GEMS – working habitat for the future

ESCANABA — It was Sunday, May 20, as I sat along the road in the sun while having lunch with a bunch of other people. We were all volunteers, planting 110 apple trees in various spots in this remote location approximately 24 miles south of Gwinn, Mich. It was a wildlife habitat enhancement project in cooperation with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), the Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC) and the mid-UP Chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society. I was there representing the motorized recreational riding ATV/ORV groups including the Sportsmen’s Off-Road Vehicle Association (SORVA) of Delta County and the Trail Enthusiasts Association of Marquette County (TEAM) who operate a designated trail/route system in the area. I was also representing MUCC Region I. The TEAM club is involved with motorized trail sponsorship in the GEMS area and strives to support conservation along those same trails and respect to wildlife projects in state forest areas like this.

What started out as a cool morning, about 60 degrees at 9 a.m., turned into a hot summer day with temperatures hovering around 90 by 2 p.m. Finding a bit of shade and a breeze during lunch made relaxing a bit easier and I wondered what the results of our efforts would look like in a decade or so.

I pictured a guy with one or two of his kids out trying a new bird dog. They were aware of a good hunting area and wanted to scout it while trying to flush a couple of birds. They’d heard of this place at the sporting goods store where a conversation overheard between a couple of other hunters explained how there was this orchard out in the middle of nowhere on a walking trail. There were some spots with as many as 10 crabapple trees on the edge of a wood line of aspen on into a mix of older growth forest. It was a popular place for grouse hunting, as well as turkey, deer and bear.

The young father had heard of this place before from his father who helped establish the system. Back then his Dad referenced a place called the Rollo GEMS, but didn’t put what it meant together until the day he arrived on his first hunt in the area.

Grouse Enhancement Management Systems (GEMS) are a collection of intensively managed lands spread across Michigan. The GEMS bring attention to Michigan’s outstanding upland game hunting opportunities through a series of walk-in access hunting trails. This area, originally listed as the south Marquette County GEMS, was dedicated in September 2016 to Bill Rollo, a wildlife technician for the MDNR who was extremely passionate about conservation and the natural resources of this state. He was steadfast in his pursuit of improving habitat and outdoor recreation. Rollo was instrumental in getting the Marquette GEMS up and running. Bill died in January that year at age 40. He was a 16-year veteran of the MDNR.

In the initial wave of GEMS plantings at this location, representatives from several U.P. and state conservation organizations teamed with the MDNR and government officials including Governor Rick Snyder, (the late) State Representative John Kivela and MDNR Director Keith Creagh in a planting a number of mast trees along the walking trails. I can recall the day I spent on the initial planting with Al Ettenhofer – U.P. Whitetails (UPW), Ken Buchholtz and Jim Bonifas – the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), as being similar to what I was doing on the 20th, wondering again if the trees we put in the ground would survive and if so, what type of impact the would have as part of GEMS. Officials from MUCC were leaders in the initial project as well.

The most recent Sunday planting came with a report from coordinators Caleb Eckloff and Kim Randolph, both wildlife technicians for the MDNR. They mentioned how the plantings of the 130 trees from two years earlier were very successful with only two showing signs of mortality. On this planting we’d also envelop the trunks with protective wrap and caged the upper stage so the tree would grow tall and out of reach from damage caused by wildlife browsing. Eckloff knew of my concern and was quick to tell me how close the water table was to the surface in this planting. During lunch he also told me of the information the MDNR has collected from hunters that had come to the Gwinn State Forest and the GEMS to hunt. As part of the attraction, a good number of merchants in the Marquette area had offered discount bargains on products, services and lodging.

While the GEMS is marked with a kiosk dedicating the efforts of Bill Rollo, I again thought about this and the myriad of other habitat projects I’ve witnessed being completed over the last 30 years. That’s over a generation ago and often are taken for granted as a natural occurrence. Many of the participants from the original GEMS plantings are now grandparents, like me, and we haven’t seen a whole lot of involvement from our successors so the thrust of the efforts are not appreciated as much as they should be.

As I finished my lunch and got up to go back to work, my thoughts about the future recreational opportunities we were leaving as a result of our efforts weren’t about recognition, they were about sharing the experience by making the opportunity possible the same way others did for me when I was younger that enabled me to enjoy the great outdoors.

I sure hope that guy, his kids and their new dog have a great hunt. It was my pleasure to share.


Tim Kobasic is the outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Tails & Trails Outdoor Radio, aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet on Saturday mornings.