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Au Sable Teams with Michigan DNR and Private Energy to Reforest Abandoned Oil Pads

May 20, 2015

Since the 1970s, northern lower Michigan has been a region of intense exploration for and recovery of oil and natural gas, placing wells on private, state, and federal lands.  A number of these well sites have been abandoned.  Efforts to revegetate the sites have had mixed results.  In a joint effort to study and find solutions to this problem, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), various private energy companies, and the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies have entered into a collaborative effort to conduct research on some of these well pads designed to identify the site treatment methods and tree species that will work best for intentional reforestation. This study hopes to answer the question relative to what factors are necessary to insure an initial vegetative cover while discouraging invasive species and promoting the potential for return to original native cover type.

Fred Van Dyke, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Au Sable Institute, developed an experimental design for studying oil pad reforestation, with input from MDNR foresters, wildlife biologists, and administrators, that will permit evaluation of four different management treatments (disking, fertilizing, disking and fertilizing, and no treatment) on four different tree species (red oak, white oak, jack pine, and red pine), creating the ability to evaluate 16 different treatment-species options on a select group of experimental sites. From April 2015, when management treatments will be applied and trees planted, through summer 2019, Van Dyke and students of the Au Sable Institute will monitor the growth rates and survivorship of each tree species under each treatment regime, while at the same time studying the response of understory vegetation (grasses and wildflowers) in each treatment over time. Invasive species control, primarily aimed at reducing infestations of leafy spurge and spotted knapweed, will also be applied on the abandoned well pads, which, in an unmanaged state, often become heavily infested with these invaders.

Site selection and administrative oversight of the study will be provided by the MDNR, with funding contributed by various private energy companies which extract oil and natural gas in northern Michigan. Cynthia Watson, Property Specialist in Minerals Management for the MDNR, who has been the agency’s lead official in developing arrangements for the study, looks forward to beginning this important investigation, noting “I applaud Dr. Van Dyke’s involvement and expertise in designing the research study necessary to potentially solve the revegetation problems facing our land managers and industry at these former sites.  I am hopeful that the results of this study will provide DNR foresters and our oil and gas industry partners with better guidance for successful vegetative restoration of these areas in the future.”  The idea of the study was originally proposed by Jerry Grieve, Forester and Land Use Resource Analyst for the MDNR’s Kalkaska Field Office.  Fred Van Dyke added, “We at Au Sable see this study as becoming an outstanding example of adaptive management by the MDNR, using current management decisions in the form of a scientific experiment to inform future management decisions. The things we will learn from this study can make major contributions to reforestation from many kinds of disturbances on state forests, and will be a great opportunity for our students at Au Sable to be engaged in original research with high value for conservation.”

The road to discovering the answers to questions of reforesting abandoned oil pads still lies ahead, to be paved with perseverance and hard work over the next five years, but all those involved, the Au Sable Institute, the MDNR, and the energy industry look forward to a productive collaboration to answer this important question.