Monday, February 23, 2009

Organizing the Ozarks

Following my almost-weekly announcement that I was setting out for the Current River Hills, I was asked, maybe for the first time, “so where will you actually be staying?” It dawned on me that afternoon that while I tend to define the Ozarks based on ecological land types and regions, most people give directions based on centrally located towns or landscape features. It’s just that I don’t stay in towns when I’m in the Ozarks, so I don’t know much about them. I know that the charming little town of Van Buren, for example, is in the Current River Hills; Rolla is located on the Central Plateau. Cassville is in the White River Hills.

More importantly, however, I refer to these regions in this medium without providing the reader with a map or a basic point of reference. I very seldom mention nearby towns, mainly because I don’t know where they are (except for the ones that house my canoe outfitters [Eminence: Current River Hills] or have restaurants that serve vegetarian food [West Plains: Central Plateau].) So, I’ve been remiss in my duty to serve as a guide to the region’s diverse landscapes by being genuinely bureaucratic in offering organizational references without providing proper definitions. Hopefully, this post will rectify this omission. Click on the map for a larger view.

In the mid-1990s, The Nature Conservancy embarked on an ambitious project to organize North American landscapes into ecologically-based regions. Employing geology and soil maps, watershed regions, natural communities, Natural Heritage records, and countless other defining regional characteristics, TNC organized the country into 80 ecoregions, thus providing a planning framework to accomplish their long-term conservation goals. Rather than implementing conservation strategies on areas created by political borders, TNC works assiduously to conserve areas defined by a “commonality of physical, biotic and pre-historic factors” where “natural process regimes create a region of biological cohesiveness.”

The Ozarks ecoregion comprises nearly 34 million acres in Missouri (67%), Arkansas (24%), Oklahoma (17%), Illinois (2%) and a sliver of Kansas (.1%). To the west lie the Osage Plains/Flint Hill Prairies and the Crosstimbers and Southern Tallgrass Prairie ecoregions. To the north rests the Central Tallgrass Prairie, or what tiny fragments of it remain out of agricultural production. The Interior Low Plateau includes western Kentucky and Tennesee, and the Mississippi River Alluvial Basin begins in southeast Missouri and stretches south into Louisiana.

But the Ozarks, in conjunction with the Ouachitas (pronounced “Wash-i-taws”) in Arkansas, represent the only highland between the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains. The Ozark Highland dome has been slowly eroded and uplifted throughout geologic history, resulting in distinctly varied topography ranging from rugged Precambrian igneous knobs to low rolling mountains with imperceptible elevations up to 3,000 ft.

To fully capture the wide range of biological and geologic diversity inherent in the Ozark ecoregion, TNC distinguished 19 subsections defined by the same types of credentials employed by the ecoregional designation. They identified species tied to the natural communities of these regions and defined target species for conservation strategies. The White River Hills, for instance, are dominated by wide bands of extensive limestone glades and dry woodlands. Steep topography allows for small bands of true forest, though the region, like all of Missouri actually, is fire mediated. Trelease’s larkspur grows here, and populations of Eastern collared lizards can be found on the glades.

The Current River Hills, located around the in tact Current River watershed, encompass a large area beginning in high, gently rolling plains once populated by post oak savanna. As the river flows southward, the land steepens and becomes much dissected as it descends into the river valley. This region of the Ozarks represents some of the largest contiguous tracts of woodlands in the state, and a high level of endemism is present here.

The other 17 subsections have their own features, all distinguishing characteristics that make them worthy of conservation and protection. Glaring omissions in my travels this past year include: the Elk River Hills, once characterized by very open woodlands, now seriously degraded from an interruption of anthropogenic fire regimes; Inner and Outer Ozark Borders, mainly because big cities have replaced native vegetation in these regions; and the Missouri River Alluvial Plain, because I grew up around big, channelized muddy rivers and I prefer the clear, fast-moving waters of the Ozarks where you can see your feet nestled among chert gravels and crawfish with red-tipped pincers.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

For the convalescent

The winter landscape in the Niangua Basin makes my heart swell. Thick stands of cured warm season grasses cast a golden hue across the rolling topography. Persistent brown leaves of black oaks rustle in the whipping winds. My trusty fieldmate was with me the last time I was there, setting fire to glades and woodlands as we scampered over 500 acres of rugged terrain, despite his torn ACL.

Now, in the dead of winter, he's stuck in a recliner recovering from a painful ACL reconstruction surgery, a process that will have him out of the field for several more weeks. He'll miss the first green flush coming up from the burned woodlands, the stark white blooms of bloodroot, maybe even the jack-in-the-pulpits, what with their primitive flower structure. So these are for him, images from one of his favorite places in Missouri: Lodge Glade (note the low branches on the cedars that have been killed by high flame lengths) looking into dry chert woodlands; unburned chert woodlands of the Natural Area; and Coakley Hollow Fen Natural Area, where the rich layer of warm season grasses grows right to the streamside.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Red Arrow Fault

We took quick, short steps down the steep slope to reach the gaping chasm, part of the park I had never seen before. I had my first lesson in draws and hollows earlier that morning, detailed descriptions of the landscape features I was supposed to use as guides on my hike through the woods. This lesson following, of course, my boss’ perfectly perplexing directions: “Follow that draw ‘til you hit the second holler and go north until you reach the hogback.” I stared at him in disbelief, quiet, stunned that he would think I, having moved from New Orleans to rural Missouri merely two days before, would understand what that sentence meant.

My patient boss, 7 years younger and a lifelong Ozarker, had already given me a cram course in reading landscape features on topographic maps: drainages, cliffs, sinkholes, and steep slopes whose closely knit topo lines look like thick, black Sharpie marks on the page. I came from the flatlands of Louisiana, and translating Ozark features on a map to the rugged landscape itself provided a new challenge. I had never heard of a draw before, a common feature throughout the Ozark Highlands, (a small stream valley formed by erosive downcutting). And despite the visible differences between them on a map, I couldn’t tell the difference between a draw and a hollow (a distinct valley between two hillsides or mountains). All I knew was that I was looking for a deep pool of water where ringed salamanders might breed. Then he throws out “hogback.” I was looking for the hogback located to the north over the draws and hollows, but I had no idea where that was.

I guess my boss could read my blank, unblinking stare that morning in the office. He nodded his head, grabbed his water bottle and bailed into the driver’s side of the filthy white truck, perfectly willing to show me where the salamanders were, willing to essentially hold my hand across the drainages to the rocky hogback. He didn’t say much on our first hike through the pristine Niangua Basin woodlands, a burned landscape punctuated with the first flush of phlox and mayapples, splotches of purple and green on otherwise blackened soils. He was probably wondering why he hired someone who was very likely to get completely lost outside of the narrow streets of an old French settlement. Just the day before, after all, I lost myself in a 4,000 acre prairie while looking for a crawfish in a draw.

Short of breath, unaccustomed to the rugged terrain, I followed him across the hills and valleys, over draws and “hollers.” I see it from yards away: enormous, ragged dolomite and limestone boulders jutting out of the valley, a deep scar on the landscape, a long ridge of boulders that runs a mile long. The geologic feature looks like the stiff bristles on a hog’s back. “Oh! A hogback!” I proudly exclaim to my boss, who slowly shakes his head at the ground. We quickly scamper down the steep slope, dipnet and water quality gear in hand, to peer into the wide, gaping, rainwater-filled chasms produced by the hogback. He was right. The pools of water were filled with ringed salamander larvae.

This jarring feature is rather uncommon to the Niangua Basin landscape, typically a dissected terrain with random dolomite outcrops jutting out of ridgetops. While not part of a hogback’s formal definition, we were actually standing on the sides of a fault line. Called Red Arrow fault, the long row of dolomite boulders is an earthquake feature that rumbles slightly every once in a while. In January 1992, a magnitude 3.1 temblor shook the town of Camdenton when Red Arrow moved; the summer I lived there, the fault line shifted a little on the fourth of July, causing a low rumble heard from town square. Banner headlines followed on the fifth.

One of my favorite lines from Thomas Beveridge’s opinionated and well-researched Geologic Wonders and Curiosities of Missouri reads, “Missouri is well-endowed with faults” (p. 175). While Southeast Missouri Lowlands’ New Madrid Fault garners more press than any other earthquake feature in the state -due in large part to its recent activity- faults are somewhat common features in the Ozark Highlands.

In the Meramec River Hills, the Palmer Fault Zone is a 2 mile wide fault visible from Hwy. 21 outside of Potosi. Rock formations otherwise uncommon in the area are exposed here, noticeable even to the novice geologist. In an area typically dominated by Eminence dolomite and chert, the faulting and subsequent erosion brought LaMotte sandstone and Bonne Terre formations to the surface. The topography around the fault is less rugged than the surrounding area, appearing as gently rolling hills, though the vertical displacement caused by the faulting rises nearly 1,000 feet. Dolomite returns to the surface at the far edge of the fault line, where the jagged terrain associated with the surrounding landscape resumes.

The Ste. Genevieve fault system, located in the Outer Ozark Border near the Mississippi River, is a much larger system, visible even on Landsat imagery from nearly 500 miles above the surface of the earth. This complex fault line causes over 1,000 feet of elevation change and stretches from Perry Co. through Ste. Genevieve Co. and into St. Francois Co. One side of the fault exposes Cambrian rocks, while younger Mississippian rocks can be seen on the opposite side. At Hwy. Z outside of St. Mary’s, I-55 crosses this fault, evident by the crushed, steeply dipping rocks on both sides of the highway.

Most Missouri faults are not closely related to historic earthquake activity. Instead, they provide geologists a glimpse into the earth’s surface, an opportunity to see what rests below the bedrock. Of course, in the case of Red Arrow, the earthquake feature is a great place to find breeding salamanders.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Green space

Seldom, if ever, have I been driven slowly through tidy asphalt streets lined with white 1930s Sears kit houses in search of an in tact natural community. Never have I been driven through a modern cemetery, the most wretched, terrible place on earth, in search of a dolomite glade. But I was a willing passenger this week as my colleague and I set out in Phelps Co. in search of a small city park, a little green space for the state's grape-growing community, that happens to house a decent glade and woodland complex.

My colleague and I normally beat down the bushes on rutted Forest Service roads to get to Missouri's lesser known sweet spots, but he wanted to show me a city park where he had found uncommon plants soldiering through years of neglect, plants thriving on a mothballed glade.

So I really should have expected a driving tour of a neighborhood to find it. Funny thing about my colleague is that he sees the world in landscapes, not in the grid patterns of American streets. He doesn't get lost in natural settings like I do, but his keen sense of direction was challenged by the streets, all named after trees: Pine, Sycamore, Elm, Chestnut. "It's right there!" pointing past rooftops and gray backyard swingsets. He could see the the woodland, the hillside leading down towards the creek with the sandstone shut-ins in it, the thick stand of cedars surrounding the glade. The glade is right there, but the streets won't take us there. So we ended up traversing the dirt roads of a cemetery and my chest started hurting because I hate cemeteries and death and everything associated with it. "Seriously, can we get out of here? I have to get out of here..." But the glade is just right there! A tiny brown routed wooden sign with "Park" painted in state park yellow, followed by a right facing arrow, finally availed itself to us.

A native stand of shortleaf pine surrounded a small stone picnic shelter and pitched roof boy scout hut with very low ceilings. The manicured park hadn't been seeded in turf grass, dominated as it was by yellowed poverty grass, desiccated Aster anomalous and other general woodland species like dittany and elm-leaved goldenrod. We played the winter plant game, more challenging because the regular mowing regime has encouraged native woodland plants to branch rather unnaturally. My colleague holds up a yellow stick with the hint of a long seedpod on it. "Erebus?" I guess, terrible at this game. I was wrong, and can't remember the right answer.

An old wooden park bench drilled into Roubidoux sandstone overlooks the undulating glade beyond the wall of cedars and woodland, a steep valley below. Big sandstone boulders perched on the ridgetop line a small beaten footpath. Past the thick stand of cedars, the path opens up onto the promised dolomite glade. We scan the site for plants: coneflowers, Rudbeckia, little bluestem, Arenaria stricta, Houstonia nigricans, solid dolomite glade plants. My colleague finds his uncommon plant again, and we express delight that the glade isn't covered in a suite of exotics, save the cedars both small and large. The glade is littered with chunks of shale and sandstone, an in tact glade hugging the land south a stand of native pine.

We head down the (poorly designed, highly erodable) trail into the woodland. Lots of Smilax, gnarly thorny vines standing out green in an otherwise brown landscape, and a typical overstory of oaks and hickories. The small creek at the bottom of the slope runs clear the whole distance we follow it. Spiky Polytrichum sp. and the ferny Thuidium sp. mosses line the creek banks riddled with large dolomite boulders. A typical Ozark woodland down there, a nice glade at the top, both communities in desperate need of some prescribed fire and a two-day, maybe three, cedar clearing project.

But it's a city park, smack in the middle of a town, on the edge of an icky, sprawling cemetery. A little management would go a long way here to protect the natural history of an area whose developed borders are expanding to accommodate Missouri's growing citizenry.

With the country's population ever-increasing, never cowed by economic downturn, these remnant natural areas will continue to feel pressure by developers. A hats off to the fine town of St. James for locking up in green space a small tract of a historic landscape once common throughout the Central Plateau. If it serves to get locals out into the natural world, away from television, it's serving a function. My colleague and I agreed, however, that it could be more. The small city park could be much more than an urban green space.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Love song to the post oak

Drive through Rolla, the nice parts of Rolla with the historic Craftsman homes and big lawns, miles away from I-44, and you'll see them standing there like sentries at a gate: Large, stately old post oaks punctuate lawns up and down the main drag through town, all planted otherwise in Bermuda Tifway 319 and rangy shrubs bought at a discount from Lowe's. The vast, rolling expanse of mowed turf in front of the city's recreation center is loaded with them, six big post oaks, all averaging over 100, maybe 200 years old, standing by quietly as runners and swimmers hike past them through the parking lot to the well-lit, nicely appointed gym inside.

Post oaks are scattered all over the Central Plateau, way out of context now, remnants of fire-adapted savannas and open woodlands, all part of a historic landscape that no longer exists here. Rolla isn't the only place with old post oaks, trees my colleague calls "character trees" because they remain as the only semblance of a Missouri landscape lost to rampant agricultural, urban development and roughly 80 years of fire suppression.

A short hike through some of the last tracts of old growth woodlands in the Current River Hills reveals the same story: 200 and 300 year old post oaks surrounded by fire-intolerant sugar maples and the now ubiquitous trashy red oak/black oak matrix that now typifies thousands of acres of the Ozark Highlands. The post oaks serve to remind us of an open landscape, a fire-mediated world rich with a grassy understory and all of the faunal attributes that attracted settlers to the area in the first place. Bison and elk roamed the Ozark woodlands during the time of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a land surveyor who wrote detailed journals of his expedition through Arkansas and Missouri in the early 1800s; he wrote of grassy woodlands that soaked his trousers each morning because the dew was so heavy. He mentions post oaks, "thinly timbered," with not much else around but grasses and wildflowers. The Current River Hills are often described as forests now, textbook examples of closed woodlands in desperate need of fire. Lots of fire.

Heading east on Hwy. 54, away from the prairies of southwestern Missouri, you glide onto the Springfield Plain. And there, along the highway, are little roadside parks, pullouts with picnic tables resting beneath the wide arms of old post oaks. Lonely, solitary trees, they're surrounded by Bradford pears planted by the local garden club to commemorate loved ones in the community. In September, I gathered a handful of tiny post oak acorns, growing in groups of three, slated for destruction by car tires. The lifespan of a Bradford pear averages 15 years, but the post oaks are still standing there after 300 years of neglect and several centuries of having their roots smothered by a four-lane highway.

Move into the relict tracts of uninterrupted landscapes of the Niangua Basin and you'll see post oaks almost the way Schoolcraft saw them: squat, gnarled old trees, surrounded by big bluestem, Indian grass, lead plant, coneflowers, Baptisia, and all the deer mice, prairie warblers, speckled kingsnakes and, unfortunately, ten times more deer than occurred here historically. Even here, the post oak savannas and woodlands aren't pristine; we don't have the large, roaming, grazing herbivores, we don't have the large predators that would keep the deer population in check. But at least in the great tract of woods I call home in the Niangua Basin -the ones I like to burn, to camp in, to hike through every chance I get- the post oaks are in the right setting, perfectly in tune with the landscape.

More importantly for the Ozark Highlands, however, is that post oaks are regenerating in the Niangua Basin. Elsewhere in their range, like on the Springfield Plain, old post oaks stand in the middle of an allelopathic fescue field. In Rolla, once the post oaks in front of the rec center die, they won't be replaced by others of the same kind, but by Japanese plums or some other showy horticultural cultivar. It's the same story in the Current River Hills, in the White River Hills, in historic fire-adapted savannas and woodlands throughout Missouri's Ozark Highlands. Once the present-day generation of old growth post oaks die, they won't be replaced by other post oaks but by fire-intolerant trees or, more likely, red oaks or black oaks. These post oaks on the landscape represent the last of their kind, testaments to a more open landscape where the forces of nature were once allowed to work freely.

I'm sharing one of my favorite original drawings by Paul Nelson that I took from my living room wall. This elegant, stippled drawing doesn't represent my favorite tract of woods in the Niangua Basin, though it's close. It's a Missouri of the past, a pre-European settlement landscape punctuated with gnarly old post oaks, free flowing creeks, and all the floral attributes once associated with it. We visit the Niangua Basin as often as we can; it's a primeval place down there, where the 300 year old post oak trees grow to a mere 85 feet, but regenerate freely thanks to regular fire regimes. My colleague burns the landscape there every three to five years to insure that ours won't be the last generation to see what Missouri once looked like across thousands of acres.