Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Giving nature structure

Back in the day, long before GPS units and soils mapping, terrestrial natural communities were named after the three dominant plants which presented themselves in a given area. What we now call a dry chert woodland, for example, would likely be called "post oak-big bluestem-summer grape." This old nomenclature might suggest, statistically, what the three dominant plants are, but it doesn't tell you aspect, substrate, or even suggest the complex matrix that the succint "dry chert woodland" does. Dry chert woodlands are oak or oak/short leaf pine communities, often occupying ridges and backslopes. They are found on south and west facing slopes, but can also show up on protected north and east slopes. They have a developed ground layer vegetation, not necessarily dominated by big bluestem.

Many years ago, The Nature Conservancy applied this antiquated classification system to the rare terrestrial communities of the Midwest. If, for example, you wanted to learn about Ozark fens, you’d have to know that they are dominated by three sedges, namely Carex interior, C. lurida and C. leptalea. If you wanted to learn specifically about a deep muck fen, you’re out of luck with this system. All Ozark fens are clumped into one category.

The plant-based classification system is likely a useful tool to a botanist already familiar with the communities, but for someone trying to cut her teeth on, say, fens, the system was difficult to navigate. Granted, a lot of work went into this document, thousands of hours in the field, I'm sure. Lots of statistical analysis. The authors might have even employed sweet differential equations to figure out dominance. To really learn and understand Missouri’s natural communities, though, other factors besides vegetative structure need to be considered. Natural communities also include animals, rocks, soils; they're based in landscapes, not just a collection of plants. That being said, when I really want to learn a natural community, I turn to Paul Nelson, the Yoda of natural history in Missouri.

Terrestrial natural communities are defined as “interrelated assemblages of plants and animals which are found in a given area.” To determine communities, several other factors are taken into account: soil types, topography, rock substrate, hydrology, percentage of canopy closure, types and percentage of ground cover, shrubs and vines. When all of these characteristics are taken together, they will create a certain environment where specific species will survive. These specific species define the community.

According to Nelson's Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri (available at parks for $30, at university bookstores for $100), our state harbors 49 different community types and 64 subtypes. The systematic classification of types and subtypes requires careful deliberation (and lots of fieldwork). To borrow a community type you may remember from my time down south, the community Bottomland Forest can be broken into 5 subtypes: dry-mesic, mesic, wet-mesic, wet, and riverfront, all with their own plant and animal associations. (I use that word a lot, mesic, and I don’t think I’ve ever defined it for you: mesic describes moisture availability. Mesic sites are well drained, but the water is removed from the soil slowly, making the ground wet for a short period. Plant diversity, I find, is higher in mesic sites. More sedges than in the dry sites). It is actually the presence of certain keystone species, soil types, and hydrology that largely dictate the differences between these subtypes. Cane grows in mesic, Carex lupulina grows in wet. In prairie, for a better example, the height of the grass, the aspect of the topography and soil types will distinguish a dry loess-glacial till prairie from a dry-mesic loess-glacial till prairie. In the previous community, soils are excessively drained and dominated by little bluestem and hairy grama. These communities appear on steep slopes in the prairie. In the latter, soils are well-drained, the dominant grasses are big bluestem and Indian grass, and are generally found on gentle slopes.

Almost every acre of Missouri has been classified into a community type. Using soils and geological maps, we can determine what should be growing where St. Louis is, for example. But classification isn’t just available for plant communities. Wetlands and even caves have been broken down into subtypes. Within wetlands are 13 subsections, from pond marsh to dolomite spring. Clearly, vegetation will vary between a southeast Missouri swamp and a Barton County prairie fen. More fasciniating is that within the two types of caves (terrestrial and aquatic), even smaller communities are designated. Among them, the parietal subtype, found on the walls and ceilings in the entrance (harboring camel crickets, long tailed salamanders, and several families of flies) and the organic detritus subtype, consisting of leaf litter and detritus washed into a cave. Organic detritus supports life forms as varied as springtails, millipedes, and isopods which, in turn, support salamander and frog populations.

The delineation between subtypes is based largely in Missouri's rich biodiversity. Pristine upland flatwoods, for example, will have sedges, post oaks, little bluestem. They have been managed with fire, just as they were historically, and they now serve as the benchmark. All other woodlands with a perched water table, with clay loam, silt loam or loess-based soils, located on broad upper ridges south of the Missouri River in the Ozarks, with a 30-90% canopy cover, with an undeveloped understory...should look like that pristine upland flatwood. Having that knowledge of which plants should be there helps mandate management regimes. The irony, or the metadiscourse aspect of this, is that Nelson was able to define these subtypes so carefully because he was the one who protected and managed them for biodiversity in the first place. He was the one who could look at a south facing slope choked in cedars and see a glade. Or a woodland filled with scrubby oaks and no understory and see a savanna. With the proper management, biodiversity has returned to thousands of acres throughout Missouri, and it was largely driven by one man. He's very much alive and well, thriving within the USFS, but Missourians should erect a statue to this man nonetheless.

Since the second edition of Nelson’s book, his nomenclature has been adopted by everyone involved in natural resource management in the state. His system is easy to understand by anyone with a basic understanding of ecology. His nice, filled-with-color-plates book helps me return to the shelf the book representing classification by plants only. Nelson reminds me, daily, that earlier systems were, as botanists pre-Linnaeus were, arcane and lugubrious.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Deep muck fen

Psychiatrists regard a patient's indifference to flowers as a symptom of clinical depression. It seems that by the time the singular beauty of a flower in bloom can no longer pierce the veil of black or obsessive thoughts in a person's mind, that mind's connection to the sensual world has grown dangerously frayed.
-Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire

I realized today, zooming past limestone bluffs covered in icicles, that I haven't posted pretty pictures of flowers in several months. During the day, I'm learning my Ozark plants, trying to learn which plants grow in which community before they actually appear in the field. I'm doing this for several reasons, and not the least of which is that I hate having to ask my esteemed colleagues for plant identifications. So, I'm systematically going through all of the various habitats and learning all of the plants associated with them. Today I came across a great community, the deep muck fen, which is rich with rare, lovely flowers, several pictured, and all of which should remind us of the true splendor of spring.

More importantly, however, is that I'm formally declaring that the Ozark deep muck fen is possibly my favorite community right now (even though it sounds like a Vietnamese noodle dish). As of 10 a.m., deep muck fens knocked out the esteemed dry-mesic chert woodlands, my focus community for the past two weeks. I was gently reminded around 2 p.m. that the great Paul Nelson, my mentor and friend, the true Yoda to Chief's Obi-Wan (I aspire to be Luke), reclassified all of the Ozark fens. Now, officially, all fens are classified as (the unimaginative) Ozark fens with 2 subsections: deep muck and marly seep. Paul did this for a reason. Apparently, the plants in deep muck and seep overlap, with only a handful of true deep muck endemics (species found only in deep muck and not in seeps). Paul is a very deliberate man, and I'm sure he didn't take renaming the fens lightly. I imagine he had long, philosophical discussions about it, probably over campfires, late at night. These are decisions likely not made in a gray walled office.

Nevertheless, Ozark fens, on the whole are fascinating. Most fens in North America appear in the glaciated region of Canada and Minnesota. In the Ozarks, fens occur when mineralized groundwater is pulsed through dolomite rock layers downwards until the water comes out at a resistant bedrock layer. When the minerlized water reaches the surface, it creates a mucky, wet, cool environment. When the glaciers retreated from Missouri during the Pleistocene, several cool climate plants were left behind, many of them thriving in the constant, 56 degree waters of fens.

Because the water has moved through dolomite, it has high levels of soluble calcium and magnesium. Fen soil levels range from shallow to very deep, and plant fertility is, generally, very high. Deep muck fens, in particular, bog-like areas characterized by 15-40 inches (or more!) of deep mucky soils (officially called mucky sedge peat, formed by decomposing vegetative matter) and pools of standing water. They are characterized by sedges and wildflowers, with some areas harboring a diversity of shrubs. Several state listed rare and endangered plants and invertebrates appear only on these fens. When early travelers fell into them, they thought it was quicksand. In a landscape built on top of dolomite, limestone and sandstone, any community that boasts a rich soil layer is worth lauding.

For a deep muck fen to occur, the area must have a sufficient recharge and storage capacity that insures an uninterrupted groundwater supply. Too, just under the surface, there must be an impermeable layer of limestone, sandstone, or dolomite that impedes water movement. Deep muck fens generally occur at toeslopes (the concave or abrupt change in elevation at a hillslope base, usually composed of colluvium washed down from higher slopes) and in rich valleys, offering a constant source of water to breeding amphibians and birds like American bitterns and rails. In the Ozarks, with the right topography, with the right subsurface layers, fens appear! And based on their wildflower and sedge diversity, they're a sight to behold.

Like most freshwater wetlands in Missouri's Ozarks, deep muck fens are a rare occurrence. In fact, there are only eight in the whole state worth their salt in biodiversity. Most wetlands have been drained or otherwise damaged; one deep muck fen was used as a mudpit by mountain bikers until it was restored in the 1980s. The site will never be restored to its pre-destruction splendor, but some obligate sedges and wildflowers have moved in again.

Especially notable in the world of deep muck fens is Blair Creek Raised Fen, located in eastern Shannon Co, one of the prettiest counties in the state (top three: Shannon, Carter, Taney, all in the Lower Ozarks). This fen is found at the base of a wooded slope and it represents the only known raised deep muck fen in the state. The thick soil and organic material deposits have swollen above the surrounding flatland. Within this curious development grow the state listed rare marsh blue violet and orange coneflower. It has been estimated that Blair Creek Raised Fen is 4,000 years old, slowly building its soil layer, protected by its presence within the Mark Twain National Forest.

The hydrology of fens is largely unknown. Fen groundwater doesn't necessarily correlate with the surface water recharge area. Nevertheless, precautions should be made to protect the watersheds around these rare communities. The delicate nature of water quality in fens directly impacts the amphibians and diverse invertebrate lives that call these communities home. Many fens are threatened by alterations in hydrology, what with landowners trenching and draining fens to allow more grazing of cattle on the rich soils. I'm reminded that all natural resource management really comes down to the soil layers. Areas with great soils are the first to be plowed and grazed, poor soil areas are the last. Deep muck fens, unfortunately, and as their name suggests, have great soils. Oh, but the diversity they produce! Those brightly colored ArcView soil maps are coming in handy already...

So, borrowed from Ozark fen fans, pictures of marsh violet, grass pink orchid (which shows up in droves after a spring burn in Louisiana's pitcher bogs), shining ladies tresses orchid, and Riddell's goldenrod, a state listed species. A little spring and autumn beauty on this 20 degree night.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

1964 Wilderness Act

Read here the Wilderness Act in its entirety. It addresses roadless areas, ORVs, land granted for perpetuity towards the protection of the resources, mining and resource extraction. Basically, it covers all the protective measures that the current administration is trying to overturn in their last ditch effort to ruin our country's resources.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Anyone who knows me knows that I write letters, often long and drawn out letters about daily life, my thoughts on politics, theatre I missed in New York, New Yorker articles worth mentioning. My letters always come on 100% cotton Crane's paper, engraved, with lined envelopes. It's pretty arcane, really, but I'm stuck in my ways. I send letters to farmers who have provided great greens, bakeries that sold me excellent birthday cakes. Now, after the third night of bowing to my needs, Flat Branch, the brewpub up the street, is getting one.

Deep in the throes of the Australian Open, we've gone to Flat Branch several times this week to cadge a watch of matches on ESPN2. Seldom ordering food, my first order is to ask the bartender to change the channel. During the Green Bay game on Sunday, she asked, simply, "what channel...." No one groaned, no one complained. And I watched tennis! Tonight, the Pistons game. "Can you switch it to the Australian Open?" The bartender changed the channel. Venus played a terrible match against Jankovic. It was so clumsy, in fact, that I'm starting to rethink my loyalties. And, not to be picky, but can you, dear bartender, also turn off the closed captioning which covers up the baseline? Sure, no problem. And can I yell when Jokovic slams a lob shot at Ferrer? Not a problem. Can I slap my hand against the bar when Venus slams another ball into the net? Sure, who wouldn't? Maybe this is why sports bars are popular. What a great place. If only Flat Branch was open for the 3:30 am Federer match.

A question posed over Brown Ale: if Venus, Gasquet, Nadal and Sharapova were invited to play mixed doubles, who would be paired with whom, and which team would win? I have my answer, but I'm curious of what my friends think.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Frost flowers

Every autumn in the Ozarks, before the ground freezes, woodlands are awash in delicate ice formations called frost flowers. These fragile sculptures occur in shady areas, or in the morning hours before the sun has a chance to reach the floor.

Frost flowers are formed when the sap in certain plants freezes, thereby expanding in the stem and causing the formation of small fissures. Water is drawn up through the stem, but as it exits the cracks, it freezes upon contact with the air. As capillary action pulls more water through the stem, the ice is forced out of the cracks, curling into delicate "petals."

In the Ozarks, they only occur in a handful of species. Among them are ironweed and snakeroot, both fall blooming wildflowers. Every frost flower is different, some more ornate than others. They're extremely delicate, breaking at the slightest touch.

I missed seeing them this year, as I was in the middle of a move when they were forming (picture by Ozark native Peter Callaway). Next fall, girded with the knowledge of species composition in several Ozark woodlands, I'll make sure I'm in the woods on those late autumn mornings to take some photos of my own.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Freshwater mussels

North America is home to almost 300 freshwater mussel species, with 71 on the Endangered Species List. Missouri, a land of clear, fast moving streams and rivers, hosts 69 species, with the highest diversity occurring in the Ozark Highlands. One of Missouri's mussels, Cumberlandia monodonta, the spectaclecase, is marching towards the federal list (they have feet!), what with the largest populations in the country found in two Ozark rivers-- the Meramec and the Gasconade.

Mussels live in a variety of habitats, from clear rivers to sluggish prairie streams. (When I lived in southeast Missouri, I found 8 species living in pesticide-rich ditches, partially buried in the silty substrate.) Some mussels require large boulders upon which they can attach, while others, like the heel splitter, can live in sandy soils without a rocky substrate. They feed on plankton and detritus which they are able to filter from the water. In fact, mussels have the ability to filter everything from the pesticide dieldrin to heavy metals, which makes them rather undesirable to the restaurant industry. It has been estimated that they can filter 100 gallons of water a day, keeping rivers free of bacteria, sediment and contaminants. When the sediment load in a river becomes too heavy, however, they suffer, unable to keep up. They are somewhat mobile animals, moving around gravels by implementing their foot, a strong muscle found at the base of the shell.

To reproduce, many mussels require the presence of a certain fish species. One, the winged mapleleaf (a federally listed animal), uses the channel catfish as a host. Others are generalists, using anything from bluegill to bass as a host fish. The reproduction of mussels is a fascinating process; they produce a lure that can look like a minnow, a crawfish, or some other invertebrate. Attracted by the lure, a fish will swim directly next to the mussel, at which time, the mussel releases thousands of glochidia, small immature mussels which attach to the fish's gills. There they will stay, not harming the fish, but growing to juvenile stage when they release their grip on the fish to settle to the bottom of the waterway. If you look to the right of your screen, you'll see a link to (the brilliant, fantastic, kind) Dr. Chris Barnhart's mussel webpage; on it, you can see videos of this process which he filmed in aquaria. Truly fascinating.

Considering that certain mussels require certain fish for breeding, the conservation of fish populations ties directly to conservation efforts for mussels. Clearly, without the fish, the mussel can't reproduce. With the disappearance of many darters in Ozark rivers, the mussels dependent on them will fade from the landscape.

Mussel populations were never in any real trouble until the end of the last century. Around 1889, a button manufacturer in Iowa harvested mussel beds near Muscatine, depleting a population. In the company's search for more raw material, the industry began traveling up and down rivers, harvesting other populations. As the button industry grew, so too did the demand for mussels. In 1896, 500 tons of mussels were taken from one mussel bed two miles long and a quarter mile wide.

Certain species were more valuable to the button industry than others: the ebony shell, mucket, slough sand shell, etc. These had a white, unblemished nacre and were of uniform thickness. By 1912, the Bureau of Fisheries determined that the profit afforded by mussels to the button industry totaled $6,173,486. The depletion of the mussel beds in American rivers was looming large on the industry; clearly, they were taking more than were reproducing. Unfortunately, with the increase in timber harvest and other land clearing operations, America's rivers were being bombarded with silt and sediment that choked mussel populations. Not to mention the overharvesting of certain fish species which mussels depend on and the general water pollution that comes with industrialization. All of these factors had immediate implications for the early 20th decline of mussels.

With the big river mussel populations harvested to near extirpation, the button industry moved their operations to smaller streams and rivers. In 1913, northern Missouri's Tarkio and Nodaway Rivers were dredged, leaving tons of mussels in the shallow backwaters. Today, no mussels are present in these rivers. It wasn't until the close of World War II when the introduction of plastics obviated the need for mussel collection by the button industry.

Mussel populations returned to some of the over-harvested rivers, thanks to the host fish populations which carried the glochidia. Many mussel populations, especially in the Mississippi River, have never recovered because of channelization, sedimentation and pollution. The best habitat for mussels remains free flowing rivers, free of sewage, feedlot runoff, mine tailings and other pollution. The construction of dams and lakes also destroys populations by cutting off the fish host source and reducing the food source. I think we're past the period of damming rivers and streams in Missouri, something which bodes well for our mussels. Too, our fish biologists now work directly with mussel biologists to identify hosts and implement protection measures.

Missouri is fortunate to have a stalwart group of malacologists (those who study mussels) who has dedicated their lives to the protection of these fascinating invertebrates. It's a small group, but each member is eager to get out into the field, to conduct research, to educate. Now, they're working diligently to protect the remaining populations of the spectaclecase. Historically, they were widespread, appearing even in the Niangua drainage. Knowing how talented and eager these men are to protect mussels, Missouri's populations have a chance for survival. If only other states could be so lucky.

Australian Open 2008

"Love the Australian Open, always love the Aussie Open. The late nights, the bright courts, the blistering sun that you can almost will yourself to feel on a cold night in New York, the bleary-eyed exhaustion the next day—it’s like a nighttime winter vacation for American tennis fans. Something about the extra effort it takes to watch makes it that much more worthwhile. Anybody can flick on CBS in the middle of a September afternoon and watch the U.S. Open. To keep up with the Australian is to join an exclusive club of obsessives—very classy obsessives, of course. " -Steve Tignor

And what joy! Roddick is OUT! American men's tennis has never been worse. James Blake barely scraped by Grosjean tonight, and Roddick continues to play his "all brawn, no brains" game where he invariably ignores the net, thinking that sheer strength will bring him a win. You'll never beat Federer that way.

Venus plays tonight around 3:30 AM on ESPN 2; so, those of you with not only a television but ESPN access, enjoy. I just spent the evening at Columbia's fine Flat Branch, a local brewpub a few blocks away that not only has great, friendly service, but a menu that includes a plate of raw broccoli and carrots. All I had to do is ask the bartender to change the channel from the Pistons game to the Open. And he did! Gladly! I love my new city.

I bring your attention to a link located to the right of your screen. A fan of my favorite player, Richard Gasquet, has been running this blog about tennis, going to tournaments, posting notes about matches. Mr. Gasquet and Racquet has found a new job that involves tennis and now he doesn't have as much time for his blog. Nevertheless, scroll down on the Lindsay Davenport post to read his thoughts on the first round of the Australian Open. Gasquet looked good, he says, but I didn't get to see it.

I'm lucky to have a tennis coach who agrees with my taste in players. He's a big fan of Lendl, Edburg, Graf. We grew up during different tennis eras, but he understands my loyalties and he, too, doesn't like Roddick. I'm reminded that moons ago, Mats Wilander told Roddick that he'd have to diversify his game if he wanted to win Wimbledon. Years later, he's playing the same game, with the same strong arm, with the same clumsiness at the net. And he's out of the Australian Open in early rounds.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Into wilderness

The richest values of the wilderness lie not in the days of Daniel Boone, nor even in the present, but rather in the future. -Aldo Leopold

On Sept. 4, 1964, President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, which set aside 9 million acres of land to be preserved in its natural condition, where the “imprint of man’s work is substantially unnoticed.” The act further established a set of guidelines for Congress that would allow the addition of acreage at a future date. Since 1964, over 96 million acres have been added to the National Wilderness Preservation System, all managed by four federal agencies: the National Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Congress defined wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” It was further described as an area “without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions. Wilderness should 1) generally appear to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, and 2) have outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.”

The goal of managing wilderness is to control human activity so that interference with nature is minimal. There are no benches, culverts, concrete trails in Wilderness Areas. Boardwalks and steps are unacceptable in Wilderness Areas. No mechanized equipment can be used in a Wilderness Area. But sometimes, the hand of man is necessary to preserve that very wildness, to preserve the landscape that made it worthy of designation. Ecological stewardship in Wilderness Areas is a very delicate subject among members of the Sierra Club and other wilderness advocates.

If, for example, buckthorn and other exotic species move into a Wilderness Area, the very nature of the wild landscape has changed. It has been negatively impacted, however indirectly, by the hand of man. But to preserve the character of wildness and the peaceful, natural soundscape, the use of chain saws is prohibited in these areas. Hackles are regularly raised over this restriction. If, for example, a tornado rips through and hundreds of trees block the trails, a cross cut saw must be used. Likewise, to remove exotics, hand saws and loppers must be used. Since the designation of Wilderness Areas, many of these pristine landscapes have, in fact, become overrun with exotics because of this rule. Wilderness advocates sometimes argue that exotics are part of “natural succession,” that it’s “nature’s way” and that manipulation of any kind interrupts wilderness. Knowing that exotics wouldn’t be here in the first place if we had not introduced them, I argue against that.

After the Wilderness Act was passed, land managers justifiably complained that, in some cases, chainsaws are a necessary tool for proper management of Wilderness Areas. Congress drafted a lengthy, detailed Minimum Requirements Decision worksheet which forces land managers to outline the reasons and purposes of chain saw use (as well as any other form of motorized equipment). Other options must be explored and discussed, thoroughly. The worksheet has to be approved by the District Ranger or the person ultimately in control of the Wilderness Area. Decisions to allow chainsaws are not taken lightly.

Clearly, the loud whir of a chainsaw disturbs the wilderness character. If chainsaws are to be used, it must be during a time of little to no visitation. The amount of time the chainsaw will be used must be preapproved. On occasion, when environmental groups learn that a Minimum Requirements Decision is requested, they offer opinions and suggestions on the matter. The Sierra Club, who literally paved the way for the Wilderness Act, has gone so far as to develop their own wilderness management policy which states “minimal manipulation may be allowed in order to restore human-disturbed environments or offset human-induced restrictions on natural processes.” I think that covers the control of exotics. But reading some of the arguments against allowing chainsaws has made me realize that wilderness is, above all else, a very emotional term.

According to the Wilderness Act, wilderness is a place for “spiritual renewal” and “solitude” (today's Congress would never dream of writing anything like that). John Muir’s strong words are often evoked in discussions of wilderness. As elegantly stated by Congress, wilderness is a place where “man is but a visitor who does not remain.” Peacefulness, and the interdependency of the earth’s natural processes and life forms are protected under the designation of wilderness.

Missouri is home to 8 Wilderness Areas, with all but one (Mingo Wilderness Area in southeast Missouri) located in the Ozark Highlands’ sprawling Mark Twain National Forest. Irish Wilderness (pictured) is the largest, with over 16,000 acres of fantastic woodlands, streams and glades. I’ve only been through a small part of it, barely scratched the surface, really, and felt very alone, very quiet, and very content. That afternoon, I didn’t encounter another soul. No horses, no ATVs, no cell phone service. I heard lots of wood thrushes and black and white warblers. I found mosses which I had never seen before. I was alone with my thoughts, battling it out with myself, trying to understand my role in this world and the roots of genuine happiness, when a great wave of calm moved in. Now, at my lowest moments, I rush to the woods, ever distracted by wilderness, ever calm until the outside world yells at me to come back. True wilderness is a treasure. Vast stretches of native landscapes, uninterrupted, unimpaired by exotic species and viewshed pollution are even more valuable to me. This is why I am dedicating my life, wholly and resolutely, to protecting them.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


We're getting ready for another round of snow, ice, and relatively low temperatures (0 degrees tomorrow), so I thought I'd post some images from one of my parks clad in snow:
A losing stream which leads into River Cave. On the back side of the park is a heavily grazed, terribly degraded field that looked, oddly, peaceful to me. I appreciate the undulating nature of the landscape, dotted with post oaks.

A fuzzy shot of a three-toed box turtle found almost a mile into River Cave, having been flushed in by the aforementioned stream--I created a brummation tank for him where he'll spend the rest of the winter. He was pretty cold when we found him, so I packed him, a green frog, two leopard frogs and a handful of trash into my waders before leaving the cave.
I fed him chopped up worms and buried him in a mud-leaf mixture. Not too deep, of course, in the event of a warm February day when he wants to come out to feed. I put the frogs in one of the small pools of the stream where they immediately swam under a rock. I don't know if they'll make it, but the water temperature is a nice 50 degrees. Beats dying in a cave, I think. Chief said I should have left them all in the cave but the trash: "...they're a food source, an important part of the cave ecosystem...." I agree, but they remain frogs and turtles. I will never willingly allow a frog or turtle to die, even if death is what nature dictates.
And finally, on the theme of snow, one of my favorite people in the world, my lovely, stalwart supporter, my baby sister on a recent trip to the Tetons. She's fed up with snow. She wants to be able to get out of her driveway again. She wants to go kayaking. She wants to plant lettuce. Like everyone else in my family, we appreciate the hands we're dealt, making the best of every situation. Everyday, locked in her house because the snow plow guy won't come that far into the country, she dons her cross country gear and takes off to the mountains behind the house.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Henry Rowe Schoolcraft

“I begin my tour where others have ended theirs, on the confines of wilderness, and at the last village of white inhabitants….” Such are the first words of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s journal of his travels through the Ozarks, “into the interior of Missouri and Arkansaw.” His journal remains a primary source for land managers as the best description of the Ozarks before settlement by Europeans. He writes extensively about the land, describing the geology, landscapes, rivers, wildlife, but not once in his journal does he call the rugged, rocky terrain “the Ozarks.”

Schoolcraft, passionate about geologic wonders, set out from Potosi, Missouri in 1818on a 90 day tour through a wilderness as yet undiscovered by white settlers. Osage tribes thrived throughout the Ozarks, and in a second book, Schoolcraft documents the lifestyles and cultures of them. His travel journal entries, prosaic at times and fanciful in others, even verging on eldritch in places, detail a landscape hardly recognizable today. He describes herds of elk and bison roaming through “extensive tallgrass prairie on barren, rocky soils,” a terrestrial community we now call glades. He writes of acres of bottomland forests and wetlands dominated by grasses and sedges; located on declivities, oak woodlands, “a country being of that open nature which is in a great degree destitute of shrubs and bushes.” The presettlement Ozark landscape was so open, in fact, that on several occasions, Schoolcraft notes that there is seldom enough firewood to cook his evening meals.

After Schoolcraft's tour, and, more importantly, as the populations changed in the Ozarks, so, too did land management techniques. Natural and anthropogenic fires were squelched, inviting open woodlands to mature into dense forests. Cedars ran rampant over the glades. Cedars invaded so quickly and ruminants overgrazed what little grass was left that pristine glades are rare; they are, in fact, listed as a critically imperiled landscape by the Natural Heritage Database. Timber harvest and subsequent agricultural practices have caused rivers and streams to become choked with gravel; as the land was cleared of trees, erosion brought ancient gravels and soils into the riverbeds.

Now, in the 21st century, managers are able to use his descriptions as guiding tools for restoration. We know from Schoolcraft that the igneous glades of the lower Ozarks had large populations of stunted post oaks. Unlike chert and limestone glades, both traditionally free of trees, restored igneous glades are now free of cedars, and after several seasons of prescribed fires, they are dotted with stunted post oaks. We know that around Findley’s Fork, the land was “a level plain moderately elevated, covered in white and black oak, and some underbrush, with a soil susceptible of cultivation, distinctive, however of streams.” Naturally, as Schoolcraft presumed it would be, this area is now in cultivation, awaiting restoration.

Unlike land surveyors who traditionally only document witness trees, Schoolcraft described the trees, shrubs and even the herbaceous layer. His thorough documentation instructs us of what should be there, be it populations of prairie chickens on the Springfield Plateau or black oaks along the White River. What should be there would be there, but for the hands of the European settlers.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Chief and I spent the gorgeous, bluebird sky day deep in the Ozark woods ensuring that a pristine dry chert woodland was receiving the care it truly deserves. My awesome boss is a big man, he's Gary Cooper from High Noon, slightly hunched shoulders, but a strong presence. He requires a lot of calories and a ridiculous amount of coffee during the day. At the recommendation from field staff, we left the wooded tract and settled down at The Circle J, a roadside trailer-like structure that overlooks the park.

Upon entry, noticing all the deer antlers, white geese with blue kercheifs around their necks, and rural ephemera, I imagined that I would that I would have to settle for a salad dominated by iceberg lettuce. Instead, I ordered the grilled cheese sandwich, wheat bread, no butter ("but it ain't gonna taste any good that way!" my server told me) and the cauliflower chowder (I was promised: no chicken stock). It was great. It was a terrific lunch. We accomplished a lot, to boot. At the end of our meeting, I went to the register to pay the waitress for the meal which was so large that I couldn't finish. "$2.89." No, I argued, I had the soup, the sandwich and water. "$2.89." As I collected my jaw off the ground and gave her my American Express card, I remembered that I was, indeed, in the Ozarks.

While good food is really cheap down here, I thought land prices would be, literally, through the roof. What with timber prices so high, and development for subdivisions a priority throughout the Ozarks, one would think that land would be expensive here. 160 acres of Current River-front property, oak hickory woodlands, no structures, for $75,000. 87 acres of pristine property that borders a state park, $119,000. Food is cheap, petrol is cheap ($2.69/gal.), land is cheap. I hope no one finds out about this...

Monday, January 14, 2008

Upland battle

When I first moved to southeast Missouri, I decided that I wanted to learn the soils of the area. If you know the soils, you can generally assess the landscape--what should be growing where. I was almost overwhelmed by the soils of Crowley's Ridge, all complex, ancient, loess-based, Ordovician series with names unfamiliar. It didn't take long for me to learn the soils, to be able to look at a soils map of the Mississippi Alluvial Basin and determine, despite what crop was growing there presently, what should be growing there. High oak woodlands, for example, prefer the Tunica series. Pignut hickories grow on series with "silt" in the name. Cane, in particular, likes Tunica Sharkey Silt Loam. Soil series are truly fascinating; they are, indeed, the basis for our knowledge of terrestrial communities. After all, the length of time certain soils hold water, the nutrients they contain, and the rocky base upon which they rest all dictate what plants grow there. A key element in understanding all of natural history.

Since I've moved to the Ozarks, I've jumped into learning a fabulous computer program called ArcView. All of the data in this program come from global positioning units, historical maps, and other satellite-based informational sources. With a click of the mouse, you can see topographical lines, historical waterways, land types, current land uses, geology, Quaternary geology, Ordovician layers. The list goes on...all schools in the area, all water wells, every gravel road. Today, I, for a lark, pulled up all of Missouri's former missle silos. It's no surprise that they are located primarily in the western prairies, but satellite imagery merely shows depressions in the soil, all in a uniform rectangular shape.

When I started mapping the Ozark soils for the parks in the district, I was almost overwhelmed by the program (but with unflappable support from my colleagues, I tackled it). All of these series I don't know. All of the plant associations I don't know. Fifteen different varieties of the same soil, but different based on the percentage of slope upon which they are found. To show you just how overwhelming this can be, I'm attaching two maps (which I made!): the first is of a Mississippian Mound Builder site located in southeast Missouri. Dominated by recent deposits of alluvium, I know that this area, before being altered by anthropogenic forces, was once a cypress swamp and bottomland forest full of cottonwoods, ash and maples. The second map is of a small state park in the Ozarks. Within the confines of this 3,500 acre park are south facing slopes full of prairie plants, seeps, springs, caves, woodlands, savannas, even some forest. Knowing that soil maps never lie, and that you can tell a lot about a landscape based on its soils, I recognize tonight that I truly have my work cut out for me. I have, in fact, an upland battle.

Of Mice and Fire

Driving southwest out of the Ozarks, the landscape changes quickly. Leaving behind dolomite bluffs and limestone outcroppings, forests and woodlands transition into tallgrass prairie. But in between the deep, fern-rich forest and prairie are acres of open oak savannas where the dominant components of prairie and forest grow together. Historically, savannas occurred along the east and south edges of prairie and resulted from the invasion of fire into the woodlands, rather than trees moving into the prairie.

To revisit an old saw, in the absence of fire many of these historical savannas, once rich with prairie grasses and wildflowers, have turned into closed canopy forests with little herbaceous growth. In the past 25 years throughout the Ozarks, efforts have been made to restore this landscape using fire as the primary management tool. Vegetative response has been overwhelmingly positive; Chief calls savannas “nature’s food plots,” because of the rich diet they offer every animal, from mice to deer.

While the vegetative response to fire has been well-documented in these restored Ozark savannas, the associated faunal populations have only been tracked by a handful of graduate students. Out of this body of research comes an interesting discussion about mice populations in a fire-dependent landscape. Early research suggested that mouse populations are decimated after a burn. Some writers have even argued that while certain mouse species live in fire-dependent landscape, our current practice of implementing prescribed fire every three to five years may be excessive and therefore harmful. Populations just can’t recover that fast. The latest study on this topic proves that populations aren’t wiped out, they simply change.

As partial fulfillment of a Master’s Thesis from Central Missouri State University, Becky Erickson examined mice populations in several comparative habitats: among them, savannas managed with frequent, low intensity fires, closed canopy forests, and savannas with no fire management. The fire-managed savanna site provided 90.4% herbaceous cover and 40% canopy cover. On the flip side, herbaceous cover in the forest ranked 58% and canopy cover was 97.2%. White footed mice dominated the captures across all sites. Chipmunks, Eastern wood rats, and short tailed shrews only appeared in the sites managed with fire.

Erickson discovered that the lowest numbers of small mammals were trapped in the closed canopy forest. However, short-tailed shrews and chipmunks were aided by the deep leaf litter and rocky outcroppings in the forest. The largest number of animals appeared, incidentally, in the savannas with rich herbaceous cover. Not surprisingly, mice captured in the savannas, the habitat with a stable food source, typically weighed more than the ones caught in the forest.

Some of the animals she captured, namely hispid cotton rats and woodrats, thrive in the open canopy savanna, but only when there is plenty of grass for nest building and warmth. So, following a burn, they will be in the adjacent woodlands or forest, not in the savanna. Shrews were most often encountered in closed canopy systems where the abundance of leaf litter allowed for frequent feeding on invertebrates. The white footed mouse she describes as a habitat generalist, showing up in every habitat under all circumstances.

Because the fire regime tends to run on a 3 to 5 (or more) year cycle, the composition of small mammal populations changes with the landscape. This study revealed that intermediate and irregular fire disturbance benefits small mammal populations. The first year after a burn, white footed mice appear. As the herbaceous layer grows, hispid cotton mice and wood rats move in. Later, after four or five years without fire, the chipmunks and short-tailed shrews move in. But to maintain the open canopy and the herbaceous layer, fire must be applied. And so,the circle continues. Her conclusion that the most speciose and abundant populations were in the fire-controlled savannas was no surprise, really. When landscapes are managed for biodiversity rather than for an endangered plant, or a certain species of mouse, or deer, they respond in kind--with biodiversity at every level.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Edge of possibility

The tree that moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes
Of others only a green thing that stands in the way.
Some see nature all ridicule and deformity...
And some scarce see it at all.
But to the eyes of the man of imagination,
Nature is imagination itself.
As a man is so he sees.

-William Blake

Friday, January 11, 2008

We take it from where we can get it

From my lovely friend, Kerrie, in Oregon:

I'm lucky to sit by a big picture window here at my workplace. I'm fascinated with watching the clouds drift by, and identifying the different varieties. When I stand and look out, I can see some noble, large neighborhood trees and birds flying by singly and in groups. (Amazingly, somehow I still manage to get top marks for productivity from my boss!)

Or you could be like my secretary who puts out this little millet feeder for the juncos in a patch of turf no greater than 5 sq. ft. Or the air pollution secretary who spends her lunch break walking around our earth contact building. Or like my boss, who watches the leaf litter whirl into tornadoes as he's plotting his next directive. Or when you're tired of being inside you can check out the program's vehicle and rush off to the Ozark woods whenever it strikes your fancy.

Jessica Terrell, 1977-2008

Two days ago, the natural resource world lost a staunch advocate, and many of us lost a sweet friend. Jessica Terrell, New Mexico State Parks' Trail Coordinator, worked tirelessly towards her goal of getting people into the outdoors, into native landscapes without compromising the integrity of them. She was a firm believer in the principles of Leave No Trace, a set of ethics that minimize one's impact on the natural world. She was a sweet, genuinely happy girl who felt most at home in the woods. Her smile was traffic-stopping, her gait and mannerisms were strong, confident. She regularly met her professional and personal goals by designing trails that minimized erosion and further destruction of the landscape.

She maintained a journal of her treks which you can read here. The following is from a 2007 journal entry. It captures her joy, her happiness, her gentle soul. While she strove to have minimal impact on the land, her impact on others, always positive, punctuated with a laugh and a smile, was strong.

My Favorite Day

… I know that when I return home, friends and family will be asking “So what was your absolute favorite place on the whole trek?”

What will I tell them? I will start out by saying that every day inevitably seemed better than the last. “Seemed” is the key word, you must realize.

If I were to mix up all the days of the trek and do it all over again, each new day would never cease to “seem” better than the one before it!

So I have come to the conclusion that TODAY will always be my favorite.

The dawn of each new day has and will continue to reveal to me things that have never before occurred, and never will occur again, whether it be a beautiful cloud formation over a particular mountain, the call of elk on a cool morning in a national forest, or even the way rocks glitter in the brightness of the afternoon sun.

Jessica Terrell

Monday, January 07, 2008

Stoney Acres Farms

I dig cheese. Because it's my main source of protein, I eat a lot of it. Every kind (except Monterey Jack, which doesn't even resemble cheese). I could probably buy a new Jetta with the money I spend on cheese annually. So, it was no surprise when I returned my eggplants and green beans to the Mennonite seller three years ago upon seeing Richard's table of cheese at the local farmer's market. I made so little money when I first moved to Missouri that I had to choose what was most important to me. I went without a lot of what I considered necessities in New Orleans. I worked for minimum wage with no benefits and lived between a maintenance shop and a tent, but I couldn't pass up homemade organic sheep milk cheese. Richard returned to Competition, Missouri with an empty cooler.

Richard and Debra moved to the Ozarks from Wisconsin 11 years ago. Sheep milking was catching on in Wisconsin as a sustainable form of agriculture back then; now, there are over thirty farms milking sheep in Wisconsin, mostly in the northern part of the state. Wisconsinites don't like to brag about it, what with their leadership in the cheesemaking world being taken away from them by California, but they are the largest producers of sheep milk cheese in the country.

Sheep are significantly easier on the land than dairy cattle. Sheep can graze 4-5 animals/per acre, but one acre can only support one cow. When Richard first told his Missouri neighbors that he was going to raise sheep, some of them laughed, that this is a cattle state. Sheep are too hard on the land! It's a myth, Richard tells me, that sheep will pull up the roots of grasses and forbs ("maybe if they're penned up too much," he adds). But Richard doesn't have to worry about any kind of land degradation on his farm. He allows 48 sheep to graze freely on 20 of his 150 acres, offering a grain mix of oats, sorghum, corn and wheat as a supplement. Sheep don't compact the soil with their trampling and their manure serves as fertilizer. The main difference between raising cattle and sheep is the fencing. Sheep, when they have wool on, can waltz through a barbed wire fence. He uses chicken wire. Milking sheep have really coarse wool, so Richard uses it as a weed barrier in the garden rather than for making yarn.

The sheep at Stoney Acres Farms are fed worming medication only once, just after birth. For the rest of their lives, they are not given any medications or hormones. Food grade diatomaceous earth is added to their grain every couple of weeks to keep worms and other parasites at bay. Even without using chemicals, Richard's sheep and his cheese operation always pass FDA, USDA and state regulations. He's filling out registration papers for the label "natural food source." Because there are no suppliers of organic grain, he can't register as USDA Organic. But he's close. He doesn't use any fertilizers on his farm and keeps his animals free of chemicals.

Raw sheep's milk cheese can be made in 7 hours, from milking to processing. Of course, it takes another 12 hours for it to age and harden. Richard offers several kinds of fancy cheeses, but among my favorites are his gouda, Italian garlic, an herbed cheese with rosemary and tarragon, and a fantastic hickory smoked cheese. You can buy his cheeses (and soaps, lotions and smudge, sheep milk fudge) online here. Because he doesn't employ pasteurization, Richard won't ship midweek because he doesn't want to risk having his cheese rest in a UPS truck over a weekend.

If you're ever around Lebanon, Missouri, visit the farm. Richard invites everyone to camp on his beautiful Ozark acreage, hike around the woods, milk a sheep (they're lambing in Febrary; he allows the young to milk for 30 days before he harvests the milk for his products). He's one of only a few sheep farmers in the state, and he'll never raise dairy cattle. The stress on the land is too great, the overhead is too much, and the product isn't as good for you as sheep milk. It's higher in protein, riboflavin, B12 and has 50% more calcium than cow milk. As his brochures say, once you try sheep milk ewe'll never go back.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Hope's Edge

Sitting beneath a healthy stand of sprawling oaks today, I launched into one of my new library books, Hope's Edge. The author, Frances Moore Lappe, wrote the previously referenced Diet for a Small Planet (the book that compelled me to become a vegetarian years ago). In Hope's Edge, she teamed up with her daughter, Anna, to revisit the concept of hunger in America. Times have changed since 1971 when Lappe argued against corporate agriculture and the misuse of our country's resources. Now, not only is America witnessing epidemic proportions of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and a new generation of cancers linked directly to genetically modified foods, pesticide use, and rGBH, but our resources are being stretched to the limit. All the while, the country's food supply is run by a handful of unregulated multimillion dollar companies whose goal is not to provide the country with affordable, healthful food, but to make insane amounts of money.

Hope's Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet offers hope of sustainability through example. Lappe visits community gardens, Alice Waters of San Francisco's Chez Panisse (the chef who brought the values of fresh, local food to the table in the 1970s), farmer's markets, lenders from Bangladesh's microcredit Grameen Bank, L'Etoile, the fancy Madison restaurant that strives to offer as much local food as possible. She provides examples of people breaking out of the consumer-specific mold that we, as a society, not as individuals, have accepted for so long. Lappe wonders: Would you, as an individual, intentionally allow a child to become obese? To become dependent on heart medications at the age of 12? Would you, as an individual, intentionally destroy so many species in this century that it would take 10 million years to recover? Would you, as an individual, decide to create a greenhouse effect which disrupts life in ways that we are only starting to understand? Or, would you, as an individual, intentionally design a community in which half the world's wealth is possessed by 1% of the population?

How can it be, Lappe asks, that as individuals we have created a world that at the deepest level we can't even recognize as our own? Culturally, we have lost sight of individualism; within the culture of individuality, we are able to make conscious decisions for a community. However, individual creativity is no longer celebrated in schools, in culture. Many Americans no longer nourish their souls with music, art, literature. These are the very souls which guide us to do what is right for the community, to solve problems and create solutions, but instead they are the willing targets of $600 billion advertising dollars. If we, as Americans, can't thrive in a community, pursue our creative arts and think outside the proverbial box to find solutions, then we must find nourishment in stuff. Billions of dollars of stuff, in fact, none of which satisfies our souls, our deep yearning to express individuality. So we buy more. At least we feel satisfied when we have more than our neighbor.

We no longer think as individuals but instead are governed by what our society accepts, which is largely dictated by the market economy. So, we, as a society, are not surrounded by individuals playing real, satisfying roles in our community because we don't see others doing it, but seeing what the market economy dictates. Until we see regular people developing their own personal creativity and power, we won't create our own. The problem is that the media never show us those people. Lappe's book introduces the reader to people stepping out of the mold, people using creativity to conserve resources while building sustainable, fulfilling communities. Specifically, she invites us to meet people who don't see food as a commodity, but as an integral part of building a community, people who hope to change the country's mindset through their own personal change and journey. It's a scary proposition, that of inviting change. Chef Alice Waters never had any culinary training before she opened her restaurant. She had to turn away almost 100 patrons the first night her restaurant opened because, in short, she didn't know what she was doing. Change, stepping out of our comfort zone, is scary. Waters really wanted to run a restaurant. She didn't know how at first, but took that first step way back in the early 1970s and since 2001, Chez Panisse has been consistently rated by Gourmet as one of the country's Top 3 restaurants.

For most Americans, what will it take? What will it take to recognize that we have a serious problem with the current economic food system that positively must be changed? When will we realize that the fabric of our community, once held together by sustainable agriculture, sharing, and healthful living, is no longer there? When we see these problems as real issues, then must we think of change. When we realize that we are not living our lives for ourselves, not living our lives for a purpose which is good and driven by personal passion, not contributing to our community, we lose hope. But in the moments of dissonance, the moments when life as we know it is unacceptable, we face fear. To question concepts and ideas which we have lived by and accepted for years takes courage. Fear, unfortunately, is not accepted in America. Stress, anxiety, anger are almost celebrated in this country, almost veritable badges of courage which represent success, that one must be doing something extraordinary if stress/anxiety/anger are felt. But fear? It's a sign of weakness in our culture. It takes inordinate amounts of motivation to face fear. To find that motivation, we must look deep within...but since we no longer nourish that part of our lives, our very deep soul, the reserves aren't there to motivate us. The farmer who won't grow organic because his neighbors think it's hogwash? The kid who wants to drop out of school to open a bike shop? The 31-yr.-old who wants to stop working for others and open his own pizza place? The theatre major who can't summon the courage to audition? They all have to face fear. Fear of failure, of the unknown, of ridicule.

Stepping out of our comfort zone to face fear is scary. However, our cultural life as we know it is unsustainable and our emotional, physical and cultural resources are running dry. Americans are the most unhealthy people in the world (and are regularly ridiculed by the French because of it). We spend more annually on mental health than any other developed country. Ironically, it's not getting us anywhere. Instead, we continue our old line of thinking. Now, it is incumbent that we step out of our current way of thinking, of accepting that buying crap will make us happy, that buying products wrapped in three layers of plastic is acceptable, that we can eat as much junk food as we want and live healthful lives, that our very actions don't really play a role in the larger picture. We remain, at our core, individuals, but our modern society, largely driven by a handful of corporate advertisers and a misguided government, has ignored that. To find answers to modern problems like childhood obesity, diabetes, people who can't get insurance because they're too fat, we can't rely on a market driven economy. We must be creative, but to be creative, we must nourish our souls, use our creative energy, think, and accept fear--nay, face it head on. We must have the courage and the hope to develop changes and contribute to our community, that soul-satisfying collection of people and ideas.

So, what does this have to do with the Ozark Highlands, that lovely uplift of dolomite and limestone? In the next few posts, I'll profile people who have stepped out of their comfort zone to make the Ozarks a better place for everyone involved. A cheese maker who was told repeatedly that his ideas had no place in the Ozarks. An organic farmer who was told he would fail, miserably, if he didn't use Sevin dust. When the fear of accepting life, as sad and as miserable as it might be, outweighs the fear of change, only then will we make a difference. Only then will we change.

Friday, January 04, 2008

It's not just me

So far, everyone I've met in Columbia is originally from somewhere else. This has led to countless sentences starting with "for a city of this size...:" the library is great, the politics are progressive, accessibility to affordable healthcare is easy...for a city of this size. More important to me than most of those things is the availability of good Chinese food, which should be a birthright in decent sized towns. Regardless, I never found good Chinese food in New Orleans or Wisconsin; no, only in Brooklyn, where every Sunday afternoon we'd walk to truly fabulous dim sum. I found a great place for dumplings in Manhattan, but it was always packed by the time I arrived after work.

I know I snipe about Missourians' lack of culinary skills. But in the South, particularly in New Orleans, we take food very seriously. After any vacation, the first question asked is invariably, "how was the food?" followed by "what'd you eat?" So, Chinese food in Columbia. House of Chow, around the corner. Everyone I know in Columbia has recommended it. Best Chinese food in Columbia. It's great for a city of this size. They have a piano bar. A decent wine list. You can order brown rice!

On the menu, under the traditional Hunan-inspired dishes for which there were no descriptions or translations, was "Springfield Missouri Style Cashew Chicken." I didn't say it. I didn't call their Cashew Chicken "Missouri-style," they did. I think it means without garlic, peppers, vegetables, flavor. It's not Columbia-style, but something central Ozarks. Springfield Missouri Style. Of course, I didn't order it, but I imagine there were no carrots, bamboo shoots, and lots of corn starch. Springfield's really a great town with a thriving downtown scene that keeps improving. Sprawl is terrible there, and city planners are on the brink of ruining their entire watershed by granting superfluous permits to industry who insist on building on top of sensitive karst resources. But what an insult. Springfield Missouri Style Cashew Chicken. Who orders that? People from Springfield?

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Unmitigated sprawl at a woodland's borders

Burdened by the task of providing the sprawling city of St. Louis with affordable hydroelectric power, in the late 1920s the state of Missouri issued a permit to Union Electric (now Ameren UE) to create a dam that would destroy thousands of miles of clear, fast moving Ozark rivers. By April 1929, Bagnell Dam was completed, damming the Osage River and sending millions of gallons of backwaters into the Niangua, the Grand, Grand Glaize and the Pomme de Terre rivers. Entire towns were relocated during this process. Anglers swear that the stone remains of Linn Creek's buildings can be seen during low water events, but I think it's another Ozark myth.

Bagnell Dam created what was at the time the largest manmade lake in the country. It destroyed miles of Niangua darter and hellbender habitat, ruined bottomland forests, and flooded countless caves whose biological resources were never catalogued. The product, Lake of the Ozarks, shortly became a popular vacation destination to travelers from St. Louis and Kansas City. By the 1930s, countless lodges and small hotels were built to accomodate the increased tourism to an area considered a "country getaway." Missouri's only African American resort town was located at Lake of the Ozarks; it supported hundreds of families well into the volatile 1960s.

By the 1950s, Branson had been unofficially tapped for widespread tourism development. Branson's sprawl continues today and visitors can still have "explosive laughter" at Yakov Smirnoff's Soviet-themed theatre. They can still see the robotic Andy Williams crooning Christmas carols to Anne Murray and have their choice of over20 dinner theatre options. The development of Branson put a halt to rampant building at Lake of the Ozarks, but not for long. In the past 10 years in the Lake of the Ozarks region, entire natural communities (namely dry chert woodlands and dolomite glades) have been erased to make way for hundreds of slipshod condominiums. Small towns that had a single stoplight 18 years ago now have not only a Super Walmart, but a Target and a Bed Bath and Beyond and a Starbucks. Miles of shoreline are being developed in what is nothing more than a shortsighted capitalistic exercise in bank erosion.

Lake of the Ozarks still manages to attract families from St. Louis and Kansas City seeking a country getaway, but the country is rapidly disappearing before their eyes. Private landowners, once the protectors of vast stretches of oak-hickory woodlands in the Ozarks, are selling their land to developers. The few protected areas are now feeling the stress of urban encroachment in an area once prized for its wild character. Aerial photos of state parks in the area are disturbing (I'll try to rustle one up from the files tomorrow). Cell phone companies are applying for permits to place their towers in designated wilderness. Tracts of woodlands that served as buffer zones between the urban areas and the parks are quickly disappearing. My sister agency complains that deer tag sales are down because there are no more places to hunt in the Lake of the Ozarks area. I complained vociferously about the island of trees in a sea of agriculture down in southeast Missouri, so I'll lodge my complaint about parks in urban areas that have also been reduced to island status. The stresses to wildlife and sustainability of ecosystems are insurmountable.

They keep building highrises, but who's buying? When the character of an area is removed, when the country is no longer the country but a series of stores and bad traffic, those seeking the solitude of nature go elsewhere. It happened in the Hamptons in the 1990s, in the Florida Keys in the early 2000s. As my former boss in the Ozarks declared, "once they've ruined this, they'll just leave here and bring their cities elsewhere." He owns a great tract of well-managed oak-hickory woodlands that keeps appreciating. The county has just paved his gravel road and charged him for it. He's hates urban expansion as much as I do and is waiting for his property to reach the million dollar mark. Today, he's only a couple thousand away from it.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Gray bats

Every January since the mid-1990s, a handful of cavers don sturdy Neoprene waders and descend into a losing stream cave in Camden County to examine bat guano. Because of the thriving gray bat population that calls this cave home spring through fall, winter is the only time of year when entry to this cave is permitted.

Gray bats (unlike Missouri's other 7 bat species) live in caves year round. Between March and November, the cave in Camden County serves as a maternity roost for almost 20,000 of them. Every December, they leave the cave to return each winter to a hibernaculum site, one of eight pit caves in the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks. After the bats leave the maternity cave, cavers hike through chest high 40 degree water to the roost site. Using a formula derived from estimating the amount of guano produced by a single bat in the course of 9 months, gray bat populations are deternmined based on the size of their guano heaps. Since 1984, the year a gate was first placed on this cave to deter people from entering, the population has increased from 200 animals to an astonishing 19,500.

Gray bats were added to the Endangered Species list decades ago. Their decline was directly linked to several factors, including pesticide use and destruction of riparian habitat. The primary reason for their decline was the regular disturbance of hibernacula and maternity sites by humans. Unlike pipistrelles and little brown bats, gray bats roost in large clusters. During the breeding season, they locate a cave near a river or stream with a high domed ceiling which serves as an incubation chamber. If anyone enters the cave during their maternity period, the mother bats will drop or abandon their young and often leave the site altogether. Before gates were installed on almost every cave in Missouri, people built fires in them to aid in exploration. As large colonies of gray bats were disturbed by the smoke and fire, they would often be shot as a form of target practice. This apparently happened regularly.

During the winter, gray bats hibernate in even larger colonies. They don't feed during the winter; instead, they live off the fat stored before the hibernation period, usually enough fat to last six months. Disturbing gray bats as they hibernate causes them to immediately lose 20-30 days worth of stored fat. While they are the largest bat in Missouri, they only weigh a little more than a quarter. So, hibernaculum sites are visited by cavers in the spring and summer while maternity sites are entered during the winter.

Gating caves has been integral to their population recovery. Unfortunately, with the installation of certain gates, air flow and, therefore, temperatures and humidities were altered. Gray bats require 56-58 degrees in their summer sites and 42-52 degrees in their winter sites. New cave gate designs have proven somewhat effective at keeping people out while protecting the fragile environment and allowing safe nightly passage for bats.

The destruction of riparian habitat has negatively impacted populations. Gray bats feed on invertebrates, many of which depend on water for some part of their life cycle. With the removal of trees and shrubs, streambanks erode and water quality declines. Moreover, widespread pesticide use causes bioaccumulation effects in gray bats. Considering their dietary requirements, nightly feasting on insects with high levels of pesticides in them can eventually kill the bats.

The protection afforded by the Endangered Species Act has helped populations rebound in the past 10 years. Gray bat caves have been identified and gated; trespassing during gray bat roost periods carries a large fine. Unfortunately, the ESA doesn't require the reinstallation of forested corridors necessary for travel between roost sites. The ESA also doesn't mandate streambank restoration of 100 ft. wide tracts of closed canopy forest which has proven beneficial to foraging efforts. Nevertheless, their population is coming back, but it's no reason to even entertain delisting.