Meet Cassie: The Girl Who Never Gives Up

We’re excited to welcome our 2022 seasonal stewardship crew! Camryn Brent, Cassie Stitzman, and Emma Campbell joined us in the last few weeks and will be out in the parks doing much-needed ecological restoration work until the end of the summer. This week Cassie Stitzman shares her introduction. Her enthusiasm and excitement are contagious! Drop a comment to help us welcome her to Oakland Township.
-Ben

Hello! My name is Cassie Stitzman and I am an Oakland Township Land Stewardship Technician for the summer. This is my very first field season! I’m excited to be part of the Oakland Township Parks and Recreation team and I am grateful for the opportunity. I am thrilled to work with people that are passionate about preserving ecosystems and meeting people in the community.

Me in a small field of Golden Ragwort at Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie

Growing up, I loved animals and was fascinated with their abilities to survive in the wilderness. I loved watching Meerkat Manor, reading wildlife books, and taking hikes in nearby natural areas. As I got older, I realized that there are a variety of careers in wildlife conservation. I graduated from Schoolcraft Community College with an Associate’s in Science in May 2020. During my time there I tried, again and again, to gain experience to no avail. Despite my discouragement, I didn’t give up and continued my search for conservation opportunities. My search led me to work at a dog daycare for two years and volunteering at a wildlife sanctuary.

Me holding a painted turtle at Bear Creek Nature Park

To continue my quest, I am currently pursuing my Bachelor’s in Fisheries and Wildlife Management at Northern Michigan University (NMU). At NMU, I was excited to gain new experiences and meet people with my same passion for wildlife. I joined the NMU Fisheries and Wildlife Association, a student club filled with other enthusiastic people. This club means so much to me and has given me many opportunities to gain experience. I’ve met new people, done camera trapping, and attended the 82nd Midwest Fisheries and Wildlife Conference.

During my first NMU semester, I tried to become an officer for Winter 2022, but was not elected. I reran to be an officer for Fall 2022, and I’m pleased to say that I’ve been voted as secretary for Fall 2022. I am so excited to give back to the club with new experiences, projects, and additional opportunities. I’m also assisting a grad student with research by sorting through a large data set of red fox images from iNaturalist. This data will be used to determine how red fox distribution may be influenced by environmental factors. I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve made, and I look forward to more!

Jack-in-the-pulpit found at Bear Creek, my favorite plant so far!

These endless opportunities fuel me with excitement and indecisiveness! Every position I encounter appeals to my interest and passion for conservation, and every time I learn about a new area of study I become instantly fascinated by it. Career areas that are exceptionally interesting to me are invasive species management, endangered species protection, and human-wildlife conflict. I don’t know what exactly I want to be, I just know that I want to contribute to conservation.

So far at Oakland Township Parks, I have enjoyed every second of my time here. From getting rained down on while hunting for garlic mustard, from spreading seed in the heat, and from seeing the beautiful wildlife on habitat restoration adventures. I love being outside, no matter what the conditions are. I love the challenge of being in difficult weather and I love the peace a cool, partly cloudy day can bring. I love coming into work everyday knowing that I am contributing to the wellbeing of the parks!

So far on my journey, I’ve learned that failure should only be motivation to strive farther and work harder. Never give up on your dreams, they just might come true!

Meet Camryn: My Journey to Stewardship

We’re excited to welcome our 2022 seasonal stewardship crew! Camryn Brent, Cassie Stitzman, and Emma Campbell joined us in the last few weeks and will be out in the parks doing much-needed ecological restoration work until the end of the summer. Since starting they’ve been busy completing training, pulling garlic mustard, and getting ready for the season. Camryn Brent shares her introduction in this post, so keep reading to learn about the unique background and skills she brings to our team. Look for posts from Cassie and Emma soon. Drop a comment to help us welcome them to Oakland Township!

-Ben

When people ask me how I became interested in conservation work I usually give a simple shrug and say I always felt drawn to animals. My oldest core memory was driving with my mom down Woodard to the Detroit Zoo, strapped in a car seat. My siblings were older, so when they were away at school my mom would take me to the zoo whenever she could. About twice a week, whenever my mom wasn’t running errands, we would steal away to our favorite place. 

Oddly, I don’t remember actually being at the zoo that well. Instead, I vividly remember feeling uncertain looking out the window at the urban landscape. I didn’t understand the contrast from the animals in the zoo to the cement roads and store fronts. A lot of my childhood I spent in my head playing out a life in the animated world of Disney’s Lion King. I felt safer in my head then staring out an alien landscape, devoid of my beloved African animals. 

Young me staring wistfully out of the car window as the world flew by

As I grew older, I began to piece together an understanding that people and animals often didn’t coexist because of the ways of human civilization. I still loved animals, but my ingenuous wonder at the natural world was pushed down. In high school I remained environmentally driven, which led me to enroll in the Fisheries and Wildlife major at Michigan State University. My first year away, my 18-year-old self broke down and I considered dropping out.

After that horrible first year I knew I couldn’t spend a summer at home or else I would never go back. I enrolled in two semesters of summer classes at Kellogg Biological Station (KBS). There I began to rebuild myself into the conservationist I am today. Surrounded by a community of ecologists, with most of class time spent in natural areas, I became acquainted with organisms I had originally relegated to background noise. Plants, insects, birds, and even mushrooms became new friends. Through the iNaturalist app, I could call them by a name. 

Spending time with a patch of Wild Lupine while attending KBS

When autumn rolled around, I realized I felt clear headed for the first time in my life. I felt a connection to the land and all the living things that inhabited it alongside me. Most importantly, I realized that people can be stewards to the land. That people could curate biodiversity around them, not just destroy it. I have been riding on a sense of wonder and hope ever since that summer. It’s now been a year since I graduated from undergrad and three years since my time at KBS. 

I am currently back living at home with my parents and my fourteen-pound cat, Billy. I view metro Detroit a lot differently then when I grew up. I enjoy learning about the land pre-European arrival, and also about the bustling city my great grandparents immigrated to. I like to listen to the history of both the people and land, and try to foster a healthier future with both in mind. I’ve come a long way from the little girl without a sense of place, yet I’ve retained my curiosity and awe towards nature. I now know I will always find community as long as there are natural spaces to explore.

Current me on a prescribed burn at Paint Creek Heritage Area -Wet Prairie along the Paint Creek Trail

Since I’ve begun working at Oakland Township, I have been able to appreciate the natural areas stewardship program’s ability to create a common wealth of folks, old and young, ready to learn and take action. With my past seasonal experiences, I realized that restoration and management efforts suffer without the backbone of the public volunteers and nearby residents. For this reason, I am grateful for the opportunity to work with a township that engages its residents in long-term safeguarding of its natural areas.

Hope to see you on the trails!

Three Years of Habitat Restoration Progress in Our Parks!!

As the fall winds down and winter begins to show, I’ve had time to reflect on my time here at Oakland Township Parks & Recreation. So many things have changed during my three years here: crews have come and gone, invasive species have been removed only to pop up in other places, and areas once degraded are being restored to beautiful natural areas. I would love to tell stories of all the big projects we have completed, but I won’t be able to fit them all in one post. So I’d like to show you how several of our projects have changed over time. Check back to learn more about the other projects we have going on!

Bear Creek Nature Park

Bear Creek Nature Park has consistently been one of my favorite parks to both work in and hike in. The variety of ecosystems that can be seen there means there is always something interesting to see. During my time here one of the biggest changes that have happened is the restoration of the park’s northern area. When I started it had just been forestry mowed, so it was very bare and (I’ll admit) rather ugly. However, through several years of spot treating invasive shrubs and spreading native seeds, this once ugly area has been restored to native plants, with lush sedges, grasses, and native forbs (wildflowers) sprinkled throughout. We hope that the diversity of plants and animals in this area continues to increase over the next couple of years.

We control woody invasive shrubs throughout our parks. One of our highest priorities over the past few years has been the northern wetland at Bear Creek. A few years ago the perimeter of this wetland was a dense thicket of glossy buckthorn and autumn olive. After numerous workdays in partnership with Six Rivers Land Conservancy, we have managed to take out a good chunk of the shrubs. While this project is not yet complete, the progress that has been made will allow native species to start to retake the area lost to the invasive shrubs. Our goal over the next few years is to finish removing invasive shrubs along the wetland perimeter and continue the process of re-introducing native plants.

Draper Twin Lake Park

If you frequent Draper Twin Lake Park, you would have noticed that behind the parking lot on the west side last year was nothing more than a dense patch of bittersweet and other invasive woody shrubs, so thick one could only see in about 10 feet. After some intense forestry mowing last fall and winter, seeding native grasses, and spot treating invasive shrubs this summer, what was once a dense thicket is now an open field with scattered trees. You can now see the lake from the top of the hill on the trail, something unheard of two years ago! This project is still in the early stages of restoration. Over the next couple of years, we will continue invasive species treatment and spreading native seeds to help establish a diverse plant community there. We hope that the results are similar to the northern section of Bear Creek Nature Park.

Gallagher Creek Park

We’ve launched several projects during my time at Gallagher Creek Park. I’d first like to highlight the native garden beds behind the playground. This was actually one of the first things that I did during my time at Oakland Township. It started off as nothing more than a dream to create a space that is both beautiful and educational for kids and parents alike. When we first put the beds in with the help of many volunteers, the plants seemed very sparse and spread out. I had my doubts about how well this would turn out. But boy was I wrong! The beds are now full and lush with an abundance of native species, including wildflowers like golden alexanders, wild lupine, and milkweed, and grass and sedge species like little bluestem, Carex brevior, and Carex muskingumensis. We were even able to collect seeds from the native plants this year!

Another project that we have been working on for years is the Phragmites within the park. What started off as major infestations that were threatening to take over all the wetlands of the park, are now reduced to nothing more than a few small stands. These stands have been treated for several years now with some patches completely eradicated. We take such a hard-lined approach to Phragmites because of their potential to take over and completely out-compete native vegetation in an area. It’s easier to stay on top of them with regular treatment of a few small stems than huge treatment projects every few years.

Paint Creek Heritage Area – Fen

Unless you know where to look, one might easily be able to pass by this little parcel of land along the Paint Creek Trail between Adams Road and Gunn Road. Within this half-acre of land is a beautiful fen ecosystem. Over the years many of the fen plants have been choked out by a dense stand of non-native cattails, which often invade wetlands when nutrient levels increase. So, throughout my time here, we have painstakingly treated each cattail stem to ensure that we kill it while preserving the good fen species below. While being an incredibly labor-intensive project, it has resulted in most of the cattails dying back. The goal of this project is to open space for many more native specialist fen species to re-establish.

More Change Coming!

Writing this post has given me a unique and amazing opportunity to look back on these last three years here at Oakland Township Parks & Recreation. During my time here I have been able to be a part of so many different projects, each project shaping the future of the parks. Whether it was removing invasive species or planting native ones, I have truly enjoyed seeing the progress that has been made and cannot wait to see what happens to some of the other big projects we are working on right now.

A Great Field Season, and an Even Better Crew!

As we welcome the cooler weather, changing of the leaves, and pumpkin spice lattes, we have to say goodbye to our natural areas stewardship summer crew. From early April through the end of September the crew has been hard at work completing many projects that were given to them. These projects included pulling garlic mustard, control of woody invasive species, treatment of crown vetch and swallow wort, and the treatment of Phragmites. (If you would like to learn more about what we did, check out the excellent stewardship blog posts that the crew wrote this summer!) This list just barely scratches the surface of what they were able to accomplish. Without their hard work and dedication to land stewardship, we wouldn’t have accomplished as many projects this summer. The crew helped keep the natural areas in our parks beautiful and healthy.

Katri will be pursuing her master’s degree from Oakland University this upcoming winter, studying aquatic ecology. Parker is working on applying to graduate school this fall and trying to continue to gain experience in the ecology field. Finally, Max will be returned to Michigan State for his junior year to continue pursuing his degree in crop and soil science.

We truly appreciate all of their hard work, curiosity about the world around them, and positive attitudes this summer! Their contributions to our parks will be seen for years to come as we continue work into the winter and next summer. We want to wish them the best of luck in their next endeavors. We will miss you guys!

Ben, Katri, Parker, Grant, and Max (left to right)

Thinning Trees to Preserve and Restore Oak Woodland and Savanna Habitat

Have you ever wandered across a tree missing a ring of bark and wondered what was creating the ring and why? I too had these questions and they remained unanswered until I began performing the task as an Oakland Township Natural Areas Stewardship Technician. I learned that removing a complete ring of bark around a tree stem is called girdling, and it is used in Oakland Township’s natural areas to selectively phase out invasive trees by stripping off their nutrient pathways.

As deforestation awareness and efforts to plant trees continue to increase, girdling may register as counterintuitive. However, we girdle specific trees, and only in areas we are restoring to historic oak savanna or prairie communities. Lost Lake Nature Park, Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie, and Bear Creek Nature Park contain these historic communities so we are focusing our girdling and restoration efforts this summer in these natural areas.

Although red maple and basswood are native to Michigan, they are quite damaging to the historic oak communities. These trees grow so abundantly that their dense stands take up the real estate, nutrients, and light that fire-dependent, light-loving understory plants require. In the dense shade under red maple it is very rare to find any young oak trees. At Lost Lake Nature Park red maples outnumbered the old growth oak trees 12:1!

In Oakland Township’s natural areas we use a low-cost, low-impact girdling tool composed of a metal handle and arched blade to strip the trees bark, phloem (sugar transport highway) and vascular cambium (cells that produce phloem and xylem) from the trunk. This tool is quite simple and easy to use, but you can also girdle with chainsaws and hatchets if you don’t have a special girdling tool.

As the girdled trees defoliate and phase out, the sun’s rays reach plants like poke milkweed, harebell and whorled loosestrife, providing the essential energy to thrive. Many other oak savanna and prairie specialist plants are either lying dormant in the soil as seeds, or holding out as small plants until the ideal light conditions are created. For example: hoary puccoon, a rare and high quality plant began to flower at Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie when the canopy was thinned! Furthermore, there’s an abundance of small huckleberry and blueberry at Lost Lake Nature Park patiently waiting for an opened tree canopy to reach their full potential. I am very excited to revisit the areas we girdled in a couple years to see what new plants are claiming space in these beautiful communities.

Opening up the tree canopy and conducting occasional prescribed burns are important practices of Oakland Township’s restoration efforts, helping to reinvigorate our diverse and tightly knit natural communities. The landscape of southeast Michigan was maintained by the Anishinaabe people for thousands of years. This culturally related group of indigenous people inhabited much of the Great Lakes region and lived with the land through with a deep relationship and knowledge of its beautiful natural communities. Through cultural practices like prescribed burns and sustainable harvesting, the Anishinaabe maintained these unique oak communities. Now, after more than 200 years of degradation, we are doing our best to restore them and acknowledge the original stewards of the land.