If you strike out on the North Country Trail northwest of Marquette in the Michigamme Highlands, your path winds through dense forests and past million-year-old rock formations in Wilderness Lakes Reserve.

Your boots will crunch down a section of the trail that passes through a 6,000-acre Nature Conservancy reserve—one of the most beautiful and rugged in the state, home to 26 lakes and 1,000 acres of wetlands. It’d be tempting to want to protect it, fence it off, never change a leaf.

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“The Wilderness Lakes property was privately owned prior to our acquisition,” explains Kari Marciniak, director of strategic communication for The Nature Conservancy in Michigan. “The opportunity for us to put it into protection was appealing, because there’s such an unknown with the timber industry up there.”

Since The Nature Conservancy acquired the site in 2017, it has been steadily working to restore the forest by several methods, including one which may surprise: selective harvesting of timber.

Why save it from the timber industry just to head in and do more cutting? To restore diversity and balance—both in age and species—to the forest, Marciniak explains. The sugar maple was so highly prized, for example, that it was cultivated and allowed to flourish, but it means many forests have developed a monoculture. The harvesting opens the forest canopy, allowing other species to thrive. “People don’t want to think about cutting trees,” she says, “but you walk through after a selective harvest and it’s hard to tell someone’s been there.”

The Nature Conservancy’s mission encompasses four distinct areas: protecting land and water; tackling climate change; providing food and water in sustainable ways (such as restoring fisheries and protecting soil); and building healthy cities to provide habitats for wildlife and health for humans.

Wilderness Lakes fulfills many of those missions, beyond just land protection. “Forests are the lungs of our natural systems, and we want them to be diverse, healthy and resilient to climate change,” Marciniak says. “There are big challenges ahead of us. Fortunately we’ve laid out a road map and we do think a better future is possible.”

Learn more at nature.org.

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