Thursday, June 05, 2008

Ashe's Juniper

The park naturalist must have thought I was dumb. On a recent visit to the White River Hills, my esteemed colleague and I joined him and his assistant on a hike through a 560 acre burn unit. Acres of recently burned glades, all awash in fresh, bright green grass stood out in the landscape. We traipsed from glade to glade examining the positive effects of fire: wild hyacinth, Mead's sedge, hoary puccoon. I was pleased with the results of the fire. And then, we turned the corner, hiking up to an unburned glade. I asked the naturalist why he didn't burn it (and if he minded if I helped him burn it that day). "Oh, you know, I don't want to burn it. I just want to see what happens."

Funny thing, we all know what happens when glades remain unburned for 5 or 6years: biodiversity drops, cedars move in. When I reminded him of this basic fact of landscape management, his reason for not burning the glade slapped me in the forehead. There it was, in plain view, at the edge of the glade, a big, gnarly Ashe's juniper. He didn't burn the glade because he wanted to protect the Ashe's juniper. Anyone who might have read earlier posts may have gleaned that I rather vehemently oppose the concept of land management for single species.

For example, I don't think we need to build little ponds on ridgetops to "help" salamanders. Ponds installed specifically for amphibian breeding purposes are essentially a form of amphibian farming (ponds don't naturally exist on dry ridgetops anyway...). Likewise, we don't need to stop natural processes like fire in a fen complex to protect the Hine's emerald dragonfly. And we don't need to cram thousands of sycamores and boxelders into our already wooded riparian zones to make brushier habitat for the cerulean warbler. If the Hines' emerald is supposed to be in a fen (a fire dependent landscape), then the federally listed species should be able to deal with fire. If the cerulean warbler needs brushier habitat, it shouldn't be in the Ozarks where fire traditionally burned down to the rivers, keeping the riparian zones somewhat open. Likewise, if the Ashe's juniper is supposed to be on a glade (another fire dependent landscape) then the cedar look-alike should be able to withstand the low intensity fire that slowly crept across the 560 acres earlier this year. Since the whole glade didn't burn because of this single species, the whole glade will suffer the effects. No Mead's sedge, no Leavenworthia, a scattering of wildflowers. But the park naturalist saved a single tree.

Part of me thought it was really sweet how he wanted to protect the tree (while lying to me about his motives). Maybe he just didn't want to seem sensitive. Ashe's junipers are only known from three counties in Missouri, all located in the White River Hills. The tree is common in the state of Texas, found predominantly on the Edwards Plateau. Ashe's junipers also grow in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and southward into Mexico and Guatemala. In Missouri, it's found on dolomite bluffs, glades, and on the limestone glades of the White River Hills. A large, healthy population thrives around the Table Rock Lake area (Branson). So, if it's found on glades, it should be able to withstand fire. Right?

Ambling out of the burn unit that day, park naturalist far behind us, my esteemed colleague muttered to me, "the reason Ashe's juniper is there is because the area didn't see fire for 50 years. It's a relic of fire suppression, really." We see signs of fire suppression all over the Ozarks. In an effort to reintroduce the natural process, we prescribe fire, sure, but safe, small, low intensity little things that can't kill cedars or other emblems of fire suppression. No, it takes a big, raging fire to kill off the sugar maples that invaded our oak hickory woodlands in the past 50 years, the cedars that moved into the glades, the hackberries into our bottomlands. Since hot crown fires are seldom if ever prescribed, this old, gnarly tree would have been able to withstand the creeping fire that the rest of the glade complex witnessed. Oh, some of the lower branches may have been damaged by fire, but to kill off cedars or other relics of fire suppression on a glade (without chainsaws), one must send a raging headfire into the area, a fire that literally engulfs the trees. Pictures I posted earlier from the limestone glades of Jefferson Co. illustrated the results of a wicked hot fire: 20 ft. tall cedars killed by fire, all reduced to a red needle stage. The Nature Conservancy has the right idea.

I don't really know why some land managers aim to protect single species at the detriment of the entire landscape. I am reminded tonight of the mind-numbing diatribe the land manager at Illinois' rich, biodiverse La Rue Pine Hills gave recently. "We only have this small population of pine trees, so we're not going to burn them because we don't want to damage them." With this mentality, the manager will no longer see pine regeneration. His upland pine woodland is fire dependent. I audibly sighed when I heard this. In some circles, fire is still the enemy of trees. I happen to run in the circles where these arcane ideas are ridiculed.

1 comment:

Ted M. said...

Ashe-Juniper Natural Area is the ultimate example of this - on my many visits there I've lamented how this species has been allowed to form a thick, nearly impenatrable growth, crowding out the small, remnant glades that still remain on the property. Ashe's juniper is abundant in the White River Hills, fire management on MDC and DNR sites there will not endanger its continued presence in the state. What it would do is allow us to once again see what these habitats looked like when Ashe's juniper was an element of the landscape rather than a monoculture.