Michigan School District, After Budget Cuts, Plans to Cut 200-Year-Old Trees for Timber

The superintendent of a cash-strapped Michigan school district is defending a proposal to cut down giant trees on its grounds to help fill an $800,000 budget deficit, a move that is rankling some residents.

Some community members have called for the protection of the trees, some of which may be 200 years old, saying the trees in the DeWitt Nature Center should not be cut down for money.

But Dewitt, Mich., Superintendent John Deiter said the proposal, which would net a profit of $43,000, is not just about money, saying some of the trees that may be cut are dead or dying, though the money would assist the drowning school district.

"Nobody called me last year when we were cutting positions," Deiter said of the public's attention to the trees.

He said the school district is hoping not to cut any more jobs after continuous budget cuts from the state. The school district, which is located nine miles north of Lansing in the Upper Peninsula, laid off 12 teachers last year.

Deiter said the forest's trail, which may be about three-quarters of a mile long, and the forest itself will remain.

Only some trees have been marked to be cut, which are mostly red oak but also include white oak, hickory, cherry, and maple trees also. Deiter said several ash trees that are infected with the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle, are marked to be cut as well.

But even if those trees are cut down, the forest will be accessible to the community and the classes who learn in the forest.

"That will still be the case," Deiter said.

The school board's budget hearing on Monday night will discuss the proposal with the public. Michigan school districts are required by state law to finalize their budgets by the end of June. Even with money from the timber, the school district would still have a $770,000 deficit next year.

Phil Harner, who retired as a teacher in the school district two years ago, is one of about 40 community members who are concerned that cutting down the 55 trees would lead to significant damage to the forest, including the rare wildflowers.

He said cutting down a tree would likely take out neighboring trees.

"Bringing in equipment will require building roads that will destroy the floor of the wood lot," he said. "It's significant damage. Even through 55 trees don't sound like a lot of trees in there, it will affect many others."

Harner also said the proposal "undercuts" student programs that teachers have put in place since the 1970s.

"There is no place in our area in which we could teach what we teach without taking a field trip," he said.

After learning Monday afternoon that the 3,000-student school district already signed a contract with a forester to cut down trees, Harner hopes to come to a compromise, cutting fewer trees than proposed or helping the school district find money elsewhere.

"Our community is the kind of community that supports education," Harner said. "I think they will find there are alternatives."

Deiter said the idea for the proposal, which was approved by the school board in April, came from community members who suggested selling timber on the school grounds. The school district then reached out to Michigan State University which in turn recommended a forester to assess the state of the forest.

"We said all along our goal was to improve overall health of forest area while addressing the bugget deficit with some of the sales of the timber," Deiter said. "We didn't want to do anything to compromise that and we were hoping for a win-win."

In February, the forrester recommended that some of the trees should be cut down to allow younger trees to grow, according to Deiter.

"Several of the trees that are marked are trees that are dead or dying, and we'll also be able to clean those out of the area before they fall," Deiter said.

Deiter said the money from the timber would go to the school district's general fund, 80 percent of which goes to teachers and other workers.

"It would go to protect peoples' jobs and or wages," he said, saying "we're in a people business."

Deiter said student enrollment has been increasing as the school district has had to lay off workers over the last five years.

"We had major cuts last year and only partial restoration of our cuts this year," he said. "If our K through 12 school aid fund could be used as it was designed we would be all set."

Last week, Michigan's senate passed the last piece of the state budget, allocating $12.9 billion for K through 12 education and $1.4 billion for high education spending, 3 percent more than last year.

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