Two people are shown from the back walking along a sand path in the woods. Sun shines through.

Fight to protect trees from invasive species in Grand Haven fortified by GVSU effort and expertise

A battle to treat and save diseased trees in forested areas within the City of Grand Haven is bolstered by a strong Grand Valley contingent lending expertise, fundraising efforts, physical labor and more.

The Lakers lending a hand include: Lawrence Burns, professor of psychology, who along with his teenage son, Nathan, have developed a fundraiser to help treat the trees in their city; Ali Locher, associate professor of natural resources management, whose research has helped city officials and others working on the trees understand the depth of the problem; more than 80 forestry students to date also working on the research; and computer science students developing a website for the fundraiser.

All of that help is appreciated by Derek Gajdos, director of public works for the City of Grand Haven. Gajdos said the ongoing threats to the hemlock (woolly adelgid), oak (oak wilt) and beech (beech bark disease) trees that are in three areas of the city – Duncan Woods, Mulligan's Hollow and Lake Forest Cemetery – are not only worrisome, but a large strain on city resources.

Locher's work has been instrumental in trying to manage these unique old-growth urban forests that are so crucial to the environment as well as the city's character, Gajdos said. And the funds raised through the efforts of Burns and his son are helping to augment city resources; Gajdos said Burns also is treating some oak trees on the city's behalf.

The threats from these infestations are relentless, Gajdos said, adding the oak wilt has recently been expanding rapidly. It also kills quickly.

A bird rests on the branch of a bare tree killed by oak wilt.
A bird rests on a limb of an oak tree that had died from oak wilt in Grand Haven's Lake Forest Cemetery.
A tree with a green ribbon wrapped around it and injection syringes pushed into the bark.
An oak tree is treated for oak wilt.
The lower half of several hemlock trees in a forest.
Hemlock trees needed treatment for woolly adelgid.
A closeup of a beech tree.
Beech trees face threats from beech bark disease.

"It doesn’t seem like we get a break from any of these. There’s always something right around the corner," Gajdos said.

When the Adopt a Hemlock fundraiser started, the intent was to help with treatment of the hemlocks, Burns said. He said the idea for a fundraiser took root a few years ago when he and his son walked through Duncan Woods and noticed metal tags on the hemlock trees being treated.

The thousands of hemlock trees were treated by the time the fundraiser got traction so they shifted their focus to raising money to treat oak wilt, which Burns termed the most aggressive of the threats facing the trees. While people who contribute adopt a hemlock, that designation is symbolic of working to maintain the health of the entire forest, Burns said.

A person, surrounded by trees, looks into the distance.
Lawrence Burns, professor of psychology, is working to help diseased trees in Grand Haven.
Two people standing next to a tree smile while wrapping their arms around each other.
Lawrence Burns and his son, Nathan, thought of a way to help the trees through fundraising.

"The money you're donating is to help the vitality of all our trees, since the hemlocks, thank goodness, have been treated, the oak trees are the next line to be treated and the next line are the beech trees. All three of these trees are critical, but right now the battle is for oak wilt.

"We are aiming the money at the next existential threat," Burns said. "The money is aimed at the protection of all the trees as a whole, but we have to prioritize which one is acting most threateningly to our forest at this time. We are struggling with oak wilt now but we will be struggling with beech bark disease in the not-too-distant future."

The work is a true passion project for Burns, who said he collaborates closely with local and state experts. He also said Locher's research and collaboration have been invaluable.

Locher first collaborated with Grand Haven officials several years ago by presenting a forest management plan, done in conjunction with students, for Duncan Woods. A few years later, in 2018 when the emerging tree diseases became more prevalent, Locher and students did further studies, this time also including Mulligan's Hollow, on data in the forest but also the economic value of the trees to the city for such concerns as soil stabilization and stormwater interception.

A person wearing a "GV" shirt leans against a tree and looks upward.
Ali Locher, associate professor of natural resources management, has provided instrumental expertise regarding the threats facing the trees in Grand Haven's urban forests.

Locher had students GPS every hemlock in these forests and tag them with a metal tag – the same tags noticed by Burns and his son on their walks. Burns eventually contacted Locher about the idea for a fundraiser, and Locher became involved.

Though the hemlocks are treated, they are not cured, and the goal was to "buy us some time because these trees will eventually die," Locher said. It is a race to ensure the hemlocks, oaks and beeches receive intervention against these invasive species that threaten an important ecological and social resource for Grand Haven.

"Because of the dune ecology those three species are what makes up the system, and all three are sick," Locher said. "Those trees have adapted to the dynamic nature of the dune ecosystems.

"All of the natural species in the forest are one entity," Locher added. "It doesn’t do any good to just protect one individual or one species, they're all integrated and they all work together to function as a system, and those ecosystems are what sustain us as humans."


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