Saving the Two-Hearted Forest, One Final Four Floor at a Time

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Most people watching the Final Four tournament this weekend will lock on to their maddened brackets and the warring players. But employees of Connor Sports, the NCAA’s official court supplier, know the unsung hero of the game is the iconic maplewood court itself.

“We watch the game a bit differently than most,” says Andrew Campbell, a veteran court installer with Connor who helped lay down the Final Four floors. “People don’t put a lot of thought into what goes into [building a basketball court]. It’s not on people’s radar.”

How this year’s court got to Arizona’s University of Phoenix football stadium is instrumental not only in facilitating athletic feats and ball response, but also in conserving the 24,000-acre Two-Hearted River Forest Reserve in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and promoting larger-scale sustainable forestry.

Like most basketball courts, Connor’s are milled from sugar maple, a long-lasting wood with perfect hardness for dribbling and footwork. Though millers can source from dozens of areas, Michigan is the global epicenter for maple timber. In the Two-Hearted region, however, a history of industrial logging practices and an economic bias for sugar maple has reduced forests to a near monoculture of sugar maple, leaving them dangerously susceptible to pests and diseases that could wipe out the forest and devastate the local economy.

To help prevent such a catastrophe, the Nature Conservancy — which manages the forest along with more than 5 million other acres nationally — has partnered with Connor to single-source their courts from 500 of the Two-Hearted’s local maples. That collaboration enables the careful thinning of the forest that opens up the canopy and creates space for new, competing tree species like white pine that will diversify the forest.

“The critical thing,” says Chris Topik, the Nature Conservancy’s director of restoring North American forests, “is that you can leave the healthier trees that are going to be bigger, fix more carbon, put on more wood, and have more positive attributes.”

It’s essentially a reboot for the forest. If you can mimic natural functions, Topik explains, you’re more likely to foster trees that can resist climate change, that won’t burn up or won’t get beaten down by bugs.

For Michigan-based Connor, the partnership means building FSC-certified, sustainably harvested basketball courts, and it’s the first time they’ve single-sourced lumber whose origins they know precisely — some 200 miles from their Amasa mill — and which they can visibly track from forest to floor. For the Nature Conservancy, it promises that other state and federal forest managers take note and implement practices that keep forests from over-harvesting and retain important jobs in small towns.

"The reserve was created specifically to demonstrate the ecological and economical viability of doing sustainable forestry," says the Nature Conservancy’s Kari Marciniak. “The harvests provide work for loggers and timber for local sawmills that employ folks from local communities. That’s the whole goal of sustainable forestry practice: not just to figure out how to make the forest healthier but also maintaining the economy of local communities who depend heavily on it.”

Topik estimates that there are around 80 million acres of trees that need some kind of help across the country, an area the size of Colorado. Partnerships like that with Connor, and the forest management practices they facilitate, have far-reaching benefits that, if extrapolated on a grander scale, could have huge impacts on the health of American forests. The sort of selective harvesting done in the Two-Hearted to produce basketball courts is essential for conserving wildlife habitat and cultivating woodlands that purify air and the water that, ultimately, half the country consumes.

“Our goal is to put a spotlight on sustainability,” Connor’s Brandi Connolly says, “and basketball is the core of our business.”