Friday, October 01, 2010

Close, but no cigar

What's the line? That annoying "road to hell is paved with good intentions" line that my teachers used to tell me when I opted for a long night of playing tennis instead of writing a paper that "I intended to finish it, but didn't..."? That smarmy, preachy line has taken on new meaning for me lately as I've visited almost 20 good, old-fashioned glade restoration projects that were doomed from inception. In fact, some of these restoration projects are proving to be downright destructive.

When we think of glades in the Ozark Highlands, many of us think of areas with thin soils with rock outcrops, warm season grasses, usually south or west facing slopes, areas likely punctuated with chinquapin oaks or post oaks and scattered shrubs like Rhamnus lanceolata and redbuds. Of course, one can't think of glades in the Ozarks without calling to mind the 80 year old Eastern red cedars that commonly occur here, relicts from years of grazing and fire suppression that have served to suppress native vegetation with the thick duff of needles and year-round shading effects.

While glades in the Ozarks are typically characterized as "nearly treeless" openings in usually dry woodlands, most of the glades in the White River Hills, Niangua Basin, and Current River Hills historically possessed widely scattered fire-adapted hardwood species like post oaks and (on limestone) chinquapin oaks. One can see these gnarled 100+ year old trees on in tact glade systems in the Ozarks, but not on some of these more recent restoration areas.

So disheartening. I was casually asked recently about "all the trees" on a glade in the Niangua Basin. Looking over survey records from the original General Land Office Survey, large glades appeared on the landscape as part of a woodland complex, a gentle gradation from a more closed canopy dry-mesic woodland in the bottoms to dry woodland (white oak-black oak-post oak) on the slopes and ridges to large open expanses with scattered post oaks. Gum bumelia grows here, knocked back every few years with a fire fueled by the rich grass-forb mix. So when I heard that the folks working on the glade slicked off every single woody plant, including a twisted chinquapin oak that had likely been there for 100, maybe 150 years, I asked why. No good answer followed.

Glade restoration in the Ozarks is easy. Step-by-step:

cut cedars. stack NOT in big piles but in loose windrows. burn cedars either when green or red needle stage (preferably when there's snow on the ground or the surrounding woodlands won't burn; cedar slash burns spill out a lot of embers, so spotting potential is high)--gray needle stage never gets hot enough and the cedar skeletons stick around forever. apply fire to the glade after the cedar slash is gone. don't pile the cedar slash to reach the moon--the intensity of such a fire often sterilizes the soil, leaving behind nothing but fireweed for many years. don't stack cedars near old chinquapins or post oaks or gum bumelias or even hawthorns. if the hardwoods aren't supposed to be there to begin with, fire will knock them back. no need to chop down hardwoods. simply employ the very natural processes that gave rise to these dynamic natural communities and they'll respond positively. in the early stages of glade restoration, frequent fires may be necessary. mix up the seasonality, the intensity, the frequency of the fire regime. "nearly treeless" doesn't mean treeless.
Photos from Bank Branch, a glade with some cedar clearing exercises in the 1990s, managed with nothing but fire...

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