Friday, September 26, 2008

Beyond the fence

Earlier this week, I visited one of those lousy tracts of unmanaged woods that rest waiting for a good, old fashioned restoration project. I saw aged, stunted post oaks and blackjack oaks that recall the very open landscape early surveyors witnessed in the 1840s. Stately old trees were surrounded by hundreds, nay, thousands of even-aged oak sprouts growing out of bare soil, no semblance of the rich herbaceous layer Schoolcraft wrote about when he waxed poetic about the Niangua Basin. The early surveyors wrote about how the dew-covered tall grasses and wildflowers soaked their trousers. An elk could hide in the grass layer of these woods back then.

Of course, you can't see the trashed woods without visiting the nice ones nearby, if only to calm the nerves. (I have this terrible habit of getting really tense in lousy woods because I see all the hard work that's required for restoration) Several miles away, a whole gaggle of us stepped into a small woodland that holds the record as the most species-rich acre-for-acre woodland in Missouri (and it's not a Natural Area!). As happy as botanists can get, we all walked gently, single file through the woodland, excited by the 8 foot tall big bluestem! the goldenrods! the legumes! Burned regularly, this tract of dry chert woodlands represents the gold standard, what most woodland managers strive for in the Niangua Basin. We walked on for several hundred yards until we reached a rusty barbed wire fence. I don't know who said it first, but it was repeated several times: "Oh, crap. There's a fence."

Even as late as the 1950s, the US Forest Service printed brochures titled "Ozark Glades: Great for Grazing," with a single fat cow chomping grasses and forbs to the ground. Grazing history on Ozark glades and woodlands goes back further than even the original General Land Office land survey, conducted between the 1820s-1850s in the Ozark Highlands. Fences and cattle were noted by surveyors on the landscape as early as the 1830s, so our records of the historic vegetation are not as pure as many of us would like them to be. The cows, sheep, goats haven't been behind that fence in this tract of woods for -at the very least- 30 years, but their impacts remain: oak sprouts, bare soil, few legumes, a handful of grass, a few generalist species that can show up just as easily in a woodland unburned for 50 years or an old field.

The land managers here do their part on both sides of that rusty fence. They send hot fires through the tract almost annually. Years ago, they thinned some of the trees to allow more light to the woodland floor. But they simply can't repair the damage done by grazing. None of us walked too deeply into the grazed side of the fence because we couldn't break through the oak sprouts.

So you breathe deeply. You return to the sweet spots. You make sure you can protect the ungrazed woodlands and glades. Or you drive around an entire watershed and look for the potential, the unburned acres that would respond better to fire than the area behind the fence. Finally, you hope that the owners of these lands want deer with big racks, woodlands free of brush, a landscape attractive to turkey and quail, because that's the only way these remnant tracts will be preserved.

1 comment:

Paul W Nelson said...

Damn, I wish you had been around to write in my TNC book. You would have written the threats section much better than I. You nailed this Ozark fence thing, and I'm pleased you mentioned the Forest Service glade grazing brochure. So when do we ever find the time to concept the Glades of Missouri guide, primarily because I can't wait to read what you write about them. I'm proud you are on my side of the fence.