Sunday, July 04, 2010

Steak's Legacy

If you've visited a large or small-scale glade restoration project on public lands in the Ozark Highlands, you may have seen a sturdy interpretive panel on the trail that describes (in 150 words or less, two sentence paragraphs, written at an 8th grade reading level) the process of restoration taking place before you. I saw two of these signs in the past week, one in Ozark Co. around Ava, and the other in Cassville--both areas that possess the largest contiguous glade complexes in the state.

But the signs in front of the restoration areas (some strictly for demonstration, not for the conservation of largescale landscapes) only tell half the story of the demise of glades in Missouri. In fact, the signs in front of every other glade complex in the Ozarks say the same thing: "Lack of fire has encouraged the growth of Eastern red cedar on this glade," followed by "insert state or federal agency name here is working to restore this glade by removing the cedar trees and using prescribed fire to encourage the growth of grasses and wildflowers." According to the signs, the degradation of glades is tied only to lack of fire...but that's because it's the easy, non-controversial answer. Not once, not ever, have I seen an interpretive sign blame the real culprit behind cedar invasions on Ozark glades.

Yes, fire suppression is part of the problem, and removing cedars and implementing frequent fires can be part of the restoration solution, but the long history of livestock grazing on glades (and the subsequent irreversible damage from this process) has impacted native vegetation much more than the lack of fire.

Weave through the network of old logging roads around Ava, climbing ever higher to the ridgetops, and see the open landscape for yourself, those wide bands of glades that clambor down the hillsides, balds punctuated with cedars. Step onto one of those big glade complexes (over the three or four rusted barbed wire fences installed years ago to keep the cows on the glades) and witness patches of eroded soil, mounds of rubble, and a plant community composed of five, maybe ten plants, with an increasing population of cedars of all size classes. As domestic livestock continued to graze glades and woodlands throughout the Ozarks, native plant composition changed--preferential repeated grazing on forbs like purple and white prairie clovers and pale purple coneflowers and the exclusion of prairie dock and Houstonia nigricans has turned some glades into ecological deserts, all for the sake of growing protein. Cedars, capable of colonizing the thin and degraded soils left behind from livestock grazing, easily moved in to fill in the space.

High quality glades in the Ozarks, those rare areas with less intensive grazing histories, typically possess upwards of 50-60 species scattered throughout the acreage in a heterogenous matrix. Considering that cows (or sheep/goats/horses) likely grazed every acre in the Ozarks at some point in the past 200 years, it's difficult to wager how many species this natural community harbored historically, i.e., before livestock grazing began. While elk and bison helped shape Missouri's natural communities, domestic livestock damaged them.

The dissected woodlands in Ava Balds country weren't spared impacts of cattle grazing either. Look beyond the rusty fences in the creek bottoms for the stark contrast between heavily grazed and lightly grazed woodlands. The woodlands with bare soil and leaf litter where a grass-forb structure once existed, as evidenced by the opposite side of the fence.

But we shouldn't chalk up White River Hills' glades and woodlands as a lost cause. Through time, after cedar removal projects, prescribed fire, maybe some thinning, the soil builds up again and in some rare situations, a semblance of species richness can hopefully return. Unfortunately, large tracts of this landscape are damaged beyond repair and even the most earnest restoration efforts will result in a crop of warm season grasses and a handful of forbs unpalatable to cows. No restoration efforts can reverse the damage of intensive livestock grazing, yet cows remain part of the landscape in Missouri, and grazing, that process of extraction, invariably, continually, leads only to further degradation.
Patch-burn, my eye.


Justin Thomas said...

Great post, Allison! Having also spent numerous hours sampling many of the glades in Taney County, and abroad, I can attest to the accuracy of your comments. Sadly, examples of expansive glades in the region do not exist off of government land. Those in private ownership were seeded with fescue in the 1950's as further sacrifice to beef and thus reduced to monocultures. What better reason could there be for going vegan?

Allison Vaughn said...

Of course, thinking of you while at Butler Hollow and Haden Balds last week--feeling sorry for you for documenting crapped out glades with 4, 5 plants per plot. If there's anyone in the state who can attest to the destructive nature of cows to biodiversity, it's Justin Thomas.

Harry said...

Free-range grazing in the Ozarks was lawful until about 195 and not limited to cattle. Has anyone looked at the effect of swine on glade vegetation?

Allison Vaughn said...

I believe I included hogs in my domestic livestock. Now would be a great time to conduct research on hog damage to glades since feral hogs are running all over the place in St. Francois Mountains igneous domes.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I can have some influence on changing the wording to those inaccurate interpretive signs to explain that "The US Forest Service" made a wise planning decision and removed livestock from all the glades and woodlands on the Mark Twain National Forest. It did so with evidence that the one hundred plus years of open range then permitted grazing actually damaged and removed plant species richness associated with the thin layer of dark organic soil that mantled the dolomite bedrock below. The MTNF did the right thing, and is now, at least bringing that fire back to the landscape. I hope Dana and Justin will someday soon discover that the data they are collecting is making some difference. It will take many decades for recovery.