Saturday, May 10, 2008


"Here's the problem with these woods," he says, clutching and gently shaking an old barbed wire fence. Sometimes, going into the woods with my lovely colleagues can be disheartening. They know too much, really. They see things others don't, understand ecological systems and patterns, notice signs of improper land use. Oh, I can tell when woods need fire management, sure, but I'm just exploring the tip of the iceberg in my understanding of other forms of disturbance patterns in Missouri's woodlands.

It all started with a casual stroll through second growth dry chert woodlands on a chilly March afternoon. Excited to see a lush carpet of a diminutive fern (Cystopteris fragilis) covering a hillside, I thought that these woods couldn't be in terrible shape. After all, ferns are fragile little things, surely unable to withstand a lot of land disturbance. "Uh, Allison? I hate to tell you this..." he uttered. My esteemed friend then launched into a poetic explanation about grazing patterns in the Ozark Highlands. The reason pretty little fragile fern carpeted the high ridge, far away from its customary moist outcropping (and therefore way out of context) was directly linked to the open grazing patterns that occurred following European settlement. "You see," he muttered, downcast, "cattle destroyed the understory by overgrazing, but fragile fern was unpalatable, so now it thrives. There's no other competition." Oh. Great. And now, every fence in the woods tells me, immediately, that the land has been compromised.

In April, when the woods were awash in the delicate white blooms of toothwort and the mayapples had just started poking their shiny heads through the leaf litter, I found myself in similar company. "Funny," I said, "I'm not used to seeing mayapple populations on dry ridgetops." In the proper context, mayapples populate streambanks, moist bottomlands, not dry cherty ridgetops. Hesitantly, knowing that I now don't like seeing fragile fern because of an earlier outing, he said about the mayapples: "A sign of grazing. Same with the toothworts. Notice there's not much else around them." Fragile fern, mayapples, toothwort, all charming native woodland plants, all considered "increasers," plants whose populations increase following heavy grazing. I'm sure there are countless others, including cedars, and I realize I'm just scratching the surface of understanding grazing impacts. I likely won't see Ozark woods in the same way ever again.

Knowing that he had, in one sentence, crushed my somewhat pristine view of Ozark woodlands, my companion promised to find fragile fern thriving in the right context, just where it's supposed to be. It took a trip to the Jack's Fork, actually, to find it again. He was excited, as was I, to see it growing in check, not on a dry ridgetop.

I'm a little hard pressed, I've learned, to find Ozark woods that haven't been grazed at all. The more I learn about grazing history, the more I am convinced that despite active management with fire and even thinning, the understory simply can't recover completely. Woods that have been grazed will never be as rich as protected woodlands. Nevertheless, because so many thousands of acres have been grazed, it doesn't mean they shouldn't be actively managed and protected. Sure, they're compromised, but I didn't even notice it until I was told.

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