Michigan embracing forest conservation roots

The North Higgins Lake State Park history area includes the Civilian Conservation Corps Museum and several original buildings that were used by workers at the Higgins Lake Nursery. (Michigan DNR)

In 1903, a team of workers under the direction of newly appointed State Forest Warden Filibert Roth pondered the stump-ridden, sandy terrain on the north shore of Higgins Lake, south of Grayling in Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula.

Once a thriving old-growth forest, the nearly barren landscape had suffered from aggressive lumbering and a series of fires in the late 19th century. The workers’ job was to replant the forest.

The Michigan Legislature had just established the Michigan Forestry Commission and given it authority to create the state’s first tree nursery and forest reserve.

Within a year, Roth and his workers had planted 43 pounds of seed, representing 12 different pine species.

It was an experimental venture.

Nonetheless, more than 600,000 seedlings were thriving in 1904 and, by 1906, Roth’s team had successfully cultivated 27 species of trees. Twenty years later, the nursery was shipping 22 million seedlings across the state and nation every year, and the new forest was growing.

Roosevelt’s Tree Army

Reforestation was hard, manual labor in those days, and in 1933, a new labor force arrived on the scene – the Civilian Conservation Corps.

A New Deal program created during the Great Depression by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the CCC employed young men in many public-works projects, including “the prevention of forest fires, floods, soil erosion, plant, pest and disease control.”

The legislation creating the Civilian Conservation Corps was approved by Congress in just four days. Roosevelt signed the bill March 31; the first camp – Camp Roosevelt – opened in Virginia April 3.

By July 1, the CCC initiative had put 274,375 young men, aged 17 to 25, to work in more than 1,300 camps across the nation, improving state and national forests. Eventually, there would be 2,650 camps scattered all over the country.

From firefighting to tree planting to building roads, bridges and parks, “Roosevelt’s Tree Army” was a dynamic force upon the countryside. By December 1933, the corps was involved in 60 different lines of activity.

DNR Parks and Recreation Division Chief Ron Olson said remnants of Michigan Civilian Conservation Corps continue to work on state park stewardship projects.


To mark the 115th anniversary of the tree nursery and the 85th anniversary of the CCC, the Michigan History Center and other divisions within the Michigan DNR are working together to better tell the story of natural resources conservation in this part of the state.

These efforts began last summer, when the DNR completed work on a 2-mile segment of Michigan’s Iron Belle Trail at North Higgins Lake State Park.

Plans are in place to connect the trail to an existing fitness trail on the CCC Museum grounds this summer, and eventually to extend it north. Named the “Cradle of Forestry,” the trail will feature new and enhanced interpretive signs that share the area’s forest history with visitors.

Michigan History Center staff is currently developing new signage for the museum’s nursery buildings, with the goal of sharing more of the site’s 115-year history. The new signs will be installed in time for the museum’s seasonal opening on May 5.

For CCC Museum visitor information, go to www.michigan.gov/cccmuseum. A programming schedule will be available in late spring.

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