Students to chop ‘pretty looking tree’ ravaging Saugatuck dunes

Courtesy Photo /
A group of hikers on the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area

Courtesy Photo / A group of hikers on the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area

Susie Skowronek

A resting place for migratory birds such as the endangered prairie warbler and the home to fox and deer year-round, Michigan dunes are facing destruction from a seemingly harmless tree imported from Europe.

A team of environmentally-conscious students will clear the forest on Saturday.

Up to 30 students will travel in two 15-passenger vans provided by the Sustainable Community Development Initiative to the natural area at Saugatuck Dunes State Park in Allegan County. Volunteers will meet at the Honors College at noon and arrive back at the university around 6 p.m.

At the dunes, students will remove an invasive species of tree and treat the area with a wetland-approved herbicide to prevent the tree’s return.

The invasive tree, the European birch tree, has a narrow, white paper trunk and grows 30 to 60 feet tall. As its name indicates, the invasive tree was imported from Europe to the sand dunes.

“It’s kind of a pretty looking tree,” said sophomore Joey Courtade, who organized the environmental outing through the Honors College. “It’s hard to convince people to cut it down. It’s here because people planted it in their yards.”

However, the “pretty” tree has taken over the dunes at Saugatuck.

Courtade said a healthy ecosystem needs a variety of plants and animals, but the European birch tree transforms the land into a forest of a single kind of tree.

“Where there used to be many animals and plants, it’s becoming a monoculture, where there is just one animal or plant left,” Courtade said.

The reduction of biodiversity affects the plants and animals that normally thrive at the sand dunes.

The Blanchard cricket frog, a brown-pebbled frog with a green strip down its back, is a threatened species in Michigan due to habitat destruction. The frog usually lives in a habitat of hedges and grasses, but the invasive trees at the Saugatuck dunes have overtaken the land otherwise occupied by the natural plants.

“(The volunteers’) time will have long-term effects, possibly saving a species that could help prevent the loss of some cricket frogs from that property,” said Melanie Manion, the stewardship coordinator for Land Conservancy of West Michigan.

She added the invasive trees not only push out the naturally growing hedges and grasses, but the trees also shade the area – a dangerous environment for cold-blooded amphibians like frogs.

Courtade added the Blanchard cricket frog has a limited reproduction, so it is difficult to make up for a loss in population.

However, after the chemical treatment, Manion said she expects the ecosystem to return to its natural state within a year, depending on the degradation of the area.

“We are catching this early on – early detection, rapid response,” Manion said. “Kind of like cancer screening for people, catch it when it is treatable.”

Junior Grace Bommarito volunteered at the Saugatuck State Park on Oct. 2, and she said Manion’s enthusiasm for preserving nature inspired her to want to help the dunes.

“It wasn’t until I was able to walk through the dunes and be right in the middle of it all that I began to appreciate it more and see the importance of preserving the area,” Bommarito said. “I think it is good for everyone to go out and get their hands dirty, especially if they haven’t had an experience like this before.”

Students interested in participating in the environmental experience can contact Joey Courtade at [email protected].

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