with his son and their dog, they noticed the tree tags. A little research led him to Locher, and he quickly joined the fight.
Burns founded ‘Adopt a Hemlock,’ mimicking star registries and other nonprofit models where people can donate money for a cause and stake a small claim as their own.
“It could be like Adopt a Star, except this would be way cool because people could come and visit the tree and actually meet the tree. It’s actually a lovely entity and you can take pictures with it and what have you,” Burns said, explaining how he came up with the idea.
A TRIO OF INVASIVE SPECIES
Duncan Woods is primarily comprised of three types of trees: hemlock, oak and beech — and each face an invasive threat.
The hemlock trees are dealing with the hemlock woolly adelgid, a tiny insect that feasts on the trees, leeching away its nutrients. If left untreated, the trees will die within four to 10 years.
Oak wilt has also been confirmed at the nearby Lake Forest Cemetery. There is no cure or treatment for the fungal infection, but there are ways to prevent it from spreading to other nearby trees.
Park officials are also on the lookout for beech bark disease. BBD is caused by a small insect called a scale that feeds on beech sap. The scales eventually settle in, lose their legs and wrap themselves in a wax to keep them connected to the tree.
As the scales drain the tree’s nutrients, it becomes susceptible to a type of fungus that weakens the wood. Most beech trees with BBD die during storms, broken by strong winds in a phenomenon called “beech snap.”
City crews have administered treatment on Duncan Park’s hemlock trees. There is no cure for HWA, but the trees can be managed through treatments that need to be applied roughly once every five years.
Oak wilt is the current focus of Locher, Burns and Adopt a Hemlock. Locher and her students are currently working Duncan Woods to identify and tag the park’s oak trees.
The fungal infection spreads through a tree’s root system, making it extremely dangerous in a place where oak trees are prevalent. Oaks start with a mother tree that drops acorns that grow into saplings. And as the forest grows, those root systems become intertwined. So when one tree gets sick, it can spread quickly.
Burns, using funds raised through the Adopt a Hemlock nonprofit, has already started several treatments on oak trees in Mulligan’s Hollow and in the cemetery. However, the cemetery and its hundreds of residents provide an additional challenge.
“The classic technique is a vibratory plow. That’s a five-and-a-half-foot blade that you drop into the ground, and you’re cutting the grafts between the trees to protect them from each other. … But we don’t have that option,” Burns said.
Instead, he is using what is called the prophylactic treatment. A fungicide is injected straight into the tree and is carried down to the roots, acting as a barrier and preventing the fungus from spreading up into the tree and killing it.
Burns says 27 trees have been treated for oak wilt in Mulligan’s Hollow and four have been treated in Lake Forest Cemetery, all of which are estimated to be over 100 years old.
While oak wilt required a faster response, Locher and Burns are also monitoring the park for beech bark disease. Burns says there are signs of it in the park but not a full-scale outbreak.
“(The insects) are kind of like a dandelion pop. Poof! It carries and if it lands on a tree, that tree’s out of luck,” Burns said. “Our trees are not in the heavily infested stage yet, but it’s there.”
The treatment for beech bark disease, unfortunately, means cutting down the sick trees to try and prevent the insects from spreading.
“You’re going to cut down a tree? I thought you were saving the trees?” Burns quipped. “If you get in there and you thin out the sick trees … you’re increasing the distance between the trees. So that ‘puff of the dandelion’ model, there’s a greater distance and greater odds that the tree will resist that illness or not become sick because that insect can’t get to them.”
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Adopt a Hemlock is still taking donations. Starting at $15, every donation comes with a certificate of your tree, along with its tag number and its exact latitude and longitude coordinates.
All money raised through Adopt a Hemlock goes to purchasing the treatments needed to protect trees in Duncan Woods, Lake Forest Cemetery and Mulligan’s Hollow.
“The park has about 8,500 trees. So far, we have collected a little over $10,000,” Burns said. “Some folks are sending checks; some folks are using the (website) and getting a certificate. You can put the name of a lost loved one or some people are putting the name of their grandkids on it. And you get to pick what you want your location of the tree and the amount, too. We’re grateful.”