Category Archives: Education

Let’s Pause to Consider…Trees and Other “Kin” on which Our Lives Depend

An old oak at the far eastern end of the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park

Like many of you, I suspect, I have always had great admiration and even a special affection for trees. As a child in a sometimes chaotic family, I found peace and solace sitting high in a hundred year old sugar maple on Lake George Road with my book and a snack. But more recently, writing this blog has brought me time and again to startling new revelations about these giants of the plant world. So I thought in these lingering winter-ish days of early spring, we might take a few minutes to marvel at trees – and plants in general.

Cool Things about Trees that I’ve Explored Before

Mature oaks like the one at Bear Creek’s Center Pond can feed their saplings through the mycorrhizal fungi.

In February of 2017, I shared what I’d learned about the recent scientific work that shows how endless miles of mycorrhizal fungi create a “wood-wide web” beneath forests. Trees benefit from allowing these underground thread-like fungi to pierce or wrap around their roots because the fungi provide them with more nutrients and water than is available through their roots. In fact, the web created by these fungi can reach a soil area up to 700 times larger than a plant’s roots can reach on their own – a huge benefit!  Trees in turn feed these fungi the sugars created by photosynthesis that the fungi need to grow – symbiotic teamwork that benefits both species. Check out this short video for a visual representation of how this relationship takes place. Trees also use this web to feed other trees, including, it is now reported, their own saplings and other trees.

In March of 2017, I explored the many similarities between humans and trees. For example, I marveled that oak, hickory and other trees in a forest somehow coordinate their production of nuts by periodically but irregularly creating huge amounts of them. We call these abundant years “mast years.” One of the hypotheses on mast years is that predators like deer, blue jays, squirrels and such can only eat and store so many nuts in any season. So during mast years when trees produce an abundance, many more nuts are left to start young trees either through being left behind or being “planted” and forgotten by the animals that store them. Tree teamwork!  Scientists have several hypotheses about this phenomenon,  but have not yet reached a consensus on why and how mast years occur.

During a “mast year,” trees like this Bur Oak produce huge quantities of nuts, possibly so that more survive to produce saplings rather then being eaten or stored by birds and animals

Some New Insights on the Ancient History of Trees

Just lately, though, I’ve been exploring some other remarkable aspects of trees, their fungal partners beneath the soil and their relationship with us, the human population. I began by thinking about the evolution of plants in general. According to Scientific American, “The world’s lush profusion of photosynthesizers …owe their existence to a tiny alga eons ago that swallowed a cyanobacteria and turned it into an internal solar power plant.” Voilà, about one billion years ago, algae on the ocean surface could use sunlight and nutrients from the water to grow through photosynthesis. And in the process, they released unneeded oxygen, though not yet enough to change the earth’s atmosphere significantly. Oxygen was still a rare commodity. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

According to Wikipedia’s Evolutionary History of Plants, the first land plants may have evolved about 850 million years ago at the edge of those ancient bodies of water. These early mat-forming plants had no vascular system or roots so it was impossible for them to find a reliable source of water and nutrients on land which was still solid rock. Soil, after all, was created later by decaying plants. So they were either restricted to moist settings as mosses are today, until they developed a waterproof outer layer (or “cuticle”) and other adaptations that allowed them to survive until water was available again.

Modern day mosses function a bit like the first land plants – needing a wet location to survive and reproduce.

According to Plantae, a website founded by the American Society of Plant Biologists, primitive forms of those mycorrhizal fungi may have helped out by attaching themselves to plants and bringing them the inorganic nutrients and water they needed to photosynthesize in their rocky new environment. So the relationship between plants of all kinds and these weblike fungi goes back hundreds of millions of years! Perhaps our very existence, then, is owed to mycorrhizal fungi! Hooray for those ancient mushrooms!

The highly toxic mushrooms on the left below are the reproductive fruiting bodies of Deadly Webcap (Cortinarius rubellus), one of the thousands of species of mycorrhizal  fungi worldwide, some toxic and some not.  On the right, is a photo of one of the fungi from the genus Cortinarius with structural filaments, or hyphae,  beginning to grow out from the roots of a beech or oak to seek out nutrients. [The Deadly Webcap  photo was shared by  iNaturalist photographer, Andrea Aiardi. The photo on the right of the mycorrhizal association between plants roots and fungal hyphae was taken through a microscope and kindly provided by Dr. David Burke of Holden Arboretum in Kirtland, Ohio and is posted with his permission.]

Ancient Plants Living and Dying Made Life Possible for Oxygen-dependent Creatures like Us!

Eventually, around 400 million years ago, some land plants began to develop leaves, roots, and a vascular system which transported water and nutrients. The rigid vascular tissue also allowed plants to grow sturdier and taller. Below is a fossil photo and an artist’s rendering of Cooksonia, an ancient vascular plant group that is now extinct and seen only in fossil remains.

During warm periods, newly developed roots allowed prehistoric plants to take in water and nutrients from the earth, while newly evolved leaves took in carbon dioxide from the air through their stomata, the little mouth-like holes in leaves.

The photosynthesis cycle on which essentially all of our food depends. [At09kg : originalWattcle : vector graphics [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D)
Through photosynthesis, plants converted light energy to chemical energy stored in sugars. They used the sugars to grow larger and reproduce. Oxygen is the other byproduct of photosynthesis, so as leafy trees got larger, they began putting greater amounts of oxygen into the atmosphere and removing larger amounts of carbon. Eons of land-based plant material changed the earth’s atmosphere, making life possible for the oxygen-breathing creatures that evolved millions of years later – including us, of course!

Thank goodness for that algae and cyanobacteria combo a billion years ago! Because of photosynthesis and the new abundance of oxygen in the atmosphere, organisms like mammals and birds with fast metabolisms evolved. A rich diversity of oxygen-loving organisms occupied the earth for millions of years before humans and their predecessors came on the scene.

Trees Still Supporting Life on Earth – including Ours!

The trees we know, love and rely on today – oaks, maples, walnuts and such – first appeared on earth about 65 to 144 million years ago. They blanketed the earth long before modern humans arrived about 30-50,000 years ago. Their leaves, like the ancestral leaves of early plants and trees, are still supplied with chloroplasts stocked with chlorophyll and other light-absorbing pigments from those ancient cyanobacteria; in fact they turn the leaves green by absorbing reds and blues while reflecting the green part of the spectrum. So trees are still  busy storing carbon and sugars while releasing the very oxygen we need to survive.

Many of the trees we know in modern Michigan originally appeared 65-144 million years ago and colonized our  landscape after the last glaciers retreated.

I  learned from a National Geographic article that during  northern hemisphere winters, carbon dioxide builds up in the atmosphere. Once deciduous trees drop their leaves, they temporarily cease their photosynthesis. Check out the fascinating month-by-month NASA video down the page in this article to see the red areas of carbon dioxide in the northern hemisphere during the winter months, December through March. When springs arrives, leaves sprout and a huge number of trees in the northern hemisphere go back to absorbing carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Watch the months June through September on the NASA video and see what I mean!

Carbon dioxide increases above the northern hemisphere in winter when trees are bare and little photosynthesis can occur .

Sadly, trees can’t remove enough carbon dioxide from earth’s atmosphere these days due to human use of fossil fuels, which is releasing huge amounts of stored, compressed carbon from the remains of ancient living organisms, including trees.

Trees as “Kin” We Count on for Survival

The Hickory Lane at Cranberry Lake

In Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, Ulysses tells Achilles, “One touch of Nature makes the whole world kin.” Though Shakespeare meant something quite different, the line occurred to me as I came to a deeper understanding of our intimate, essential connection to trees and other plants as well as our fellow humans. We share the double helix of DNA, after all, with all living organisms – plants as well as animals.

And though it’s the small number of genes that are unique to humans that make us what we are, genome experts say we share a large portion of our DNA with plants. So in a way, trees and plants truly are our “kin!”

What we don’t share is the ability of plants to turn sunlight into sugars, fiber, fruits, nuts, vegetables, grains, etc. Every single thing that we eat to stay alive comes originally from plants (although algae and some other organisms also photosynthesize). Even the meat in our diet comes from animals who survive by eating plants or by eating other animals that eat plants. We depend on plants to feed us and we depend on them for the very oxygen we breathe. Up until the 20th century, trees and other plants could also effectively use or store all the carbon dioxide we and our activities exhaled into the earth’s atmosphere. They still contribute to that process.

Respecting Our Elders…

Foot of a Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum)  in Yosemite National Park, California, a Redwood that can live thousands of years, one of the oldest organisms on the earth

We can’t survive without plants. Yet they survived for millions of years without us. So that encourages me to think that caring for nature isn’t just a matter of loving and enjoying nature or being a good-hearted steward of our “natural resources.” It’s really a matter of enlightened self-interest for our species. Caring for and respecting our “kin” in the natural world that support us and nurture us is simply a matter of our survival,  as well as a joyful activity.

Natural Areas Stewardship 2018 Annual Report

Wow! 2018 was another big year for the Natural Areas Stewardship program. We completed botanical inventories of several small parcels. The Land Preservation Millage was renewed for another 10-year term. Major invasive shrub control projects began at Bear Creek Nature Park, Blue Heron Environmental Area, Charles Ilsley Park, Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie, and Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. Volunteers monitored vernal pools, lakes, and nest boxes. Our fire crew gained experience and was able to complete several burns in the spring. Our planted prairies from 2015 really started to look like prairies in 2018. And the word continued to spread about our natural areas stewardship program and the wonderful, consistent support from our township residents. What fun! Check out the highlights of the year below, or read the full 2018 Annual Stewardship Report. (Click link to view). The table of contents in the PDF is hyperlinked to help you navigate the report.

Volunteer Program

Volunteers contributed 1212 hours in 2018! Weekly bird walks continued, gathering useful data about avian life in the park and engaging residents. Volunteer workdays focused on garlic mustard (May), invasive shrub control (July to November), and seed collecting (October). Volunteers also monitored nest boxes at Draper Twin Lake Park, Charles Ilsley Park, and the Paint Creek Trail; monitored vernal pools at Bear Creek Nature Park; and monitored water quality at Lost Lake and Twin Lake. We had fun at summer and winter potlucks and the December birder coffee hour!

Volunteers Seed Cleaning
Volunteers in various stages of seed cleaning in December 2018.

The nest box monitoring program was made possible by volunteer Tom Korb, who built, helped install, and  Charles Ilsley Park, Draper Twin Lake Park, and the Paint Creek Trail. We enjoyed watching bluebirds and tree swallows nesting in these new boxes!

Tree Swallows DPTL

Prairie Restoration with USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife Grants

After planting 55 acres of prairie reconstructions in 2015 and 2016, we completed our third round of plantings in 2018. Using our second Partners grant, we planted an additional 15 acres at Charles Ilsley Park and 3 acres at Gallagher Creek Park in May 2018. We continued maintenance of areas planted in 2015 and 2016, working to give native plants the upper hand during the critical establishment phase.

Eastern Prairie Ilsley July
Eastern Prairie at Charles Isley Park on July 12, 2018.

Prescribed Burns

We contracted with Plantwise LLC for spring burns at Cranberry Lake Park(40.4 ac), Lost Lake Nature Park (24.6 ac), and Paint Creek Heritage Area—Wet Prairie (9 ac). We also worked with private landowners to burn 13.1 acres of habitat adjacent to the Paint Creek Trail right-of-way, including high quality oak savanna, prairie remnants, and fen wetland. We held volunteer prescribed burn crew training again in February. The volunteer crew completed burns at Bear Creek Nature Park (23 ac), Charles Ilsley Park (1 ac), Draper Twin Lake Park (9.4 ac), Watershed Ridge Park (2.4 ac), and Paint Creek Trail at Gunn Road (0.4 ac).

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Volunteers assist with a prescribed burn at Bear Creek Nature Park in April 2018.

Stewardship Blog

The stewardship blog continued to thrive, with regular posts from Cam Mannino. She regularly highlighted cool features across all of our parks, all with excellent writing and photographs. The blog also continued to serve as an up-to-date source of information about stewardship volunteer opportunities and events. We published 45 posts and had 6233 visitors, with 11,744 page views.

 

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Education Events

Stewardship talks included presentations on native bees, rain gardens, prescribed fire, emerging invasive species, bird nest box monitoring, and oak wilt. We enjoyed a pleasant April evening at our annual Woodcock Watch at Cranberry Lake Park.

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Sarah (right) and Cam exploring nature at Charles Ilsley Park, August 15, 2018.

Phragmites Outreach Program

We continued the Phragmites Outreach Program to help township residents get Phragmites treated on their property. We received about 32 requests for no-obligation cost estimates, and treated about 25 properties with a contractor, PLM Lake and Land Management.

PhragmitesText
Phragmites does not recognize property boundaries! Catch your Phragmites while it is small and easy to control for the best results.

Seasonal Technicians

Billy Gibala returned to our crew through June. He graduated from University of Michigan-Flint in 2017 with a degree in wildlife biology and minors in regional and urban planning, We welcomed Alyssa Radzwion to the crew. She graduated from Oakland University in December 2016 with a Bachelor’s degree in biology, and had previous experience working for the Michigan DNR stewardship crew. Katlyn Hilmer recently graduated from State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, where she focused on forestry work. Sarah Rosche joined the crew in July after completing her Master’s, studying the effects of fire on Northern Bobwhite nesting ecology and habitat selection. We had a great crew with diverse experiences!

2018 Stewardship Crew
2018 Stewardship Crew (L-R): Ben VanderWeide, Alex Kriebel, Katlyn Hilmer, Billy Gibala, and Alyssa Radzwion. Sarah Rosche is not pictured. Photo by Carol Kasprzak.

All of our annual reports can be found on the About page.

Attention Anglers! A Menace to Rivers May Be Hitching a Ride!

nz mudsnail by kate mccombs cc by-nc (1)
The very tiny and very invasive New Zealand Mud Snail, photo by Kate MCCombs (CC BY-NC)

Meet the New Zealand Mud Snail (Potamopyrgus antipodarum), a very problematic, tiny snail (up to  only 1/8th of an inch!) which is one of the latest invasive species to begin changing the Great Lakes ecosystem.

Cam in red winter coat BC
Text by Cam Mannino

At a recent Oakland Township Stewardship Presentation, Emily Bovee and Kennedy Phillips of the Aquatic Ecology Lab at Oakland University shared their extensive knowledge and research on this hitchhiking snail that’s begun infesting Michigan rivers and lakes. The program was quite an education! Here’s a brief overview of some of the information they presented.

Please note that the photos in this blog were generously shared by photographers from iNaturalist.org and by the researchers at Oakland University. Names and permissions are listed in the captions on their photos. 

Michigan’s Problem with Invasive Species

Our state is surrounded by the Great Lakes, which hold 20% of the world’s freshwater. Unfortunately, it is also now home to 180 non-native species.  How do these species get here?

  • Waterway connections, e.g., the Sea Lamprey arrived through the St. Lawrence Seaway.
  • Released pets and aquarium water.
  • Aquaculture – the movement of fish or eggs from commercial fisheries may have brought the mud snail originally. The transport of exotic water plants can do it, too.
  • Ballast water in ships can harbor them. For example, the invasive Zebra Mussel (Dreissena polymorpha) arrived this way and perhaps the New Zealand Mud Snail as well.
  • Boats, other watercraft and recreational activity can spread the unwelcome New Zealand Mud Snail from river to river, river to lake.

The problem with invasive species is that, once established, they alter the very environment in which our native creatures have lived for thousands of years. Often, for instance, they eat the food on which on our native species depend. By doing that, they can cause local extinctions and generally make the ecosystem less healthy, less able to adapt. Some, like the Quagga (Dreissena bugensis) and Zebra Mussels contribute to the creation of toxic dead zones caused by  huge algae blooms that use up all the available oxygen in the water. What a mess!

Now We’re Dealing with the New Zealand Mud Snail

Benson, A.J., R.M. Kipp, J. Larson, and A. Fusaro, 2019, Potamopyrgus antipodarum: U.S. Geological Survey, Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database, Gainesville, FL

This very tiny menace is called a “mud snail” because it hides buried in the mud during the day and emerges at night to feed. It feeds on algae, decomposing leaves, or wood that falls into the water. As a result, mud snails live in areas where the current slows and plant material is deposited. That, of course, is also a place where anglers frequently find the fish they are seeking!

Mud Snails Reproduce by Cloning Like Crazy!

sea-kangaroo cc by-nc-nd (1)
New Zealand Mud Snails are tiny and clone themselves into huge densities. Photo by sea-kangaroo (CC BY-NC-ND)

Although New Zealand Mud Snails are both male and female in their native range, the ones here in North America are all females – and they can clone like crazy! In fact, DNA analysis indicates that the millions of mud snails already in the U.S. originated from as few as three females! These snails produce live young about every 2-4 months and can produce over 200 hundred in one year, and each of those can produce 200 more – and well, you see the problem. The Oakland University researchers have found colonies of 30,000 in a square meter (about 10 square feet) in the Au Sable River, Michigan’s internationally known trout stream. In the western United States, where the snails have existed since 1987, researchers find 500,000 in a square meter!

Tough Competitors Who Can Survive Almost Anything!

These are tough little females! New Zealand Mud Snails are fresh water snails, but can tolerate salty water, and survive excessive heat and winter ice. They thrive in disturbed areas and survive floods better than other snails by burrowing into the mud. They attach themselves quickly to boats, anchors, waders, and fishing equipment for transportation to other lakes – as well using pets and wildlife like the legs of wading birds.  Mud snails can live out of water for up to two weeks by closing their shells. And they can even survive traveling through the innards of fish or birds and make it out alive 50-80% of the time! We are talking about a tough competitor here in our waterways!

And Mud Snails Can Be Devastating

Emily Bovee and Kennedy Phillips studying New Zealand Mud Snails in the Au Sable River, photo by Jeremy Geist
Emily Bovee and Kennedy Phillips, researchers from Oakland University,  studying the presence of New Zealand Mud Snails in the Au Sable River

There’s evidence that trout in the Au Sable River eat New Zealand Mud Snails, but they can’t get much nourishment from them. Their shells are too hard for most fish to crush or digest. Hence the nutrients in them don’t nourish fish like native snails or other macroinvertebrates in a river would. And to add more injury, these snails eat the very organic matter on which our native species depend, the species which efficiently nourish fish and other creatures.  New Zealand Mud Snails, for example, eat the most tender parts of algae, but leave the less palatable parts for other aquatic creatures. Thanks a lot!

What to Do? Practical Steps to Prevent Hitchhikers

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The size of New Zealand Mud Snails means they can be easily missed on equipment! Photo by Tim Quinnell (CC-BY-NC)

Sadly, as is often the case with invasive species, there is no hope of ever eliminating these minute snails. They have no natural predators in North America. And if we tried to physically remove them but missed even one, we’d have hundreds of thousands again in a matter of years as the creatures clone and clone again.

So the goal now is to all pull together and STOP THEIR SPREAD! Here’s where you come in. The Oakland University researchers made these recommendations:

  • Clean, Drain and Dry All Boats, Watercraft and their Trailers – You’ll need to drain them for 24 hours before you go to another water system. Drain your live well, your bilge and dry your motor. Remember! These snails are tiny and easily missed! Look carefully!
  • Clean Your Waders, Nets, etc.  Go away from the water’s edge (near your car for instance) and spray your gear liberally with Formula 409, which right now is the only substance found to kill 100 % of these little critters. Don’t get any 409 in the water system! The surfactant that makes it work on the snails is lethal to many creatures. Be sure to brush/scour the soles of your boots or waders. Rinse the equipment with water, dry them, and wait 24 hours before going into another stream. Again, remember to check carefully for these tiny snails!
  • Educate Others about These Procedures – Spread the word to other people in your life who fish. These snails prefer rivers where sunlight can reach the mud and grow algae. But they have been found in lakes as well, since rivers, of course, empty into lakes. Anglers can’t protect our waterways if they don’t really understand the dangers associated with these snails.
  • Volunteer to Help – You can provide a water sample from a river in which you fish and submit it easily to the Aquatic Ecology Lab.  Find out how by emailing Emily Bovee, one of the researchers from O. (See the researchers’ emails below.)  A DNA test can discover whether mud snails are present in the waterways where you fish or boat. That helps researchers know where to do their work and allows conservationists to offer information on local signage and to strategically locate cleaning kiosks for fishing gear.

It’s Not Fun to Think about Invasive Species…but We Really Need To Do It. 

Ausable River by Jeremy Geist
Au Sable River, photo by Jeremy Geist

I will readily admit that learning about invasive species is not as uplifting as learning about the restoration of forests, prairies and native species in general.   Non-native species often end up dominating the landscape and thereby diminishing the rich diversity of our natural areas.  And often the story of invasives does not have a clear ending, much less a happy one.  For though we can work at controlling them, in many cases, we will never be entirely rid of them.  

It seems that our best hope is to get educated about  invasive species and then pass on that understanding to others in the hope that we can dramatically limit the damage that they  do.   We can participate in citizen science projects.  We can choose to be informed and careful about inadvertently spreading invasive plants, fungi or creatures when we garden, fish, hike or choose our pets.  We can plant and nurture native flowers, grasses and trees. Seems do-able, doesn’t it?  In fact, we’re already doing it here in Oakland Township through our stewardship program.  And really,  it seems like the least we can do to honor the diverse beauty and generosity of the natural areas which have supported us for thousands of years.  

Need More Information?

Water sample kit, photo by Emily Bovee, OU researcher
A water sample kit to determine whether NZ Mud Snails are in the rivers you fish. Photo by Jeremy Geist.

To participate in DNA water sampling, contact the research team at Oakland University’s Aquatic Ecology Lab by contacting Oakland University researcher Emily Bovee  at this email address:  enbovee@oakland.edu.

As well as attending the excellent workshop, I found these two websites very useful.

Stewardship Talk this Thursday: Monarch Butterfly Ecology and Conservation

For our second Stewardship Talk of 2019 we are excited to host Dr. Nate Haan from Michigan State University for his talk, “Monarch Butterfly Ecology and Conservation.” The talk is free and will be this Thursday, February 7, 2019 at 6:30 pm at the Paint Creek Cider Mill, 4480 Orion Road, Rochester, MI 48306. Dr. Haan will share about monarch butterfly natural history and ecology, as well as some of the current research on their decline and what we can do to save them.

Monarch butterfly resting on a black-eyed susan.

Monarch butterflies are one of the most interesting and recognizable insects in the world. Every year they migrate thousands of miles, from our backyards in Michigan to mountains in central Mexico. They also have fascinating interactions with their toxic milkweed host plants. Unfortunately, monarchs have declined in recent decades and the overwintering population in Mexico is only around 20% of its former size.

The head of this monarch caterpillar is at the bottom as it nibbles buds of butterfly milkweed.

Hope to see you there!

We’re Hiring! Join Our 2019 Natural Areas Stewardship Crew

Despite the wintry conditions outside, we are already gearing up for our 2019 field season! We’re excited to be outside in warmer weather again, taking care of the natural areas in our park. If this sounds fun to you, or someone you know, let them know that we’re accepting applications for our 2019 seasonal Land Stewardship Technician crew! We are accepting applications until February 15, and we have up to 3 positions available. See the full job description here.

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This position is a great way to get some hands-on experience with natural areas management. Technicians will get experience with a variety of techniques for monitoring, invasive species treatment, installing native plantings, data management, and species ID. The position will be up to 20 weeks this year. After working for Oakland Township Parks our stewardship technicians have gone on to other natural resources positions, many of them full-time.

Anticipated start date is mid-April to early May, but somewhat flexible. Position would end on or before September 28, 2019. Typically work 40 hours/week Monday to Friday, with occasional weekends or evenings for special events.

To Apply:  Submit cover letter, resume, and three professional references to Ben VanderWeide, Natural Areas Stewardship Manager:

  • Email: bvanderweide@oaklandtownship.org, with “Seasonal Land Stewardship Technician Application” in the subject line.
  • Mail: Seasonal Land Stewardship Technician Application
Oakland Township Parks and Recreation
4393 Collins Road
Rochester, MI  48306

Cover letter, resume, and professional references must be received no later than February 15, 2019. For more information visit the Parks and Recreation page of the Oakland Township website, www.oaklandtownship.org, or contact Ben VanderWeide, Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Oakland Township Parks and Recreation, at bvanderweide@oaklandtownship.org, 248-651-7810 ext 401.