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Vacationing in the trees: How forests are helping to grow Michigan's tourism economy

When you think of Traverse City tourism, what comes to mind? Beautiful beaches? Wineries? Great food? Sand dunes?

How about well-maintained forests? Though trees may not be the first thing that comes to mind—besides cherry trees, of course—healthy forests are becoming an important part of Traverse City's most important industry. And the same is true of other Michigan cities, where a dependence on forest-based tourism is growing. 
"It's very easy for people who are focused on the beach to forget that we are surrounded on three sides by forests," says Mike Norton, media relations manger for Traverse City Tourism. "Those forests…are very important because they have helped us in the diversification of our tourism product."

In fact, Traverse City Tourism has turned away from promoting the quintessential Michigan resort town as primarily a summer destination, instead putting the majority of the organization's promotional budget into year-round activities: birding, morelling, wildflower viewing, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, fall color tours, and more -- in short, forest-based attractions. 

The distinction is a big one in a state so reliant on tourism. Statewide, Michigan hosted 113.4 million visitors in 2014, according to a Tourism Economics study. Those visitors generated $37.8 billion in total business sales, supporting 326,685 jobs, and adding up to $10.6 billion in income for Michigan tourism employees. Without tourism employment, the study estimates Michigan's 7.3 percent unemployment rate in 2014 would have been 13.3 percent. 

And it's clear that in Traverse City and beyond, healthy forests are becoming an increasingly important part of one of the state's biggest economic drivers. 

The impact of year-round tourism

"In a community that is heavily seasonal, you have a boom and bust cycle."

What's the big deal about year-round tourism? Ask any Michigander who's been laid off when the beaches empty. 

"In a community that is heavily seasonal, you have a boom and bust cycle," says Norton. "You have a huge amount of activity going on in two or three months of the year—everybody's full, everybody's employed, everybody's making money—but then in the slower seasons, people have to lay off employees."

That hurts in a community like Traverse City, where nearly 12,000 jobs, representing nearly 30% of the area's employment, are supported by tourism. Though Norton says Traverse City has already been working its way out of that boom and bust cycle, the recent switch to promoting year-round tourism is an effort to further reduce the seasonality of the area's tourism product and maximize the economic impact of the important industry. As the industry supporting the tenth greatest number of jobs in the state, all of Michigan could stand to benefit from the expansion of tourism season. 

Management Maintains Attractions

Forest-based tourism requires more than great marketing to support Michigan jobs. In order to remain healthy enough to be reliable tourist attractions, forests need to be maintained—in ways neither locals nor visitors sometimes understand.

"They need to often be educated about proper forestry and how you keep a forest healthy, which is not always an aesthetically pleasant process," says Norton.

Consider the importance good forest management has had in Gaylord.

Today, the area's Pigeon River State Forest is home to the Midwest's only free ranging elk herd.

Today, the area's Pigeon River State Forest is home to the Midwest’s only free ranging elk herd. Rewind to the late 1800s, and poor forest maintenance had completely eliminated the elk population. Though elk were reintroduced in 1918, it wasn't until renewed interest in the herd peaked in the late 1970s that serious forest management practices were able to bring the elk population back to its full potential. 

"The elk herd has flourished to the point that in order to maintain it, we have two elk hunts per year," says Paul Beachnau, executive director of the Gaylord Area Convention and Tourism Bureau "That is a really big deal. We have a number of people who go to the forest for that specific purpose." 

The herd also attracts elk viewers to Gaylord, whose tourism economy is based almost entirely on outdoor activities—so much so that the Bureau's new marketing slogan is "All Outdoors."

"Healthy forests are critical to what we are doing," Beachnau says. "Part of the healthy forest management is doing select cutting. That regenerates aspens and that is really good for the habitat for the dear and for elk."

Though often misunderstood by residents and vacationers, cutting down trees—sometimes in large swaths—is the pathway to maintaining the forests and recreational activities they love. Elk tourism, snowmobiling, camping, biking and more are not only fun, but they support more jobs than any other industry in Gaylord. 

And Gaylord isn't alone. In Grayling, birders from all 50 states and at least a dozen countries come to see the rare Kirtland's Warbler, which was nearly extinct until careful forest management practices brought it back. 

A Deeper Future for Forest Tourism

Developing year-round attractions and wildlife maintenance tie Michigan tourism and healthy forests together today, but that connection is likely to get even deeper in the future, as tourists seek out even more forest-based activities. 

"As people beginning to hunger for a deeper experience of our area," says Norton, "they're beginning to ask questions about the history of the community. There are now tours taking people up the Boardman River Valley to talk about the removal the of dams there to restore it to its natural state."

With all the history and stories forests have to tell across the state, the opportunities for those deeper experiences for tourists abound. And thanks to the economic impact of tourism all over Michigan, our communities will continue to be better off because of them.  

*This story first appeared in Mid-Michigan's Second Wave from IMG Media.