In late August 2023, Nichols Arboretum suffered significant storm damage resulting in the loss of over 150 mature trees.
Jeff Plakke’s journey with MBGNA began as an Arboretum intern in 2003. With over two decades of experience and dedication, Jeff now works as Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum’s Natural Areas Manager. His deep-rooted passion for preserving and enhancing the environment has shaped his unique perspective on conservation. In the aftermath of August’s devastating storm, Jeff’s extensive experience became especially valuable. In this interview with Jeff, he shares not only his professional insights and strategies for managing and rejuvenating the Arboretum’s ecosystems but also offers a heartfelt connection to this special place, revealing his profound dedication to its preservation.
As the natural areas manager who has worked closely with Nichols Arboretum, how did you personally feel when you first saw the extent of the damage caused by the storm?
I was shocked, almost panicked at the scope of devastation when I first saw it, and felt a profound sense of loss. It was unlike anything I had seen in the Arboretum before. As I first looked around, I saw so many trees snapped off or uprooted I began to lose count. After more thoroughly surveying the property I found over 150 mature trees were lost. From 100 year old plantings of Ponderosa and White Pines around the Peony Garden, to the towering 130 ft tall tulip poplars near the main valley, to centuries old oaks, almost 4 feet across, that had been a part of the landscape since the 1800’s, all taken down by the storm. I still find it hard to put into words. In some ways it felt like losing elderly loved ones from the community. It still breaks my heart.
What specific areas within the arboretum were most affected by the storm, and how did the storm impact the plants, wildlife, and ecosystems in those areas?
The storm impacted a swath across the Arboretum from the Washington Heights Entrance on the west side of the property, all the way to the other side of Dow Prairie at the east side of the property. The Peony Garden, Laurel Ridge Trail, Oak openings and Heathdale areas were hit especially hard. Over 75 mature trees were lost just in that area. This is a busy entrance where we have formal gardens and many planted specimens. It had a huge impact on our historic collections in those spaces. Further east into the Arboretum’s native woodlands, many large oaks, hickories, cherries and other native species blew down. While I personally feel sad to see these trees die, as a forester and terrestrial ecologist, I can see that the leaves, branches and trunks on the ground provide instant habitat for insects, small mammals, birds and other wildlife. I also know that large openings in the oak hickory forest canopy will provide more light for young oaks and hickory trees to grow. These species are shade intolerant and cannot grow from seedlings in the shade under the large mature trees. It takes one or more large scale disturbances like windstorms, fires, disease and insect outbreaks to open up the canopy enough for young oaks and hickories to regenerate. In this way, the storm has provided an important opportunity for the renewal of the oak hickory forest ecosystem.
Can you provide examples of innovative or creative solutions that your team has employed to expedite the cleanup process while maintaining the integrity of the natural environment?
Tom O’Dell, our Woody Plants Specialist, has done an amazing job working with several outside tree service contractors and many of our staff and volunteers. They have cleared the roads and trails to restore safe access and began the long work of cleaning up the collection areas where fallen trees must be entirely removed. He arranged for contractors with bucket trucks and cranes to take care of the large broken tops high in the trees and huge logs on the ground where they needed to be moved. He also brought our large tractor and flatbed trailer to the Arb and used them to move logs to a staging area for milling. Where trees have fallen in the natural areas, we are generally able to leave them where they lay. They will restore their nutrients to the soil over time and provide valuable habitat for a myriad of wildlife and microorganisms for years and years to come.
How have you encouraged and motivated your team during what must be a demanding and emotionally challenging cleanup operation?
I worked alongside my team as they put in overtime through the first weekend after the storm and continue to join the crew in ongoing cleanup efforts which will continue well into next year. When we first saw the damage and began the work, during those moments when we shut down the wood chipper for a break, we’d share our shock and grief over the devastation, as well as thoughts and plans for future renewal. I know it was helpful to me to know we were in this together recovering from an event outside of our control. This was a major loss for us all as well as a huge amount of added work we hadn’t planned on. I have acknowledged this with my team and supported them as we’ve all had to shift our focus, priorities and schedules over several weeks, and will continue to for several more months to come.
Are there any plans to salvage or repurpose the wood from the fallen trees?
Yes, Tom has staged over 60 logs with more to come of the many species we lost. These will be used on a number of different projects at MBGNA including a structure for the Campus Farm, panels and slabs for our main desks at the Arb and Gardens, benchtop material and a display of “cookies” to memorialize the lost trees and share with our visitors. Some logs are being donated to faculty for student projects. We will continue to look for ways to reclaim the wood in valuable ways for our human communities as well as acknowledging the life-giving value to our natural communities when these giants are left to decay where they fell.
In line with MBGNA’s mission to promote ecological resilience and sustainability, what steps will be taken to ensure that the renewal efforts align with these goals?
We understand that oak hickory forests are resilient ecosystems and major disturbance events like this one are normal and essential for them to naturally regenerate over time. Oaks and hickories are shade intolerant. Their seedlings grow very slowly or not at all in the shade under their mature parents. They need some direct sun to grow tall. This forest type depends on the occurrence of fire, windthrow and other major disturbances over time to open up the canopy so young seedlings and saplings can grow tall and replace the previous generation. Without disturbances like these, the canopy will close in and the understory will fill with more and more shade tolerant species, such as red and sugar maples, basswood and beech, and a variety of exotic invasive species, excluding the oaks and hickories and eventually replacing them.
Earlier this year, Mike Kost, our Natural Areas Curator, began an oak regeneration project to address the lack of young oaks and hickories naturally regenerating in our oak hickory forests. This involves planting and protecting from deer, acorns and oak seedlings so they may grow into the overstory some day when the mature trees begin to die and let the sunlight through. With the recent storm, we now have a number of new canopy gaps in our forests which provide an opportunity for naturally occurring as well as planted oaks to get the sunlight they need to make it to the overstory. Mike and his student staff and our Natural Areas team have mapped the fallen trees, canopy gaps and collected many acorns for this project. We plan to plant some of these acorns directly in the gaps and to grow some in plugs to be planted next year. These planted acorns and seedlings along with those coming up on their own, will be caged to protect them from deer browse, another risk factor for oak seedling growth in our forests due to presently high deer densities.
For individuals who are deeply moved by the devastation caused by the storm and want to make a meaningful difference, how can they get involved, whether through donations or volunteer work, and what impact can their support have on the ongoing cleanup and renewal of Nichols Arboretum?
The commitment, support and engagement of our community is crucial to the stewardship of the Nichols Arboretum. We are happy to have help on the ground volunteering with our monthly eco-workdays, and we’re happy to bring on additional volunteers who would like to get involved on a more regular basis with our staff. Contact our development team if you’d like to make a financial donation to help us out. We are also currently working with the City of Ann Arbor on planning for a replanting effort next fall in our hardest hit areas around the Peony Garden. Stay tuned to find out more as we continue to develop our plans for the Arb renewal.