Sunday, May 22, 2016

Filthy Rivers

According to local hearsay, the rain event earlier this week brought much needed water to the Ozarks. Tuesday, I set out into the interior in search of nice streams, bottomland woodlands, and breeding birds. The three to four inches of rain came mostly on Tuesday, with Wednesday's forecast reaching the upper 60s and sunny. It's not unusual to have a drenching rain in mid-May, but apparently, as evidenced by the flooding rivers, the ground was already saturated.

Wednesday morning, at every turn, the creeks and streams were in flood stage. Not the devastating floods that came in December that sent the Meramec River so far over its banks that entire towns flooded, but in flood enough to close roads. Current River? Flooding. Niangua River? Flooding. Meramec River? Flooding. Historically, when the world was mantled in grass-forb mix and contiguous woodland cover, a spring thunderstorm system in karst topography really wouldn't impact the rivers this way; historically, water would seep into the ground and slowly percolate through carbonate rock and end up in springs. Hence, the clear, swift, blue water streams that we normally associate with the Ozarks.

But that was in a different era. The Meramec River, for example, has long been heralded as a biodiversity hotspot, but also a threatened resource. Mussel, crayfish and fish diversity were (in the not too distant past) considered globally significant. Many conservation initiatives to protect biodiversity in the Meramec watershed have occurred throughout the years, but the river is seriously imperiled. Development in the watershed including large, ranch style homes built on the banks,improperly managed septic systems and cattle grazing have resulted in significant sediment loading and a truly filthy river. Mussels that depend on clean water don't have a chance. The long pincered crayfish that depends on slab bedrock-bottomed streams are probably extirpated with all the gravel loading and interstitial spaces filled with soil from the bottomlands and cyanobacteria. Drum? The trash fish of lousy rivers? Thriving. Probably Asian carp and largemouth bass, too.

After driving almost 300 miles in search of clean water and a good place for streambank breeding birds, I ended up at Maramec Spring, a little city park near St. James. This area had the same rain event that the rest of the Meramec watershed had, but, unlike the big river, the watershed is mostly protected by the forested cover of the Mark Twain. This small trout park that still has the cultural relict furnaces from the early years of iron smelting during the height of the age of extraction. The bottomland woodland along the spring branch still had some blooming violets, nice flowering sedges, big trees, good streambank birds. The spring branch was really quite spectacular for the trout fishermen at this trout park.

Walk the distance of the spring branch to the confluence of the Meramec River after a rain event and you'll see this:

All of the runoff in the Meramec River watershed, all the creeks and streams that feed into it turned the river into a flowing stream of chocolate milk. The karst protected waters of the spring and spring branch show a sharp contrast that illustrate the difference between protected lands and imperiled watersheds. But the Current River at Akers Ferry resembled the muddy Meramec the same day. All of those feeder streams in the watershed with pastures and logged land around them have seriously impacted water quality. Eventually, the sediment will settle, filling in the spaces that normally give rise to waterpennies, caddisfly larvae, and other aquatic invertebrates upon which fish diversity depends. Watershed conservation planning and protection is the only way to protect these streams, but the increased urbanization and external threats will only continue in the future. So seek out the good places and enjoy them while you can.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Watersheds protected, but not fully

The threat of rain dissipated early Tuesday morning in the Outer Ozark Border region where we had a scheduled fieldtrip for the day. This was fortuitous for me because not only did I forget my raincoat but also decent shoes, so in a raggedy 5K t-shirt and my Brooks Ravenna 5 running shoes with holes on three sides on both feet, we set out for a cross-country hike. The rain ended earlier that morning which left the vegetation nice and dewy, and the streams in lousy shape.

The area we visited is touted to be one of the largest protected watersheds in the Ozark Highlands, which is fabulous. High sandstone canyons, dry mesic sandstone woodlands, a few small sandstone glades, a bit of dolomite expression, and an incredibly rich stream that courses through the area. Faunal attributes, particularly salamander and fish diversity, are significant here. The small sandstone glades harbor awesome forbs like Oenothera linarifolia and the small dolomite glades in the area have prairie turnip (Pediomelum)on them. The bottomland woodlands around the stream are particularly rich with pawpaws and undoubtedly an incredible spring wildflower display. And much of this wonderland is in public ownership, protected from housing development, clearing for grazing, a new Wal-Mart and more impervious surfaces.

It was really fun to spend a day hiking through mid-range to high quality natural communities through a great route that didn't traverse powerline cuts and homesteads, just the natural world for a 5 hour hike. An amble, or, as the British would call it, a walk about. Stream crossings with no bridges, which was nice (and made me thankful I have speed holes in my totally ragged-out running shoes, fast draining of water), mud and quicksand on the bottomland woodlands which left my trousers totally thrashed, but easy to clean, slippery, moss-covered rocks with neat bryophytes. It was a lovely day in the field, but for the brown water coming into the stream. Most of the watershed is protected by public land ownership, but that contingent that grazes and farms the rest of the watershed resulted in sediment-laden waters coursing through the streams and creek that are signature for this area.

The whole day we encountered gross brown water, coming off the waterfalls and in the creeks. I am reminded of a trout fishing show my brother-in-law in Jackson Hole showed me: trout fishermen went to some river in China to test their salmon fly lures and on the show they described this wilderness condition river system, but the whole time I was looking at the foam and froth and sediment that is a direct result of high nutrient loading from grazing. I kind of felt like that on this hike. Here we were in this neat landscape but the water quality was really crappy with all the sediment from grazing in the watershed. Maybe I'm picky and I just don't like being reminded that all of our aquatic systems are related to larger landscapes, but it really detracted from the natural quality of the whole area.

Oh well, it doesn't really matter, I guess, that there are now increasingly fewer places where largescale watersheds are being protected. Homogenization is a process occurring on my watch and it's disheartening that there is little to nothing I can do to stop it.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Yet another threat...

Last spring, while hiking through a really great sinkhole with a mesic forest, we discovered a new exotic for the site location: Veronica hederifolia, a little speedwell, a small and hairy annual that was carpeting the location of native spring wildflowers. We pulled a sackful of it, but, apparently the seeds had blasted out already. This spring, visiting the same site, we documented a full-on infestation of this plant native to Eurasia. This little lawn weed didn't get here on it's own, it surely came in on a shoe of a hiker and found a perfect home in a moist bottomland forest system once rich with bluebells and Dutchman's breeches.

Fast forward one growing season later and this annual weed (common to lawns in St. Louis) has all but overtaken the native flora in this high quality designated natural area sinkhole. Collectively, we have pulled several trash bags full of this plant this year. With it being an annual and seeding readily, I don't know if we'll ever get a hold on it. Staff have continued to pull and bag and discard, over and over and over again, but the plant persists. One little seed made its way into this intact natural community and now it's threatening the very existence of it. Homogenization is happening in our lifetime, our timeframe. Biodiversity is threatened by an onslaught of homogenization, not only from exotic species like this Veronica but by deer, by the lack of fire, and the worst of all, bush honeysuckle. We need to be vigilant, and if it takes multiple visits to hand pull this little exotic weed, we should keep doing it. So few natural communities have a semblance of biodiversity left, we must preserve what we can as assiduously as humanly possible.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

After the Rain

Spring has been rather clement with occasional rainy days and plenty of sunshine. Vegetation in a lot of places looks as though there have been steroids injected into the rain, tall huge and rangy plant life with abundant flowers. I took advantage of a sunny afternoon to take a long hike to see the last of the dogwoods, to hear some of the first of the gray treefrogs calling from the woodland canopy, and to enjoy a nice spring day in nice woods.

Dogwood flowers have all fallen off the understory shrubs in recent days and full- on tree cover is in play now, shutting out light for spring ephemeral wildflowers. But we had a nice spring wildflower season with reports coming from all over the state that this was a particularly good year for Celandine Poppy and Bluebells in a true forest on the Missouri River. Migrating warblers are all in town and waking me up at 5am since I sleep with my windows open. Upon hearing a bird call I don't recognize as a yard resident, I bolt out of bed, grab coffee, and go searching. I've had Tennessee and Nashville warblers in my yard this month and I heard a Veery a couple of mornings ago. If you're not familiar with this haunting bird call, visit any of the websites that play bird calls upon demand. It's downright eerie with circuits of threes, sort of like a Duke Ellington tune.

Meanwhile, May is upon us and it's a busy month with conferences, meetings, and presentations. Tick season is here in earnest, much earlier than it was ten years ago; I recall not having my first ticks until late May, but this year I started attracting them in late February. All of those millions of seed ticks that hatched last July are now little subadults that latch on and creep all over in the hundreds. Thank heavens for hotels with pools with exceedingly high chlorine levels to kill them outright. Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Castile Soap works wonders on ticks, as well.

I had a nice hike through decent little woods that, in localized areas, have seen certain periods of heavy grazing and are still in recovery mode. But the woods are coming back, slowly, maybe through another two hundred years, but there's species accrual and structural building, and it's a long way from being a super nice woodland. On the upside, there's no bush honeysuckle, which is more than I can write about thousands of acres in Missouri. The heart of the Ozarks, protected by acres of buffering private lands that are not urbanized with bush honeysuckle, are not under the siege of this closed canopy-loving exotic species. But biotic homogenization is occurring at a rapid pace, so we must be vigilant, keep up with the fire, treat exotic infestations before they spread. Resiliency in the landscape is key. Make the landscape as healthy as possible with prescribed fire, no disturbance from heavy equipment or ATVs, keep the hogs out, keep deer numbers low, allow the ground flora to thrive and flourish.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Back to the Steyermark Site

Everyone in the office knows the routine: when Missouri's morel season is two weeks underway, so too is the bloom cycle of Amethyst Shooting Star (Dodecatheon amethystinum), known from only a handful of locations in the Ozarks. This glacial relict plant resembles the more common shooting star (Dodecatheon meadii) found on both glades and rock faces, but there are distinct genetic differences between the two. The location of the rare Amethyst Shooting Star was noted by Julian Steyermark in his discussion of the species in his landmark 1963 Flora of Missouri. Unfortunately, the homogenization of this site through the conversion of the woodlands to a monoculture of bush honeysuckle makes the shooting star location highly vulnerable. So, since 2008, every April we dedicate several days to pulling and cutting and stump treating bush honeysuckle around this moist cliff face. Unfortunately, the rest of the woods are doomed.

This is not the job for one person. The Steyermark site of the rare shooting star covers about ten square meters with hundreds of basal rosettes of this plant poking through thick moss and surrounded by other small spring wildflowers. The entire shrub layer in the photo to the right is bush honeysuckle. If we stopped making our annual trek to the shooting star location, these plants would vanish. Bush honeysuckle not only blocks light to the woodland floor, thereby blocking any hope of flora growing, but it's also allelopathic which means it poisons everything around it. Once the canopy trees die, there will not be regeneration in bush honeysuckle-filled woods. And sadly, one plant can produce thousands of seeds, manifest in those pretty shiny berries each fall.

At a recent conference, attendees from Montana asked our presenter on non-native invasive species if Missouri had any native flora left, considering how many species of exotics have taken a foothold in recent years. Of course, we do still have native flora, but fire-starved woodlands (thousands of acres in the Ozarks) with their closed canopy has not met an exotic species as detrimental to biodiversity as bush honeysuckle. Japanese stiltgrass is running a close second, but it has not been documented from every county like bush honeysuckle has in recent years. Exotics that can thrive in closed canopy conditions are certainly a bigger threat than roadside exotics.

After our day of honeysuckle removal, the area we worked in was free of honeysuckle. The cliff face is obviously very steep, so pulling plants required a lot of holding onto trees so we didn't fall into the river valley below. There are still hundreds of shooting star plants, not all in bloom that day, but hundreds of rosettes. The increasing urbanization and the lack of regularly occurring prescribed fire have left us with a new plant association: bush honeysuckle, deer, wintercreeper association. Sadly, this is what homogenization looks like and to protect landscapes from the ever-burgeoning threat of this detrimental process, it takes a lot of work. In the long run, bush honeysuckle will win.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Loved to Death

In March 2003, I began my tenure as a seasonal worker in an incredible tract of woodlands in the Ozarks. I finally had a chance to see wildflowers that I had learned from field guides of spring flora in Louisiana but in the flesh, since most of the spring flora in Louisiana had been extirpated from years of fire suppression or utter destruction of natural communities, they were listed as "rare or declining." I really loved seeing Dutchman's breeches and wild geranium for the first time, and certainly loved seeing that they were considered "common spring wildflowers" in the Ozark Highlands. So I really relished my work site and wanted to make sure that everyone else could experience that same excitement of seeing an incredible spring wildflower display.

Years pass, visitation to my favorite place increases, publicity highlighting how great this place is increases, and my favorite place starts to see visitation reaching one million, not just a few thousand visitors a year, but close to one million people wanting to see all of these great features. Approximately one million people hike the little footpath wanting to see the wildflower display, the geologic formations, the little footpath that also affords a good little hike for health purposes, despite the natural history one may encounter, it's a hike! The little footpath becomes a large trail, a wide trail from all of the trampling of vegetation. The little trail is now a main path that sees over 500 visitors a day, so all of the vegetation that existed along the edges of the small footpath is now gone, the ground totally compacted and eroded.

Let's fast forward another five years and more publicity for this site: Best site for spring wildflowers! Best site for hiking! Best site for a natural setting! Best day trip from multiple urban areas! Best area to see a microcosm of the Ozarks! Ach. So, more publicity, more traffic to this precious site that is so fragile because it represents the highest quality landscape in the region, but it has hiking trails, and picnic tables, and day use! More visitation, more widening of the trail. With increased visitation, hikers decide to go off trail, to trample native vegetation to see rock formations. The few hikers that go off trail then create rogue trails that everyone else follows, which means that these illegal trails to no real destination end up as eroded areas of no vegetation. All of the spring flora that once existed here has been destroyed by visitors going off the trail.

The image to the right represents an illegal trail. Note the erosion around the roots of the tree, note the lack of vegetation. This area on a slope did not look like this several years ago. Illegal trail use and trampling has damaged this area, and it will take many years to recover.

When a populace learns of special natural places, how does one protect these areas from being loved to death? Will it take boardwalk installation everywhere before the publication of an article in a St. Louis newspaper? One person going off trail and trampling vegetation will invite others to do the same. Fragile spring wildflowers do not recover, they don't just "bounce back" from repeated trampling. In areas that are loved by millions of people, please stay on designated trails. The features for which the area was protected, the reasons for which the area was designated as a significant site, will suffer with illegal, rogue and social trails. Sadly, this site that I fell in love with in 2003 is being loved to death. Everyone wants to explore, to hike over every inch, and to see the area in all its biodiverse beauty. Unfortunately, that love will kill the resource in the end.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Spring in Wilderness

Stepping onto the narrow footpath on a cold, cloudy morning last week, I had great hopes the sun would break through during my hike. I spent the day in a designated wilderness, a large area of land set aside for its inherent wilderness qualities. This area possesses naturalness, shaped primarily by the forces of nature, not man. It is undeveloped and of a primeval character, and untrammeled. I went there because it also provides for another wilderness characteristic- solitude and unconfined, primitive recreation opportunities. Sadly, with the area located not too far from a thriving urban area full of fellow seekers of the natural world, the weekends here are usually incredibly crowded...thus knocking down the solitude feature. But that day last week, I only encountered two other people on an 8 mile hike. So that wasn't bad.

I followed the trail to judge the quality of it, this multi-use hiking and equestrian trail. There were honestly only a few localized areas where the trail showed notable degradation; throughout the 8 miles, the trail was a nice little narrow footpath. Several waterways course through the area, requiring hopscotching on rocks or during high water events soaking your trousers up to the knee. The Louisiana waterthrush have returned to the streambanks, bobbing their little tails and sounding off with the most dulcet of birdsongs. Bird life was alive that afternoon when the sun finally appeared, warming the area enough for me to ditch my jacket. Red-headed woodpeckers dominated, chuckling as they moved through the oak woodland.

Spring wildflower season is certainly here in earnest. Dutchman's breeches must be the most common of all in this wilderness, not restricted to moist bottomlands but all over the woodlands. I visited the area for a rapid assessment of the wilderness character and the open woodlands, sweeping vistas, and natural setting certainly fit the bill. Unfortunately, and now all too common throughout the Ozarks near urban areas, it wasn't only native spring wildflowers and shadbush that have woken up from a long winter. Bush honeysuckle peppered the landscape and in abandoned homesteads, multiflora rose existed in impenetrable thickets. Granted, I'm less concerned about the abandoned homesteads and more concerned about the future of the naturalness in the area. Exotic species like bush honeysuckle thrive in closed canopy conditions like this one. As an unofficial part of the Honeysuckle Eradication Project spearheaded in my town, I pulled probably 30 or 40 plants just on the hike. Indeed, the bush honeysuckle issue degrades the wilderness character. On a positive note, it's still in the manageable stage for now, unlike a lot of similar areas near urban settings.

It was pleasing to spend the day here and not see major threats to the wilderness, despite development encroachment near the area's borders. At the crest of every hillside, the sweeping vistas, the viewshed, remained wild. But the bush honeysuckle is rabbit in the headlights of a steamroller moving at 90 mph. If the issue is not addressed soon, immediately, actually, we'll lose the very naturalness and primeval state for which this area was protected.