Monday, November 24, 2014

"Emulating natural disturbance factors?"

The leaves on my backyard chinquapin oak have only recently started to fall. In a matter of days and weeks, Missouri’s 31 year old woodland prescribed fire season will begin in earnest. Sadly, and due primarily to reckless and/or under-educated practitioners who are not well versed in the power of this natural process, prescribed fire may be implemented not as a means of responsibly emulating a natural disturbance, but as a destructive tool that few should be allowed to use. Much as one would not willingly allow a 2 year old to hold a scalpel in an operating room, one should be cautious of the power of fire and the person behind the torch.

Most unfortunate (from my perspective) is that much of the fire-related damage I’ve seen in recent years is preventable, and largely due to improper fireline placement and timing. Fireline installation is underway all over the state, so I'd like to reiterate this basic fact, an integral part of any responsible burn plan: roads and trails do not make appropriate firelines. To truly emulate a historic fire regime (which is challenging in itself in the Ozarks due to dominant out-of-historic-context fuel types resulting from years of abuse by logging, grazing, and fire suppression), a responsible practitioner will allow fire to move naturally across the landscape, will allow fire to follow topography, aspect, slope with properly designed burn units that include appropriate fuels and historic fire-mediated systems. Old logging roads and hiking trails were not designed with fire behavior in mind. Too many times in recent years I’ve noted highly destructive forces at work from improperly placed firelines, and it’s giving responsible fire a bad name, along with burning out of historic prescription and burning areas that likely never saw fire on a frequent return interval.

So, I’ve repeatedly written for years that significant woodland acreage across the Missouri Ozarks no longer resembles its historic character, that of large diameter oaks mantled in grasses, sedges and forbs. I’ve reiterated that high quality sites are hard to come by, that I seek them out, but it’s becoming harder to find them thanks to mismanagement -the human element-, deer overpopulation, and continued development. Our scattered nice sites exist today as vignettes, not largescale landscapes. I spend time in nice woods, and I help develop really nice burn units in appropriate settings for fires that follow a cogent prescription with restoration or maintenance in mind. I do hate to cast stones, but just as the vitriolic Westboro Baptist Church does not accurately portray religion, irresponsible practitioners do not represent all of fire management in the state.

If you'd like to follow along with fire season, to check in with Spot Weather Forecasts so carefully forecast by our wonderful folks at the Springfield NOAA office, go here. May others listen and learn from the ongoing discussions, and may we carry fire forward responsibly to help restore fire-mediated systems across Missouri this winter.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Missouri Glade Map available to anyone with internet service....

The multi-year glade mapping project in which I was engaged came to a close this year after years of field verification of the existence of glades and mapping with various geospatial referencing tools. In October, Missouri’s Comprehensive Natural Glades Map was made accessible to GIS users. In recent weeks, a conservation-based organization in Mississippi has made the Missouri Glade Map accessible to everyone. Now, both GIS and internet users can access the virtual locations of Missouri’s restorable glades. Internet users can open the link here to view an interactive map tool that displays the locations of over 88,000 Missouri glades. The map tool allows users to zoom down to whatever scale they wish to view, change the map background layers (topo maps, satellite, terrain, etc), and save their own custom versions of the map. The Gulf Coastal Plains and Ozarks Landscape Conservation Cooperative (GCPO LCC) developed the interactive map link and provided funding support to complete the Missouri Glade mapping effort.

A concise map of Missouri’s extant glades separated by geologic landforms has major conservation implications. The glade mapping project revealed that the majority of Missouri’s glade acreage still exists, although in variously disturbed condition and quality. Mapping methodology and field verification assumes that the mapped glades are to some degree restorable (other than glades destroyed by highways, housing developments, reservoirs and quarries), which means that it can be reasonably assumed that if a landowner cuts and burn cedars, and keeps the cows off these native grasslands, that some semblance of biological integrity can be recovered. During the field verification exercises, I encountered multiple private landowners who were excited that they owned a special piece of landscape, and many of them commented about the "big dragons" and "pretty yellow coneflowers" that exist on their land, but not quite knowing what to do with it. Unfortunately, we also discovered thousands of acres of glades that had been grazed to hell by domestic livestock and may never recover. Missouri's landscapes are a patchwork quilt, obviously, of high, low, and restorable quality, but glade restoration is easy. Keep the cows out of native ecosystems, and use fire periodically to stimulate the seedbank.

An equally important application of the mapping data is the analysis of Missouri’s glade distribution/patterns, rock substrate type and floristic affinities. Throughout the Interior Highlands, it has been noted that 25 glade types across 8 states exist, and the conservation importance of these special natural communities include that at least 207 plant and animal species of conservation concern inhabit these areas. And now, anyone with internet service can see where the glades are.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

November 8: National Wine Tourism Day!

Today's crisp and sunny weather is truly ideal for the celebration of National Wine Tourism Day. The leaves are quickly shedding from the trees, and wineries all over the state are rolling out new vintages and featuring their special holiday wines. November is officially Chambourcin Month in Missouri, the perfect dry red wine for Thanksgiving. There is much, much to celebrate today at Missouri's 120+ wineries!

Holiday wines started showing up in late September with St. James Winery's Cranberry Wine, a sweet and tart little wine. Meramec Vineyards, just down the road from St. James Winery, has produced a lovely Harvest Moon pumpkin spice-white wine and their dessert wine, Stark's Star, which highlights an heirloom grape by the same name. The number of holiday-themed spiced wines in Missouri are becoming increasingly common. And according to all of my winery e-newsletters, folks have started cranking up the Crock pots for mulled wine, cinnamon and other baking spices added to sweet or semi-dry white or red wine.

The days are shorter, winter botany time has come, and recreational winery hopping throughout the state tends to be a surefire way to keep spirits up...

Sunday, November 02, 2014

In Pine-White Oak Woods

High winds on Monday shredded the fall color display in much of the Missouri Ozarks. The sugar maples, hickories and white oaks that occur scattered throughout the pine woodlands in the LaMotte sandstone region of the state, down in prime winery country, were ablaze in a lovely palette of reds, yellows and orange. Unlike in Appalachia to our east, Missouri's maples are a naturally occurring part of the landscape; the recent anti-maple craze going on in the Ozarks is not ecologically based and seems to be driven by a model for growing cellulose rather than an ecosystem.

Not only is there a war on sugar maples in Missouri, but a lot of rumblings about shortleaf pine woodland restoration. The solid shortleaf pine-bluestem region is a little south of where I spent the week, but the LaMotte region is dominated by pine with a white oak component. Fire-mediated for 31 years, this region represents one of the best examples of pine woodlands in Missouri with a rich herbaceous understory. Pine regeneration occurs on a landscape scale here, now that the fuel loading is not thick, dense leaf litter. To restore a pine woodland ecosystem, the primary driver should be the restoration of a flashy grass-forb understory so that the regularly occurring prescribed fires can rush through the area quickly, just to burn off the thatch. Alas, pine woodland systems of asters, little bluestem and a suite of plants and animals that depend on fire are not very common in Missouri where they once stretched for millions of acres. Maybe one day.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Cross Timbers Country

If you've ever seen the early 1980s maps of the ecological regions of the United States, you'll see a region where the Great Plains prairie meets the Eastern Deciduous Forest, aptly called the Cross Timbers Region. Widely scattered and stunted post oaks and black oaks dot the landscape, historically mantled in long lived perennial wildflowers and warm season grasses. Today, Cross Timbers country, located about an hour's drive from the Niangua Basin, is the land of recreational fishing lakes designed to generate hydroelectric power. In Missouri, we have several of these associated lakes surrounded by protected largescale wooded landscapes. While many of these wooded areas are generally depauperate from a biodiversity perspective, they're still undeveloped woods full of birds, and the world isn't making undeveloped woods anymore. Despite the local serious deer overpopulation problem, lack of fire, and long history of grazing, the wooded tracts in Cross Timbers county are protected from development and have an intrinsic value for this reason. It's nice to be in big tracts of woods with short little post oaks and scraggly black oaks that average 50 ft. tall.

Around the Current River, especially near Van Buren, development pressure is significant. When I first saw the new Winona wine shop, a fancy place called The Wine Cube of modern architecture, I couldn't help but think that there go the Ozarks--a vacationing population or full time residents of a class that can support a fancy wine shop? Outside of the Scenic Riverways, on the approach to Van Buren by canoe, massive homes of great value now line the streambanks. There's a lot of money moving into some parts of the Ozarks, especially around the Current River. It's a case of the country turning into the city, similar to the Lake of the Ozarks region; the reasons for having a country home no longer exist. It's a city in and of itself now. Not so much in this part of the Cross Timbers.

Recreational opportunities tend to be focused on the fishing resources and RV parks in the area. Huge, enormous campers and nice boats are pretty common around here. There's one winery, Crane Creek, that specializes in terrific fruit wines; Crane Creek's elderberry and strawberry wines are particularly nice. The drought, their location, and lack of traffic coincident with the end of the Missouri Wine Passport Program have, together, provided a great challenge to this little winery, located a stone's throw from the Nemo corner. At Hobo's, a family style restaurant, one could order Crane Creek's blackberry wine by the glass.

Dining options, like the wine options in the area, are limited to rustic fare: pizza at the bowling alley, a fun, diverse menu (with the ability to modify to make certain foods vegetarian and healthy) at Virginia and Tim's Pub and Grub, and multiple family style barbecue restaurants in the area. This is not the fancy part of the Ozarks or the Lake of the Ozarks region, and I think folks are happy with that. These are good-hearted, hard working people, appreciative of the surrounding natural world and their fishing opportunities. This is not the climate for a fancy wine shop, and it's great that way.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Glades in September

The asters and goldenrods have just started their autumnal displays. Those wonderful yellow composites are still hanging on this late September....

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Botany in Roadside Ditches

It's a seldom occasion when I champion the protection of obviously degraded landscapes like roadsides. In an effort to find Helianthus angustifolius in the southern Ozarks, however, I found myself becoming increasingly upset by the wanton and excessive use of herbicides on rural roadsides, and, worse yet, in ditches that clearly hold water (and invertebrates) much of the growing season. In this situation, the search for H. angustifolius and Solidago leptocephala, the only places we found these desired plants were on roadsides, the two roadside ditches that had been spared widespread herbicide application that serves to homogenize and kill everything in its path.

It's scary enough to learn that most of the American food supply consists of GMO foods and that industrial farms in Missouri have at their disposal a genetically altered seed bank that allows for massive-scale spraying of glyphosate and every other chemical legal on the market (with few if any actual studies on the detrimental impacts to human health....but I'm not going to address all of that and my political alliances). To add insult to injury that biodiversity in Missouri is crashing not just from the deer overpopulation problem, exotic species invasion, and development pressure, but even on the damned roadsides where a few Element of Occurrence Records persist despite plowing and logging and grazing and every other anthropogenic disturbance that degrades natural systems, even roadsides are blasted with ever-increasing potent herbicides to wipe out populations and the assorted biota that have tried to adapt to life on a roadside.

We found a ditch. We found a really nice ditch on a rural road in the Ozarks that had rare plants in it. In that one ditch, we located thriving populations of H. angustifolius (it really should be tracked by Heritage. It's just not going to magically show up on prairies in the Osage Plains where it once was in the 1950s), Solidago leptocephala (once known from sand prairie country, but likely extirpated with all the center point irrigation and plowing), and Eupatorium hyssopifolium. Next to this nice roadside that hasn't been sprayed, we found a little Heteranthera loyal to agricultural ditches and Rhynchospora corniculata, super showy. Everywhere else on the roadsides and what was once a native landscape? Herbicide, farming, herbicide, development. Even the monarch butterfly advocates are concerned about the new crops that can withstand glyphosate--all those milkweeds and other "weeds" that so many (except pollinating insects, birds, and other wildlife) find so baneful are being sprayed to oblivion.

It was actually pretty depressing to find most of the herbarium specimen records for certain fall composites restricted only to roadside ditches that have been spared herbicide treatment. It's not sustainable. And it's depressing. But I sure did see some neat plants this week.