Sunday, September 04, 2011

Sad state of oak savannas

Driving through the Ozarks' Central Plateau, through the heart of Maries County, you can see it too, an undulating landscape of historic post oak savanna. So inspiring is this historic landscape that the Central Plateau represented Savanna in the 2005 edition of Paul Nelson's landmark The Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri[p. 233]. The low, rolling, successive hills of widely spaced post oaks occupied a two page spread in the book, despite the utter lack of native ground flora that once covered millions of acres of the Ozarks. It's a Serengeti Plains landscape, damaged beyond repair by years of grazing by domestic livestock and fire suppression.

So it came as no surprise several years ago when we downloaded photos of damaged Ozark post oak savanna from my trusty $100 camera that Doug muttered that "it looks like the Willamette Valley." Oh, yes, the Willamette Valley, home of Oregon white oak savanna and prairie, an area nestled between the Coast Range and the Cascades with a growing condition so similar to France's that winemakers are making such remarkable wine in the Burgundian tradition that I spend entire paychecks on it. Nestled between late vintages of Missouri Nortons are various vintages of Willamette Valley pinot noir; Missouri Nortons meet their best expression on the Central Plateau, and award winning WV pinot noir is made throughout the valley, from Eugene to near Portland [my favorite is grown on Missoula Flood loess...]. Historic oak savanna soils in Oregon and Missouri produce wine full of depth and character on ancient soils that once gave rise to a forb-dominant landscape that makes true botanists salivate. Barely any high quality savanna remains in Oregon or Missouri.

Full of guilt in 09, I went through the WV in search of two things: in tact Oregon white oak savanna and the fragile -though spectacular- 07 vintage of WV pinot noir. I felt guilty driving down gravel roads to wineries whose vines went all the way up and over hills with the only shade provided by ancient, stately, gnarled, fire-scarred Oregon white oaks. I thought that it was the wine industry destroying savanna in Oregon. I thought this, and felt truly guilty about this, until I met Ed, the WV version of Paul Nelson.

Ed is the leading ecologist in the WV--a graduate of Evergreen with a Master's Degree in Botany from Oregon State (Corvallis. Go Beavers!). He can answer any question I ask about natural history in Oregon. Lucky me, I spent a field day with him on Wednesday traipsing through wet prairie and historic savanna, learning a few of the Oregon native plants that I never see at the coast or, well, on the properties of WV wineries. Ed assured me that Oregon's savanna was destroyed long before the valley was transformed into the Rhone. Whew. So, in regards to Witness Tree Winery on Spring Valley Road (outside of Salem), the awesome Oregon white oak that adorns their label (their namesake, a truly remarkable witness tree on the ridge) was always there but not surrounded by native vegetation for many years. While I'm not certain of the crop grown at Witness Tree before grapes, it wasn't native high quality vegetation. (It was probably wheat or hops or berries). The wine industry is not destroying savanna, because savanna was destroyed years before the wine industry took off. Guilt washes away, sort of, leaving a great finish of black cherry and vanilla from the French oak.

Oregon white oak savanna, like our post oak savanna, is associated with prairie in the WV. Imagine the low rolling hills outside of Rolla leading into the broad, flat plains outside of Licking and you'll see the same thing (but different plants). Ed showed me a prairie with a Serengeti atmosphere--Oregon ash, fire scarred, a landscape burned for 30 years.

The best time of year to see Oregon's native prairie and savanna landscape is not in late August, but in the spring when the wild Geranium and Camassia are in bloom. Nevertheless, I can see the beauty in a landscape dominated by native grasses (here, Deschampsia) and a few forbs like Perideridia montana (visit Pomme de Terre country to see P. americana on the limestone glades) and Oregon's stunning Clarkia amoena. But the Oregon white oak savanna is much like ours--relict, hanging on for dear life. There are earnest efforts to restore it, much like in Missouri, but it takes dedication of individuals.

In Oregon, the white oak savanna's biggest threat is fire suppression which leads to an invasion of Douglas firs. Ed didn't talk to me much about the grazing history in the WV, though native elk are still present there, and I suspect there's some livestock grazing? In Missouri, our savannas were destroyed by overgrazing by domestic livestock and fire suppression. It remains unfathomable to me that our land management agency in Missouri has resinstituted domestic livestock grazing to our native landscapes knowing that these very landscapes have been utterly destroyed by the same process. With the WV's wet weather and colder climates, grazing following settlement may not have been so detrimental as it has been in Missouri. Ed also knows me well enough to not discuss livestock grazing in native landscapes while I'm on vacation. But he showed me ugly woodlands of pole sized white oaks being choked out by Doug firs. Ugly, with no understory but their prehistoric sized Polystichum fern. Where the land management ended, where the doug fir thinning ended, the woodlands became dense, thick, overstocked, and places where fire would never travel. The same story as in Missouri....

Ed showed me awesome old Oregon white oaks, gorgeous old trees with gnarled branches, thick trunks, twisted branches. But some of the best remaining savannas in the WV resemble Missouri's--great old trees with little of the herbaceous layer left. Cows, hogs, sheep, goats ate all of our native vegetation. I don't know what happened to Oregon's besides fire suppression. Were they as reckless with grazing livestock as we were in the Ozarks?

Fast forward to the 2010 edition of The Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri. The photo of Maries County post oak savanna has been replaced with a vibrant color photo of a savanna in North Missouri, up in the Central Dissected Till Plains. It's a gorgeous place, rich with diversity and native high quality warm season grasses, recently made a Missouri Natural Area. Unfortunately, the land manager who made it the landmark savanna landscape it is will be retiring this year. When he leaves, it is doubtful that the agency in charge of this remarkable place will maintain the level of protection and rigorous management. Such is the problem with land management in Missouri--it's left to the discretion of the individual manager with no leadership from the guiding hands of any Natural History Department. With the dissolution of Natural History in most of our land managing agencies, so too will citizens see the demise of the protection of great landmarks. Natural history is hardly a priority in Missouri, but hopefully with folks like Ed (20 years tenured) at the helm in Oregon their land management agencies can locate and protect what fragments of native vegetation remain in my second home, the moist climes of the Pacific Northwest.


Anonymous said...

Outstanding post. I've got a farm about 30 miles southwest of St. Louis near Eureka where we grow produce and wine grapes on a diversity of soils types, from loess on the hill tops, shallow gasconade outcrop limestone on the south faces, limestone colluvium and clayey loam in the bottoms. I grow about an acre of norton on loess over limestone, and occassionaly bottle some when it seems 'fit' to do so. Also have 3 acres chambourcin and various other small plantings, including some vinifera trials (marsanne, viognier, petit manseng, petit verdot). I also love WV pinot, and spend way too much money drinking it.
Also perhaps of interest to you is the Washington University glade project. Our farm is one of the replicate sites, although the project is still in the early stages.
Also doing some savannah restoration around the vineyard.
Anyway, great work and please come visit if you're ever up near St. Louis.
Sam Hilmer
Claverach Farm

Allison Vaughn said...

Why, Sam, I've had your wine at Tyson's summer lecture series! Your Chambourcin is outstanding. I would be truly honored to visit your farm the next time I'm in STL...