Estivant Pines: A Living Museum

The Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary, protecting the largest remaining stand of old growth white pines in Michigan, celebrates its 45th anniversary.

By William Rapai

Time passes slowly at Estivant Pines.

Nobody knows that better than Gary Willis, a forester with the Michigan Department of Bertha and groupNatural Resources and former assistant professor at Michigan Technological University. Willis knows this place better than most people. When you see this preserve through his eyes you begin to understand that the best way to truly appreciate this place is not to consider time in hours, years, and decades but in centuries, periods and eras.

Estivant Pines is the Michigan Nature Association’s 510 acre sanctuary in the Keweenaw Peninsula. Despite its remote location—down a pothole-strewn dirt road south of Copper Harbor—it is one of the organization’s most popular sanctuaries. Every summer, thousands of people from across the United States visit, wandering two looping trails to marvel at white pine trees that stand 120 feet tall.

But there aren’t many visitors to Estivant Pines in the late winter or early spring because the road that leads to the sanctuary is usually under several feet of snow or too muddy to be drivable. However, the period after snowmelt and before trees emerge from dormancy is the best time to see and understand time’s impact by looking down—not up—and closely examining what is and isn’t here.

What is here is volcanic bedrock that dates back to the earliest period of Earth’s history and carbonized tree stumps that are the remains of a cataclysmic forest fire more than 200 years ago. What isn’t here is surprising and confounding. The plant life in the understory is healthy—lots of lichens, mosses, ferns, maples, birches, cedars, spruces, and balsams. Surprisingly, there are few young white pines even though these 240-300 year-old trees have produced millions of viable seeds during their lifetimes.

img 1198Willis gained these insights when he was a forester for the Michigan Nature Association. In the late 1990s he started working at Estivant Pines at the request of Michigan Nature Association’s founder Bertha Daubendiek. Willis was given a unique opportunity to study these ancient trees after a logger accidentally trespassed on the sanctuary and cut a number of the trees along one of the boundaries.

Daubendiek sent Willis out to write a damage report, but during the process he started to see this incident as a unique opportunity to study how these giant trees grew. As he measured the width of the stumps and correlated individual ring-widths he began to understand these trees through the prism of time.

But it’s not just the trees that are measured in time. Much of this sanctuary sits on a high ridge of volcanic bedrock that runs between Annie Creek and the Montreal River that dates back to the earliest period of Earth’s history, some 1.1 billion years ago. In fact, Willis said, other researchers at Michigan Tech have discovered the Keweenaw was once one of the most active volcanic regions on Earth.

It’s difficult to see it from the landscape level, but Willis says if you look at an aerial photo of the peninsula, you can see a series of ridges left behind from that volcanic flow. Those ridges run parallel to the shoreline and curve as the shoreline curves and narrows as it reaches the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula.

Even though we tend to think of these trees as old, the plant community here is in its infancy, relatively speaking. Plants—trees, shrubs and grasses—established themselves only about 10,000 years ago following the withdrawal of the Wisconsin Glacier.

Tree roots - Brittany AllenMultiple glaciers over the past 2.5 million years left behind a thin layer of soil that can support plant life but generally is not deep enough to anchor a 100-foot-tall tree. To compensate for the lack of soil, most of the pines have grown roots deep into fractures and crevices in the bedrock. Some trees have been lost to windstorms but remarkably few considering that the sanctuary sits at an altitude that varies between 200 and 500 feet above lake level. That altitude leaves these trees exposed to powerful winter winds that blow across Lake Superior. In the winter, this sanctuary can get more than 275 inches of snow in a single season. The combination of heavy, wet snow and strong wind can bring even the hardiest tree down, says Donald Dickmann, professor emeritus of silviculture and physiological ecology at Michigan State University and co-author of The Forests of Michigan. Fortunately, most of the snow that blankets the Keweenaw’s rocky ridges is light and fluffy lake effect powder.

Summer brings heavy thunderstorms and gusty winds, and the trees, which tower above the hardwood canopy, are sitting ducks for lightning strikes. One of those lightning strikes more than 200 years ago might have been the spark for a fire that ravaged this area and set the stage for the Estivant Pines as we see them today.

Those carbonized tree stumps and little bits of charcoal strewn across the landscape point to a potent wildfire that swept through the area in the late 1700’s. Willis said it likely wiped out most of the white pines that had been standing on that spot perhaps for centuries. Just as the towering, mature pines today prevent the young pines from growing underneath, those earlier pines prevented any new ones from growing beneath them. It’s not that these trees are refusing to reproduce; it’s just their reproductive strategy. Barring a major fire, disease or insect threats, these pines could be here for another 300 years before they reach the end of their natural lifecycle. As that happens, the maples, birches, spruces, and balsams that make up the understory will continue to grow and mature and create a thick new canopy 50 feet or more under the tops of the pines. As those trees mature and die, fuel for a future fire will continue to build up on the forest floor, waiting for a spark.Marianne Glosenger - Estivant Pines NO WATERMARK hi res

When that fire eventually arrives, the pines’ continued existence will depend on its intensity. A moderate fire may not cause any damage because the old trees are protected by a thick layer of bark. But if the fire is intense enough the heat will fry the layer under the bark that transports water and nutrients up the trunk. That will kill the tree even if the fire does not reach the top branches. If that happens, the tree, knowing that it will soon die, will put all its energy into seed production. The year following the fire, massive amounts of seeds will cover the now-bare, ash-covered soil and thousands of new white pine trees will germinate if there is enough rain.

And the cycle will begin again.

Ancient white pine trees like the Estivant Pines once covered a good portion of Michigan. loggingIn the late 19th century, lumberjacks cut these trees to supply wood for houses, barns, and carriages needed by a fast-growing nation. At the time, it was thought that Michigan had an inexhaustible supply of white pine.

Only a few stands of virgin white escaped the lumberjack’s gluttony—this one, of course, one at Hartwick Pines State Park northeast of Grayling, and another stand on private property east of L’Anse are the three best known. But Don Dickmann of Michigan State says he has found small stands of them in other places in the Upper Peninsula. Those stands, like Estivant Pines, were spared through random chance and, more recently, the passion of local citizens who wanted to preserve these trees for what they represent.

nancy leonard - epines make a difference dayTwo people who have come to deeply appreciate the history represented by these pines are Bill and Nancy Leonard, who organize volunteers and stewards for the Michigan Nature Association in the Keweenaw Peninsula. They work closely with sanctuary stewards Ted and Alice Soldan to maintain the boardwalks and trails. Bill Leonard said that as he’s working he enjoys talking with visitors and is always amazed by how many people from faraway places around the country come to see these giants multiple times.

“It just pulls people back,” Leonard said.

Indeed it does. But those visitors? For now, it seems, they can take their time.

 

William Rapai is the author of three Michigan Notable Books including The Kirtland’s Warbler (University of Michigan Press) and Lake Invaders (Wayne State University Press). He is also the president of Grosse Pointe Audubon.

As seen in the feature story in the Winter 2018 issue of the Michigan Nature magazine.

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From The Archives: Wilcox-Warnes Nature Sanctuary

Prior to the publication of Michigan Nature magazine, MNA sent out quarterly newsletters to members and supporters. We will be taking a look at some of the newsletter’s feature stories in our new From the Archives series. 

Every Sanctuary Has a Story: Wilcox-Warnes Nature Sanctuary

by Katherine Hollins, Regional Stewardship Organizer

Published in the July 2011 edition of the MNA newsletter

Harol Warnes

Harold Warnes

The Anna Wilcox and Harold Warnes Memorial Nature Sanctuary is a wooded oasis amidst the suburban jungle and open agriculture in Macomb County. In addition to providing important habitat for various flora and fauna, the sanctuary serves as a wonderful spot for people to take their families out for recreation or for nature enthusiasts to study species amidst the hustle and bustle of Shelby Township.

The sanctuary was originally part of an 1833 land grant from President Andrew Jackson. It never left the possession of the Wilcox and Warnes families before being donated to the MNA in 1975 by Harold Warnes. Historically, the southern two-thirds of this 44.8 acre sanctuary were never grazed and only faced selective logging. The northern portion was last farmed in 1957, and now serves as a perfect example of a successional forest. As you walk the trails, you will notice the young forest, thick with undergrowth, gives way to a more open, mature forest to the south.

“It’s an exceptionally special place,” says Kurt Jung, an MNA Trustee and nature enthusiast. After he attended a recent Wilcox-Warnes volunteer day, Kurt encourages everyone to walk through the old woods of Wilcox-Warnes “with its commanding oak and tulip trees and quiet stream.”

Margaret Moran, long-time steward of the sanctuary, fondly remembers spending time there over the past decades. “The trees are gorgeous there, and I am thrilled with the birds. I once watched a turkey vulture stalk around picking up sticks and saw a great horned owl on a nest. I especially enjoy listening for the ethereal song of the wood thrush,” she says. “I hope those things will last in the sanctuary as they last in my memory.”

Fall colors at Wilcox-Warnes. Photo by Jeff Ganley.

Fall colors at Wilcox-Warnes. Photo by Jeff Ganley.

Without Harold Warnes’ generous land donation, MNA may never have acquired a sanctuary in Macomb County.

And although the stately tulip poplars may first draw your attention, keep an eye out for American beech, red maple, white ash, various oaks, basswood, yellow birch, black cherry, shagbark hickory, sassafras, pin cherry, prickly ash, spicebush, serviceberry and flowering dogwood trees and saplings. Spring wildflowers including trillium, dwarf ginseng, foamflower, hepatica, may-apple, and showy orchis can also be found here, along with fringed and bottle gentians later in the year.

You can spend time here searching for frogs and salamanders that make their homes in the vernal pools throughout the sanctuary, or study creek ecology and rest near our excellent bridge. As our Trustees, stewards, staff and members urge, please come out to learn about this lovely forest sanctuary and the communities it supports.

For a schedule of upcoming events, visit the MNA website.