Monday, January 19, 2009

Before and after

The White River Hills region of southwest Missouri possesses the largest complex of dolomite glades in the state. However, following years of fire suppression and overgrazing, high quality examples are the exception while glades choked in cedars and other woody plants represent the rule. With over 400,000 acres of public land scattered throughout the subsection, potential is high for meaningful ecosystem restoration. 142 state-listed rare, threatened or endangered species have been recorded from the White River Hills, with many of them restricted to dolomite glades.

Several months ago, I was contacted by a private landowner who owns a substantial tract of glades and woodlands in the White River Hills. He asked for advice, how to make his glades look like they did when he bought the property 45 years ago. He told me that when he bought the property, there were no cedars on the glades; they were all cut down years before for fencepost construction. He burned his glades and woodlands every few years to stimulate ground flora for his cattle. It was great to hear that he had brought fire back to the management regime, despite his reasons; I've heard the same history from a landowner in Jefferson Co.

It came as a surprise, however, when I found a 1939 aerial view of Hercules Glade Wilderness Area and saw a landscape I hardly recognized. When I read "extensive glade belts were once common here" in modern day descriptions of the White River Hills, I envisioned small bands of glades on knobs, not thousands of acres of glades as illustrated by the photo. What the photo doesn't show, however, are the millions of cows, goats and sheep that used these glades for grazing in the 1930s and 1940s.

As late as the 1950s, the Forest Service published a trifold brochure for cattle owners titled "Ozark Glades: Great for Grazing," picturing a big polled hereford chewing big bluestem on the front. Late last year, with the urging and administrative finesse of the Mark Twain National Forest's Forest Ecologist, glades in the Mark Twain were designated off-limits to cattle grazing. Of course, the impacts of 40+ years of intensive grazing can't be reversed, but it's a grand start towards restoration.

The 1939 aerial photo, when compared to a 2005 aerial photo, shows how much we've lost in the White River Hills. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the region will see largescale restoration efforts to ever compare to the 1930s landscape. Years of fire suppression coupled with intensive grazing pressure encouraged Eastern red cedars to proliferate on the glades here. We know what happens when you remove cedars and apply prescribed fire to these natural communities--warm season grasses and wildflowers long suppressed return to the landscape. Because this area is within a designated wilderness area, hand tools must be employed for largescale cedar removal projects, an undertaking few have made priority. (Moreover, extensive use by horseback riders has caused massive erosion and soil compaction at Hercules Glade, both problems that prescribed fire and cedar removal can't help.)

So you focus energy on the sites you can restore. The private landowner I talked to now knows what to do to restore his glades, as does the rest of the resource management community in the White River Hills. We have a long way to go to bring back the historic landscape to the region, but with ongoing cedar removal projects by land agencies down there, each 70, 20 and 100 acre parcel will contribute, on however a small scale, to the protection and viability of the region's significant resources.


Anonymous said...

It is ironic that we turn to private parcels as beacons of hope for restoring the original landscape, while deeming a federally designated wilderness area as a lost cause. I'm well aware of the philosophical management/no management debate for wilderness areas, but at some point the obvious should become... well, obvious.

Allison Vaughn said...

Interestingly, modern day wilderness management promotes active management for protecting an area's natural state. In Hercules Glade country, for example, it's acceptable to use fire as a tool to knock back cedars, which can be done over a period of years and rigorous fire management, but operational priority -and that they have target acres to burn in highly sensitive areas already- can't manage a fire regime on the schedule and intensity required. As of Friday, the city of Columbia has burned more acres than the Mark Twain. Too, the city of St. Charles, located in the St. Louis non-containment area, has also burned more acres than the Mark Twain. I think they're waiting for those gnarly April days when humidities are in the teens or something.

Jim said...

It seems to me that removal of cedars with hand-tools would be possible. While maybe not a pleasant endeavor, nearly all of the Ozark forests were logged over before the introduction of the chainsaw.

Perhaps budgets won't allow for the extra hours required for this, but it seems that volunteers would exist to help with such a thing. The Sierra Club comes to mind here. An additional note to make here is that the Forest Service loses a tremendous amount of taxpayer revenue with each timber sale proposed and carried out. If the Forest Service chose, less acres of mature forest could be logged and the money not lost on such projects could be turned over for higher priority restoration work - work that just might not produce sawtimber.

It is a shame that sometimes Wilderness designation creates occasional management difficulties. If the Forest Service had been willing to take a lighter hand to the land in years past, to treat our public lands as anything but a tree farm for so many years, then perhaps Wilderness designation would have never been an issue for so many people. But for a very long time, Wilderness designation by Congress was the only way to keep the Forest Service from building roads in those few places where there were none (on the Mark Twain there are more than 2 miles of roads for every square mile of National Forests, or enough roads to stretch from Tallahassee, FL to Anchorage, AK), and from logging timber that should not be logged, in some of our most wild, beautiful areas. While the Forest Service has made tremendous strides, this is still, in many respects, the case.

I've known a lot of Missouri Wilderness enthusiasts, and have yet to meet one opposed to finding ways to work on the glades at Hercules Glades Wilderness.

Allison Vaughn said...

You're right, they could go out with cross cut saws and work on cedar removal, but it still comes down to management priority and where they want to focus ecosystem restoration projects and dollars.

Scott Merritt said...

Allison –

Thank you for another wonderfully accurate, interesting article. And thank you for your follow-up to beetleinthebush’s post. One thing “obvious” to me about beetle’s post is that it is tragically uninformed and, I might add, irrationally arrogant.

From the 1986 MTNF Plan, regarding Hercules Glades: “A plan has been developed to burn four areas in the Wilderness on a five-year frequency under conditions that would allow control compatible to Wilderness values…it is believed that this frequency will in time recover the vegetative characteristic of the pre-settlement era.

The four designated burning areas are 794 acres, 126 acres, 1,683 acres and 979 acres in size. This provides for a total burning impact on 3,582 acres or 29% of the Wilderness area.

Prescribed burning prescriptions have been developed for each of these areas.”

In addition to stating the “obvious”, Beetle also says: “It is ironic that we turn to private parcels as beacons of hope…". What is truly ironic is that the Swan Creek area’s glades to the north are in the same state of neglect as Hercules Glades, and that bad old Wilderness designation has nothing to do with this fact. It is also ironic that MTNF Supervisors have flippantly referred to Wilderness designation as a “trade-off” to restoration, when they SHOULD be doing restoration work in Hercules and when they HAVE DONE NOTHING to so many non-Wilderness acres.

Is restoration more difficult in Wilderness? Hell yes. But Aldo said: ”conservation is not easy”. A willingness to accept limits separates conservationists from environmentalists, hunters from poachers, nature lovers from recreationists, and restoration ecologists from gardeners. Is it worth having some acres set aside for a heavy-handed approach to intense restoration, and other acres set aside for more carefully guided attempts? I think so, but until MTNF has hit the non-Wilderness areas hard, I’m not sure I should even entertain this question. And assuming they actually got around to doing the work they should be doing in the non-Wilderness areas (which history has shown us they won’t), it still wouldn’t be a bad idea to move carefully in other acres, would it? Or is the restoration science already so perfected that we should throw caution to the wind and just go for it, without any restraint, on every acre we have?

Missouri Wilderness Areas have some big problems; thank you Hercules Glades for so graphically pointing that out to us. But at its heart, the Wilderness concept is a GOOD thing. A GREAT thing. And we shouldn’t be dismissive of one of the greatest resources these areas provide: relatively large tracts of decent (could be better, could be bigger) Ozark land where nature reigns supreme.

I fantasize about hunting quail in an open, 100% native, grassy Ozark landscape. My fantasy takes on epic proportions when I think about this landscape being in a huge roadless area (this includes no fire lines…which are roads, especially as far as ATVs are concerned), where I have to walk for two or three days through a mosaic of forest, woodland, savanna, riparian zones, etc, just to reach this magical spot. And I’m going to have to camp there for a few nights, because there is simply no easy way in or out. Admittedly, this is a pretty goofy fantasy to have about the Missouri Ozarks. But I like to think big – it keeps me going. I like to think that all hope for big, native Ozark landscapes is not lost, and this spot might actually exist somewhere, someday (ok……due to extinction I guess I’ll need to settle for about 90% native??).

With a great deal of effort, Missouri Wilderness Areas can get better. I understand there are definitely the “100% hands-off approach” people who defend Wilderness. I am not one of them, but their arguments and opinions are valid, and I refuse to entertain the idea that my views are “obvious” realities for everyone else. I will fight for Wilderness in the Ozarks because I know the areas are supremely important, and I will fight for restoration that is compatible to Wilderness values in these Wilderness Areas for the same reason.

I’ve read your posts carefully for months now, and I have yet to see you make the leap into anti-Wilderness territory. You are obviously a great conservationist, and a surprisingly gifted writer. So I beg you, please, THINK BIG and BE CAREFUL - while worshipping at the alter of restoration (I do too), don’t make the mistake of throwing the baby out with the bath water. When our best conservationists, in having to constantly deal with crappy bureaucracies; their own mortality; a loss of funds and resources; and pain-in-the-butt non-professionals like myself, finally throw their arms up in exasperation and do just that, we’ll all have to spend a long time looking around for the baby, which may prove impossible to find.

PS (a disclaimer): Aside from the Supervisors who have spoken publicly against Wilderness, I do not hold MTNF employees responsible for anything I have said here. I am referencing the institution they work for. As you well know, one of the greatest conservationists alive is in their stable. And I assure you I am extremely grateful for his work - his book has been my bible since I picked up the first edition years ago.

Allison Vaughn said...

Scott- Thanks for writing and continuing to read. Very interesting about the 86 Forest Plan, and I'm now curious how the 2005 plan addresses their wilderness areas. No, I'm emphatically not an anti-wilderness person. In fact, professionally I work directly with designated wilderness areas, though not in federal government. I often get requests from staff asking to restore igneous glades, continually making the argument that the natural state is being compromised. My first question, every time, is "have you tried fire?" And every time, they hem and haw and say either "no" or "yes, once." It's well known that repeated fires slowly kill cedars; with every subsequent fire, more ground flora is stimulated, thus providing more fuel to kill more branches higher up the tree. We can't continue to chip away at the wilderness resource for the sake of ease or convenience. Your fantasy is much like everyone else's who love Missouri for her landscapes. Many of us would like large contiguous tracts of high quality land in the same condition as say, Schoolcraft encountered. Missouri's wilderness is a resource unto itself and should be protected thus. In the areas I work with, we burn the entire protected acreage, not small vignettes that would require 6 ft. wide paths of firelines carving up the landscape. Further, trail maintenance is performed with hand tools, no ATV use, no development, etc. (I have a lot of issues with the way these areas have been managed in the past and I'm really trying to rectify it...even went to a Carhart class for it recently to see what others are doing) A greater threat to Missouri wilderness than degradation of existing resources is rampant urbanization at her borders. Land acquisition is key to protecting not only biodiversity but wilderness as well. I don't think anyone's making big tracts of woods anymore.

Allison Vaughn said...

Also, and I should have mentioned this earlier, Ted is a very talented and smart guy who wants what the rest of us want: big vast stretches of Missouri's unadulterated landscapes. I think too often many people fall into a trap of misunderstanding not only the message of wilderness, but the concepts behind it. No fault of theirs, it's just an education issue.

Scott Merritt said...

I am truly inspired by your response, specifically the description of how your work is carried out, and that you've gone above and beyond with your Carhart training. Thank you so much.

Also - I am embarrassed and sorry about the tone of my post and hope you and Ted will accept my apology. This is not the place for my ranting; I just got caught up in my own frustrations. Ted is a really nice guy, and a great entomologist. Please keep up the great work and I'll take a breath and reconsider my bs before I hit "publish" next time.

beetles in the bush said...

I may be uninformed, perhaps tragically, and like all people I am sometimes irrational. But arrogant is a new one for me.

Scott - I think you misunderstood my point, as I am an ardent supporter of Wilderness Designation. I may not understand all of the operational and priority impacts that such a designation has, but I was merely voicing frustration - validly - to apparent progress on non-wilderness areas ahead of that on our most pristine areas. If that is not true, then that makes me feel better. If it is true, then something needs to be changed. I think we all want the same thing here, and civil discourse would seem to be a good start.

And my name is Ted.

Allison Vaughn said...

Thank you, Scott for apologizing to Ted. We're all in this together, as we all know....

Paul Nelson said...

Ok, I succumb to the temptation to engage in the dialogue with an observation. Foremost, I thank you Allison for facilitating differences in opinion on a most important topic. It’s apparent with so many comments, and responses, that your readers are especially sensitive to this issue. You advocate two important ideals; that of setting aside roadless landscapes to provide backcountry solitude, and our managing lands to protect viable assemblages of distinctive natural communities. I believe the question central to doing both is whether Wilderness, Wild Areas or Sensitive Areas are the only or best opportunity for sustaining Missouri's biodiversity. I’m fortunate to have worked for both the Missouri State Park System, helping to build its ecological restoration program, and now working for the US Forest Service (8 years now) “striving” to implement ecosystem restoration activity across the Mark Twain. This gives me a sense of perspective of where to best accomplish the effort, what are the roadblocks, and the role of Wilderness.

I’ve learned something working for the park system and Mark Twain. The Mark Twain organizational culture is so much different than state park. Lots of turnover; I’ve now been there longer than all six district rangers, three Forest Supervisors and most wildlife biologists. It takes years to go through NEPA approval to do most anything on the landscape, unlike state parks where you could get approval to prescribe burn and do it in the same week. Most Forest Service people do not understand ecosystem restoration concepts; we don’t refill vacancies with people who do. And the science/application of silviculture is deeply engrained, and the priority. One constant everyone should/must accept if we are to truly conserve biodiversity is that nearly all (Wilderness included) of Missouri’s Ozark landscape is far out of character from its historic condition. Add to this the emerging Homogenocene Era-the process that eventually all remaining, biologically-rich (more like restorable) natural communities will be diluted-reduced to a world of generalist wildlife and weedy plants. If left alone, former rich woodlands, glades and savannas will eventually loose the most conservative plant species to generalist shrubs, vines, and a few herb species that quickly respond to increasing shade and deeper leaf litter. All of the commenters need only do a quick search on “Biotic Homogenization” to read the many new research papers on the subject. Sure, you can argue that it won’t happen in your lifetime, but the process is ongoing and eminent. Missouri Wilderness without fire (and lightning fires aren’t going to do it) will result in a different successional trajectory for native vegetation, and it may not be as rich in character. But that may be ok too.

So what should we do? The clock is ticking as the fire-starved, overgrazed woodland landscape continues loosing sun-loving plant elements. All agencies can only do so much with time, people, money. I think it was “beetles in the bush” who ask whether there was apparent progress (ecosystem restoration) over our most pristine areas (Wilderness)? Strategically, I firmly believe in trusting the best conservation minds having gone through the process of identifying the best areas statewide from which to concentrate ecosystem restoration activity. These “conservation opportunity areas” hold the best promise for focusing challenging and difficult work to restore ecosystems. And I need to dispel a myth or misconception that many wilderness areas did not show up in these conservation opportunity areas, not because anyone thought it would be difficult to manage within them, but because many areas of the landscape simply contain higher concentrations of sensitive or rare species and natural communities. A few exceptions do exist, but among all the glades on public land in the White River Hills, those at Hercules have a history of overgrazing resulting in serious soil losses and thus plant species reduction. An ecological assessment of all the glade country points to much higher quality glade complexes outside Hercules Glade Wilderness.

I have no power nor influence over how much funding will go toward increasing acres burned on the MTNF, nor whether those burns will occur in priority ecosystem restoration areas. We suffer hard economic times, and it appears we are in a triage stage of doing what we can to concentrate minimal effort in restoring ecosystems. We do have success stories, but Hercules is not one of them. Having examined the effects of the past prescribed burns carried out according to the 1986 Forest Plan (Appendix E), we did not accomplish much in the way of ridding of red cedar trees, and not any fault of the US FS staffs because of the reluctance to conduct hot fires in Wilderness, and because of the constraints imposed by special interests. Yes, according to Leopold, conservation is difficult, but from my window, its tough enough getting the needed work done even under the least imposing NEPA process.

If Wilderness users desire that Hercules Glade Wilderness retain the scenic vistas (and the distinct plant/animal life found there) by which it is distinguished, then the next generation of prescribed burns must significantly kill the cedars on the glades. The last fires did not and I cannot support expending Forest Service energy to go through the arduous approval process (which would take at least 4-5 years from now) at the expense of foregoing prescribed burn prescriptions on other higher priority glade complexes situated out side the wilderness area.

Allison, I know this is rather long; perhaps someone might offer another venue for continuing the dialogue, unless of course you agree to continue here. Thanks much for the opportunity to comment. And I deeply love your blog site. Keep up the great work.