'Shock and awe'

Hawk Island cutting alarms visitors, but county says it’s needed

Lauren Cooper walks the asphalt path that rings Ingham County’s Hawk Island Park nearly every day, often with two dogs and two babies in tow.

Earlier this month, she was shocked by a scene that looked like a small patch of Siberia after the 1908 Tunguska meteor hit.

On Sept. 8, crews brought out a brush hog — a heavy-duty mower used by road crews to clear the way for pipelines and road construction — and razed the vegetation on the east bank of the pond from four to six feet of prairie flowers and other plants to bare earth and sticks.

The fragrant acre is, or was, home to numerous birds, small mammals, butterflies and other critters.

In an email to the county, Cooper, a policy specialist in MSU’s Forestry Department, wrote that she was “sickened” that about an acre of land was “sloppily and cruelly destroyed” in one day.

Cooper wasn’t the only one who noticed.

Monday, Hawk Island staff put up explanatory signs “in light of the response we got from the general public,” Ingham County’s parks director, Tim Morgan, said.

The drastic cut was the first step in a plan to rescue the bank from woody invasive plants that have gradually taken it over in the past 10 years, Morgan said. In the spring, crews will plant oaks and red maples and sow a prairie mix of Shasta daisies, prairie coneflowers, blackeyed Susans and other native Michigan flowers.

Brian Collins, director of Hawk Island Park, said the area has gone without habitat management for about 10 years, and the lax management allowed shrubby willows and other woody invasive species to stifle the natives. Special attention will be given to planting more milkweed, a host plant to monarch butterflies.

Collins, who holds a parks and recreation degree from MSU, is in charge of the prairie restoration project.

But the project’s level of sophistication leaves Cooper unimpressed. She would prefer to see a natural resources professional involved.

“It’s a heavyhanded approach,” she said. “If you’re concerned about any of the wildlife currently living there, you’d do a it in phases, one section at a time, so you don’t disrupt the entire habitat.”

When Collins said the crews were careful not to harm a muskrat den in the area, it sounded absurd to Cooper.

“Muskrats need cover,” Cooper said.

“They just don’t dig holes in bare earth. I’m sure there were many nesting birds in the area, too. I’ll bet they were hurt. Cut it all down at once, and they have nowhere to go.”

Cooper said many of her neighbors are upset that the county did not seek input from the public.

“It seems like they’re making decisions and not asking any of us what we think is important,” she said.

The meadow in question is a key transitional area of the park, between the more developed south end and the forest-like north end. It’s also a natural buffer that filters runoff from a large turf area, where the picnic tables and pavilions are, to the pond.

The ring trail around the park, a key feature for the park’s many users, is also the scene of a never-ending, slow-motion battle with roots from encroaching trees and the ubiquitous willows. Near the picnic pavilions, willow shoots are already poking through the fringes of the pavement, which is less than a year old.

Corkscrew willows grow 10 to 15 feet a year and quickly replace a habitat’s native plant species diversity by forming monoculture groves.

This summer, the county cut down a graceful ring of about a dozen poplar trees between the prairie and the trail, adding to the bank’s bare look and causing more concern among park users. Morgan said the quick-growing trees were nearing the end of their 20-year life span, starting to show signs of decay and causing root damage to the trail.

Collins said that in retrospect, he should have put out some signs a few weeks ahead of time.

“It’s unlikely such a drastic mowing will happen again,” Morgan said.

“We won’t wait 10 years next time,” Morgan said. “As we go, every year or two, we’ll be doing management. If there’s outcrops of woody invasives, we’ll take them out.”

One of Cooper’s specialties at MSU’s Forestry Department is stakeholder engagement. She hopes the county will learn from the outcry and reach out to the park’s users before doing anything drastic in the future.

“We’re a young couple with two young babies,” she said. “We’re pretty new to Lansing. We chose to buy our house right there because the area is so crazy fabulous. I don’t just complain to complain. I love the place.”’