Saturday, January 17, 2009

Time travel


There's likely commonality between land managers (wherever they are in the world) that encourages them to ask the same sort of question I asked my colleague last week: If you could travel back in Missouri history, what year would you most like to visit? A political historian may say 1863, smack in the middle of the Civil War when Missouri was a truly divided state politically. Someone in Ste. Genevieve may say sometime in the mid-1700s when the area was first being settled by a thriving French population who established towns that resemble those in southeast Louisiana more than anywhere else in Missouri. Most people I know, including my colleague, choose anytime between 200 and 300 years ago, years before settlement and land surveys, before the timber harvest decimated the Ozark Highlands, during a time when fire still freely roared across the landscape. (No one ever says "pre-Ice Age," because no real trace of that landscape exists, thus obviating any comparison to modern day Missouri.)

Missouri's Natural Areas Program identifies the "best remaining examples" of a landscape type, the richest, most biodiverse examples that best represent Missouri's natural history. So, for example, the remarkable tract of dry chert woodland, glade and savanna that I burned last week is listed in the Natural Areas Registry as one of the best examples of a woodland of that type. The 972 acres represent -as closely as possible- what the area looked like before European settlement, timber harvest, open grazing, and fire suppression altered the landscape. Therefore, land managers have an obligation to continue implementing natural processes, namely fire, to prevent timber harvest, to keep livestock out of the woods and off the glades in order that the area will continue to uphold the representation for future generations.

Unfortunately, most of our state (even most of the modern day Natural Areas) was open to livestock grazing, millions of animals roaming freely across the landscape compromising even our highest quality sites. So I vote for traveling back 300 years ago to see what the area looked like, back when elk and bison were the primary grazers, before cows camped out on dolomite glades chewing plants to the ground. While the Natural Area we burned is rich now (following a 25 year old prescribed fire regime and thinning projects), it was surely more biodiverse 300 years ago; as recent as the 1970s, horses grazed the woodlands and glades here. Of course, in light of that and the historical grazing patterns, we'll never really know what we lost.

But here we are in 2009 with mounds of scientific research revealing that livestock grazing directly impacts biodiversity. We know that following the decimating timber harvest of the early 20th century, the Ozark Highlands suffered under cattle, goats, hogs. We know that grazing directly impacts fragile soil layers; as non-native grazers repeatedly devour plants to the nub, root structures are no longer able to hold soils together, to support new growth. As erosion occurs, soils (and their rocky components) rush down hill into our streams and rivers. Hundreds of articles have been written about livestock grazing and its impact on biodiversity. Yet, in 2009, some of our designated Natural Areas on public land, the "best remaining examples" of the presettlement landscape, continue to host grazing cattle. Areas set aside for their impressive biodiversity are actually providing protein for the livestock industry...despite the known impacts on native plant populations. If managers would be guided by the protection of biodiversity as a goal rather than commodity-driven pressures, cows would be removed from high quality sites and placed on fescue fields where they belong.

6 comments:

beetlesinthebush said...

Well, if you ask me, there are two time periods that I would love to travel back to and see: 1) the Carboniferous period, when the most dominant insects were dragonflies with 3-foot wingspans, flitting amongst 30ft tall giant horsetails, and 2) the Cambrian period, watching trilobites and giant sea scorpions beneath the waters lapping at the the lichen encrusted granite shores of the St. Francois Islands.

Neither landscape suffered from overgrazing, as cows (or any ruminants) had not yet evolved.

regards--ted

cedrorum said...

Great post. It's nice to hear that I'm not as crazy as I thought I was. I thought maybe I was the only one that fantasized about traveling back in time to pre-settlement in the southeast and visiting the majestic longleaf pine stands with wiregrass and an open hardwood midstory and canopy. I've seen some photos of ares before timber harvesting took the old longleaf, but it sure would be nice to walk in it; to experience the diversity in the herbaceous layer and see if the same plants we have coming back after a prescribed burn are the ones that occurred then. And yes, cattle grazing sucks, but until you convince people that they don't need 1/4 of the protein that they think they do, because of cattle industry propaganda, things won't change. I haven't eat meat in 23 years and I'm healthier than most people I know. People don't need to stop eating meat, they just don't need it in the amounts they think they do.

Allison Vaughn said...

You're exactly right. The day after I learned that there were cattle in Natural Areas, I received my latest issue of Audubon with a long article (not as well researched as most of their other articles, darn it) encouraging vegetarianism. I think I wrote something a long time ago about the wastefulness of eating meat--the use of water, grains, the resources that go into the grains. I was already a vegetarian when I read Diet for a Small Planet by Alice Moore Lappe, but her arguments concerning the environmental toll of eating meat are still valid today. Biodiversity always loses. And yes to longleaf pine systems and those sandy soils. They're truly inspiring when they're managed properly...

Allison Vaughn said...

3ft wingspans?! I'd like to see all that vegetation, that period that my colleague refers to as "the age that got us into the mess we're in now." And yes, the Cambrian would be incredible, too. 3 ft wingspans. Incredible. You'd have to see that.

(BTW, Have you ever read the Stephen Jay Gould book about the Burgess Shale?)

beetlesinthebush said...

Wonderful Life is still on the "someday I'll read it" list (he said, looking over at his still unread copies of The Blind Watchmaker and /The Last Human that he got for Christmas). Sigh!
regards--ted

Allison Vaughn said...

Isn't it fun to get books for Christmas?! Last year, I think I got about 6, and this year, I got the illustrated Sedges by Mohlenbrock! (I, too, have my work cut out for me...)