Friday, May 23, 2008

Desired condition


My eyes, welling with tears, were a dead giveaway. After a full day of fieldtrips to degraded woods, my desperation at the obvious mismanagement and lack of dedication towards restoration goals became overwhelming. I spent most of last week in a nearby state at a conference focusing on fire as a management tool; there, I quickly learned that Missouri is the leader in woodland restoration, that the prescribed fire program which began over 20 years ago is responsible for our healthy landscapes. Other states are only now building fire programs, but in light of invasive species and urban encroachment battering woodlands from every direction (and no true leadership dictating goals), land managers outside of Missouri are collectively throwing up their hands. They're facing the challenge of landscape restoration with apathy and dismay that, really, their landscapes will never be as biodiverse as they were historically, so why bother? After zooming past 50 miles of wall-to-wall exotic Russian olive and closed maple-dominated woodlands (where oak savanna and prairie should be), my colleague leans over to me and utters, simply, "we'll stop by some pristine limestone glades when we get back to Missouri." Yes, that will make me feel better.

In Jefferson Co., just outside of St. Louis in the Inner Ozark Border, rest the largest tract of continuous bands of limestone glades in Missouri. So vast is this glade belt that acre for acre, they rival the glade complexes in the White River Hills. Most of the glades are choked in cedars and in desperate need of prescribed fire, but active management on many acres of land has resulted in speciose, rich (and aesthetically pleasing) landscapes that likely mirror what the earliest European settlers encountered.

When the Natural History Program initiated the prescribed fire program over 20 years ago, it looked to historical documents for guidance. What did Missouri look like before large native herbivores were extirpated? What did it look like before open grazing? Before the entire Ozark Highland was cut over in the 1920s and 30s? Before roads and urban centers were established? Using survey records, early explorer accounts, fire history and even tree ring data, natural resource managers constructed a concept of what Missouri landscapes should look like. This isn't to say that today's resource managers are trying to recreate a 200 year old photograph of our woodlands, glades and prairies, but that by reinstating historical natural processes to the best of our abilities, we can peer into a Missouri before we extracted most of her resources.

Throughout the conference, I furrowed my brow at the elementary discussions bandied about concerning the concept of desired condition. Land managers and foresters outside of Missouri refuted the basic idea of striving towards a historic landscape. They know that fire is "good for the landscape," and that most of the eastern U.S. was "shaped by fire," but they don't quite know exactly what they're aiming for, how to encourage biodiversity through landscape management. In Missouri, we know, for example, that limestone glades in Jefferson Co. harbor certain endemics that respond positively with the application of fire. Based on the understory response to fire, we know that fire, simply and resolutely, was a key element in shaping this diverse landscape. Managers outside of Missouri are still in the stages of contemplating this concept. And because of that, I left a neighboring state without understanding what it looked like before exotics, grazing and 50 years of fire suppression. Sigh.

I guess it was silly to think that at a conference dedicated to fire that I would be surrounded by fellow pyromaniacs, all bragging about acres burned and positive results. One forestry major from Madison told me on the fieldtrip that "Missouri burns too much." I sputtered, "my agency only burned 3,467 acres in the Ozarks this year! We're several thousand acres behind schedule!" "Yeah, maybe," she countered, "but it's still too much. You're harming your trees." Astounded, knowing that unlike other states that have problems with exotic pests damaging their oaks because their woods are impaired due to fire deprivation, Missouri's managed woodlands are, for the most part, in good shape. I recognized that I wouldn't be able to change her mind and hoped that she wasn't going to be in charge of any of the awesome savannas in Wisconsin. The savannas, after all, require frequent fire.

One night, heading out to the degraded woods behind the hotel for cool fresh air, I passed a table of foresters pounding down Bud Light. "Why should we try to make the landscape look like it did 200 years ago?" one of them muttered as he leaned back in the faded plastic chair. Part of me wanted to sidle up to him and explain that you shouldn't manage for a snapshot, but that you should restore the forces that shaped the land before European settlers. Within the framework of natural forces, the land will meet a desired condition well within the historic range of variability, a condition that harbors biodiversity on all levels, from the understory to the canopy to the wildlife inherent within. In the late stages of the burn cycle of limestone glades, I wanted to tell him, a shrub layer of scrubby post oaks may develop along the edges of adjacent dry chert woodlands. Fire knocks back most of them, but every once in a while, one persists creating a structural component that happens to mirror the survey records (from Schoolcraft on a glade in the White River Hills: "no trees for 50 chains until lone post oak..."). So we're not trying to keep the glade looking exactly like it did this week--clear of trees, fresh green grass and rich forb component--but that should be one of the desired stages of a natural cycle. Knowing that the forester was more concerned with harvesting timber than managing for biodiversity, I kept walking until I hit the tree line, where I sat down on a muddy bulldozer track and listened to cricket frogs.

Sometimes, in Missouri's unmanaged woods, I find myself in a lousy mood when I see large tracts of Asian day lilies displacing native wildflowers or, maybe worse, no understory at all. Driving back from the conference along Missouri's roadsides choked in bush honeysuckle and crown vetch, I thought of the pristine places scattered throughout the state. Our actively managed landscapes are healthy, strong, able to withstand the encroachment of exotics. The St. Louis area may contain the largest contiguous blocks of bush honeysuckle in the country, but a few yards off the road was an incredible, managed, healthy glade complex, am area that should be a state-designated Natural Area. If we continue to manage our woodlands, prairies, and glades, identify the sites that have some semblance of restoration capability, we'll sustain biodiversity and combat the forces of exotic species with inherent strength. The species richness of the limestone glade kept the crown vetch and bush honeysuckle relegated to the roadside. There's nowhere on the glade or woodlands for exotics to take hold.

Obviously, I'm really grateful to be in a state that started managing landscapes long before exotics started their brutal march across the country. But with dedication and lots of serious work, other states might be able to catch up to Missouri. So, really, I'm hoping that the cross section of land managers I met at the conference doesn't represent the future of management in our neighboring states. If so, they're doomed.

See, from Jefferson Co. limestone glades: tickseed (Coreopsis lanceolata) from the top of the glade; Houstonia nigricans, a common little plant of limestone and dolomite glades alike; Fremont's leather flower (Clematis fremontii), restricted to limestone glades; green milkweed (Asclepias viridis); and an interesting shrub component of this particular limestone glade, ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius), which traditionally grows in gravel bars, rocky riparian zones, in other moist soils, a testament to a true soil layer on the glade and an unimpaired hydrology, both almost rare in the state thanks to overgrazing.

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