Thursday, May 31, 2012

When Ecosystem Restoration goes Wrong

The photos above were taken in mid-May, a time of year when ground flora peaks in all its greenness and freshness. I took the photos this May to show what happens when an agency burns a woodland really hot without thinning beforehand and without managing a pitiful deer overpopulation problem. Oh, I'll hear complaints about posting sad photos like these, but I need to say it: not all prescribed fire is good prescribed fire. I think I've been through this before on this medium, but I guess it's time to reiterate: when dealing with horribly damaged systems like we have in the Ozarks, when trying to restore a rich grass/forb mix to the woodland matrix, you have to look for indicators that your fire is well placed. If you have a patch of woods with nothing but leaf litter on the ground, and you know the area hasn't been grazed to hell by domestic livestock, sure, try burning it once under moderate conditions to see what happens. However, if you've burned before and nothing comes up but oak bushes (due to grazing by domestic livestock), or ground flora comes up and the deer clip it off immediately, for heaven's sake, don't burn again with such an intensity that you cook the soil. I have been back to this site in late May, and it looks exactly the same. Oh, there was one Desmodium rotunidifolium poking through the black soil, but the single plant had been hit pretty hard by deer. Considering that there are few in the field of natural history actually monitoring the impacts of our deer problem (as it relates to biodiversity), or monitoring fire effects in damaged systems, images like this will become common across the landscape.

On the other hand, if the woods pictured above only had a deer problem, the ground flora would be represented as a monoculture of sedges. The woods above have obviously had a significant grazing history, resulting in a dense thicket of red oak/black oak (all even aged and suffering from synchronous cohort senescence)that calls for a serious need of hardwood thinning if a rich ground flora response is desired.

The above photos were taken from one small 5 acre glade down in the White River Hills. The folks in charge down there have been encouraged to avoid burning huge piles of cedars in one place; instead, place them in windrows or burn them in smaller piles when they're still green so you don't kill the soil beneath. No, no instruction taken, so these dead soil areas are the result of massive campfires evenly spaced across the glade because the managers didn't burn cedar slash during red needle stage and instead waited until the logs would catch (dry fuel conditions). But rather than making one big campfire and feeding the logs into that one campfire (which would result in one of these dead soil areas), managers here made 10-20 campfires with cedar logs, thus making so many dead soil areas that it's challenging to run a sampling transect 50m. long across the glade. These dead soil areas will remain this way for at least ten years, only to be occupied then by ruderal species like ragweed. Not good for the sampling frame, and not good for the glade ecosystem and the biota that depend on it.
The above photos were taken on a glade in July 2011. Both of these photos illustrate what happens when the cedars are cleared from a glade and no fire is implemented. With the long history of grazing by domestic livestock on most glades in Missouri, the glades turn into brush piles--good for yellow-breasted chats, but death to glade flora that depends on light and fire. The second photo shows one of the large bonfires erected on a glade that was burned in place and consequently left a huge scar on the landscape. Ecosystems are fragile, and they've managed to persist through 200 years of abuse by human inhabitation, grazing, and neglect. The least we can do as ecologists and as land managers is to implement sound restoration efforts that are guided by scientific knowledge and experience. We should not be experimenting with such detrimental tools on these landscape types that are already threatened by encroaching development and isolation. If you're going to restore a glade, follow up with recurring fire under proper conditions. If you have to make a burn pile of your cedars because you haven't burned regularly out of neglect, make it in one central location and don't scatter towers of logs all over the glade. If you're burning woodlands, know when you're dealing with a damaged landscape and use the appropriate tools. Aerial spraying with herbicide to knock out deciduous woodlands in favor of pine is a terrible idea any way you spin it.

I could go on with photos and nightmare situations that occur regularly in Ozark ecosystems, but I won't. At least maybe these few photos will help you recognize when restoration efforts are misplaced and implemented incorrectly.

Monday, May 28, 2012

On Clay

If Gilles Simon was pitted against Djokovic today, I would have been cheering for Gilles Simon. If Gilles Simon was playing against DelPotro, I would have been cheering for Gilles Simon. I like Gilles Simon, but when he's playing against Ryan Harrison, that fondness goes by the wayside.
You see, Ryan Harrison and I shared a tennis club in Louisiana. We both trained on clay courts, and his first coach was my hitting partner--Ryan comes from a long line of tennis players in his family. I didn't know about Ryan Harrison until my 20th high school reunion when my hitting partner waltzed up to me to ask if I was still playing. (I think it was the first thing he said to me, "you still on the courts?") "Well, the week I moved to the town I live in, they destroyed the clay courts to make way for another set of soccer fields," (because 5,000 soccer fields aren't enough for a town of this size.). My hitting partner is the town's big tennis coach now, and I reminded him that one day in 1985 (last day of school, May 31, 3pm) I beat him in a match: 6-1, 6-2, 6-0. He contends that he let me win. We kept hitting until supper time. Whatever, I still have the Wilson 7 ball from that match because my hitting partner is a great damned tennis player and I wanted to remember that at least once in my youth I beat a great tennis player besides my kid sister. My kid sister and I played everyday every year for years. It's nice to live with your hitting partner.
I learned to play tennis on clay, so my affinity for the French Open runs deep. Clay court tennis is much different from the janky hard court and super fast grass court matches; clay court requires finesse, lots of time at the net, a slower ball bounce and more deliberation. My cross court backhand sluice was a killer move when I played, and my serve was never that great, frankly, being slight in frame and lacking upper body strength. But I could move, run, leap and slide cross court on clay. Frankly, I suck on hard court so I don't play on it.
Alas, I don't have a hitting partner anymore, and I don't live in a town with clay courts. But I have a French Open bracket. I don't have a television or internet cable, so tennis tournament viewing is restricted to local watering hole hours. One place in the neighborhood carries the Tennis Channel (and a decent enough menu/wine list), so we go there, we camp out there, we talk to the staff about tennis. Most of the wait staff there in the past few months have taken to playing tennis almost daily (likely because it's on their television where they work).
My French Open brackets aren't totally shot after today, but a few of my picks went down in the first round. Here's a link to my Women's Bracket where I'm not too far off, updated somewhat regularly by the Tennis Channel: Women's bracket I advise against looking at the comments on the brackets page; I scrolled through a few last night and found lots of really vulgar and rude language. Not sporting for such a fine sport like tennis. Anyway, I'll be watching clay for the next two weeks, scheduling my fieldtime around matches and so forth. For the sake of my hitting partner, James, I'm sorry Ryan Harrison didn't win today, but there's always Wimbledon.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Glade Days

As May progresses, the days grow longer, thankfully, and the only thing that brings me inside is the annoying alarm clock set for the crack of dawn the next day. On the docket for Saturday (aside from cherries and gooseberries at the Farmer's Market) is a much needed visit to Goodwill to find a few pairs of very lightweight field trousers. I've managed to destroy last year's field trousers to the point that massive holes now exist on the knees from kneeling repeatedly on chert rubble on glades--with every crouch, the small rip grows larger. Lightweight is key, lightweight enough to rinse out in a hotel sink the night after sampling among chiggers, lightweight enough to throw onto the fan in a hotel to dry so I can wear them by the early morning the next day. And they need to be cheap and loose fitting.

One hot 94 degree day brushing up on my glade flora (trying to figure out Sporobolus neglectus and S. asper without flowering stalks in May) before sampling begins in early June. Heck, at the rate bloom time is occurring this year I may have the flowers of the grasses and the Asters by early July.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

"Unseasonable Heat..."

Yesterday afternoon walnut leaves were yellowing and falling off the tree above me in the Central Ozarks. This, in May. A long mailing list received a note from Springfield NOAA warning us about the potential for fire danger...in May. Fuel moisture is exceedingly low now throughout the Ozarks, and several wildfires have already been reported. I overheard a lifetime resident of the Ozarks compare this weather to May 1980 when a drought set in so early in the summer that crown fires burned in deciduous woodlands, much like in Western fuel models. The canopy was so dry that many acres burned that year. Meramec Vineyards also reports no rain (though forecast for Memorial Day) and in Phyllis' biweekly emails she also says this strange weather reminds her of the early 1980s:
RAIN RAIN - That's what's on our mind. Yes we need rain. We've been quite a stretch without a decent rain. So far the vineyard is not in stress. BUT... the ground is dry and ground moisture is gone. Part of our vineyard is irrigated. That's the "new" vineyard. Except for the first few years when we were establishing the young plants, we haven't used our irrigation. We are set to turn on the irrigation on the Seyval, Stark Star and Norton vineyards. We'll check on the Vignoles and Vidal, too. The older vineyard blocks, including the Concords planted in 1921, have never had irrigation. Yet, we have never lost a crop to drought. (Freeze, hail, oh yeah, but not lack of rain.) Back in the early 1980's we had two years back to back with little rain. The vines began to stress (leaves that cup and curl is the sign of severe lack of water stress). But the rains came and the vines were able to ripen the crop. It took the vines about two years after the second year of lack of rain to recover their full vitality. An old timer told me that they had never lost a crop to lack of rain. His memory (through his father and grandfather) went back to when the vineyard was planted in 1921. But the climate has changed. This has been a strange year. The winter was warm and dry. Spring came early. If we don't get a Texas summer of days of 100+ degrees and we get rain, we should be harvesting about three weeks earlier than last year. That's a lot of ifs. Meanwhile, it looks like the next chance we have for rain is Monday, the 28th. O.K. so it's Memorial Day. Remember us grape farmers when you bring your picnic inside. No grumbling.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Unnatural Community

We had already grown a little despondent while walking through woods with an obvious deer problem. We visited this site in the White River Hills three years ago and knew then that the site needed a good fire. I could see the restoration potential, the thick warm season grasses on the glades, the smothered woodland and glade flora needing release from years of thatch and leaf litter. Well, this site burned last fall during that magical fire season that lasted for several weeks and we went down there to see the response. The problem with the glades today in this "best remaining example" of White River Hills glade country is much bigger than an interrupted fire regime.

We saw the problem on the first east facing glade belt we walked on: feral hog damage and constant pressure from deer browse. You see, unlike the rest of the White River country, somehow these glades were slightly spared the utter devastation caused by 80-100 years of grazing by domestic livestock. Three years ago, these glades, unlike other glades in the area, had a thick grass structure and a deep layer of sod formed by years of thatch buildup. All the traditional dolomite glade plants were there in the matrix. So, I guess we were utterly despondent, grouchy, crochety and cranky, totally and resolutely bummed when we hit the next belt of glades and they looked like this:

Of course, if this image came from a garden, someone's yard planting, I would congratulate them for creating pretty planting of four species. However, this is a glade, and it is out of context with its historic character from only a few years ago. High quality glades are diverse ecosystems with a dominant grass structure (little and big bluestem, Indian grass, Sporobolus heterolepis) with perennial forbs in the mix. The Relative Importance Value of grasses on glades is extremely high, and grasses influence the soil structure (which in turn influences everything that grows). Look down at the ground past the four pretty flowers on these White River Hills glades and you'll see this:

Chert rubble. Thanks to a resident population of feral hogs, there is no soil left on these glades. They have managed to destroy the grass layer on these glades, and without the warm season grasses that are the lifeblood of a dolomite glade, the soils eroded away leaving behind rubble and four, maybe five, species of perennial forbs. Those of you familiar with Missouri flora will recognize the tall blue delphinium in the photo above: Trelease's larkspur, historically conservative in Missouri because of the sad shape of White River glades. But you see, Trelease's larkspur traditionally grows on depauperate rock outcrops on glades, not in the place of warm season grasses in the middle of the glade. Trelease's larkspur doesn't like competition, so historically it was restricted to dry rock outcrops where grasses and other forbs can't grow. Here, with no competition from grasses or the rich matrix of dolomite glade plants (because the hogs rooted them up and successive rain events have sent the glade soil into the valley), Trelease's is taking off in the absence of everything else. It's an artificial setting reminiscent of a garden.

Some who care about rare plants may think this is just fine--feral hogs have inadvertently "created habitat" for an uncommon wildflower (uncommon in the state but locally abundant in its southwest Missouri range thanks to overgrazed glades with no soil). Trelease's larkspur is doing just fine in the hog and deer-infested White River Hills damaged landscape. Conversely, purple coneflower grows really well in my mom's garden, another artificial setting. But this explosion of plants is at the expense of the glade ecosystem. The wildflowers on these glades are actually a crop of 5 species: wild onion, pale purple coneflower, Trelease's larkspur, calamint, and maybe a rare-to-these-glades-now Heliotropium tenellum. Even today, years after the publication of the Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri (which cements the ecological concept that all facets of an ecosystem work together to create a whole community), there are some who still sprinkle wildflower seeds on existing glades to create a glade setting despite what the natural landscape harbors naturally. Often this is done without any research indicating that these plants were ever there, and whose genetics do the seeds come from? Glades in Missouri are distinctive, and they all have their own histories of abuse from grazing, quarrying, being used as roadbeds, and so forth. The sandstone glade outside of Springfield that for the past thirty years has not had Missouri bladderpod growing on it now does because seeds were scattered there. On what authority? How does anyone know if that was a bladderpod flurry site? And why tinker with a native ecosystem? With a long restoration regime some of those conservative elements can come back on their own, once that sod layer is built up again. Frankly, I don't agree with the Johnny Appleseed approach to ecosystem management. I think it's artificial and it messes with the genetics of these ancient systems. (And then, three years from now, someone will fill out an Element of Occurrence Record to the Natural Heritage Database for some fake population, thereby compromising the integrity of the Heritage Program.)

Visit the thousands of acres of overgrazed glades in the Ozarks and you'll likely see the same thing--a bed of chert rubble on top of exposed bedrock with scattered plants and, in the sampling frame, a lot of "bare soil/rock" filling up most of the sampling pages. Oh, there may be 4 species per frame, all with low cover values. Today the hogs, more livestock in native ecosystems, are picking up where the cows left off at the end of open range grazing. In terms of causing massive erosion and utter destruction to these fragile landscapes, the hogs are the nail in the coffin of an indefensible relict that once represented a heterogeneous landscape before the constant pressure of cows, hogs, goats, and sheep destroyed thousands of the surrounding acres.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Big Day

The curious, lilting song of American redstart fill the morning air in Ozark woods these days. Today marks the 19th annual North American Migratory Bird Count, a day when teams of birders scatter throughout a given county to record all bird occurrences. While similar to the Christmas Bird Count, the NAMBC has become less popular in birding circles in Missouri as many individuals seek personal Big Day records instead of participating in NAMBC. My Audubon chapter has conducted the NAMBC annually since its inception, and is out there today all over the county in designated routes and circles to continue the tradition. Last year's NAMBC occurred on a cold and rainy day, not the ideal birding day by far. Today's clear skies and light winds are certainly welcome, but the early leaf on of canopy trees is proving challenging to identifying high flying warblers. All week I've listened to the migratory warbler calls, the birds who don't stick around all summer and only pass through during spring and fall migration. Most of these breed up in the boreal forest rather than Ozark woodlands, so I don't have the luxury of listening to them all May and June. Blackpoll warbler is unmistakeable, but there are many others that I can only remember through constant repetition. See here for information on the International Migratory Bird Count and hit the woods for those colorful gems and truly intriguing calls that quickly pass through signaling spring.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Wineries of the Gasconade River Hills

In the land of Century Farms and large, contiguous forested blocks of dissected terrain in the beautiful Gasconade River Valley rest three charming wineries, all located a short stone's throw off Hwy. 50 in the German Catholic region of Osage County. Since moving to Missouri, I've been utterly fascinated with and charmed by the state's local wineries, especially the earnest endeavors that have been in place for many years now, plugging away making Missouri wine in their county road and gravel road locations, year after year after year. With so many smaller wineries tucked in the nooks and crannies of Ozark roads, I hope that the Missouri Wine and Grape Board's passport program has driven eager customers their way, offering a new winery experience to visitors and hopefully some cash flow to the wineries. (For what it's worth, when I visit a Missouri winery, I always buy at least one bottle of something, most often a Norton or a Chambourcin, but sometimes a Traminette or a blend. Heck, at Odessa [Lafayette Co. country, north Missouri], a fruit wine winery, I bought a super dry Granny Smith apple wine made with jalapenos, aptly called Tornado Spotter. Will go great with burritoes one night in the summer. I like the cartoon tornado on the label...)

Hwy A in Osage County reminds me of Hwy 19 around the Current River but without the fast timber trucks speeding their red oak-black oak logs around the hairpin turns. I've never driven A before, a spur off of Hwy 28 just before the Gasconade, but it was such a pleasant, little trafficked, wooded, winding road that I won't mind at all traveling that way again to visit Wenwood Farm Winery. Traffic was so light (so unlike Hwys 63 and 50) that I could even slow to a crawl to wait for the squirrels and turtles to amble -ever slowly- across the road. Well signed, Wenwood Farm Winery is located on Brick Church Road (County Road 406 in my old Gazetteer), a small gravel road off A.

Corky, the border collie mix, met me in the parking lot as I opened my car door. He led the way from the parking lot to the cute old white clapboard 1800s farm house that now serves as the tasting room and restaurant. Considering that I always return to any winery with a good dog, especially if that dog is a friendly border or an Australian shepherd, I was pleased to find a nice Norton blend to enjoy there. Beautifully appointed tasting room with a friendly barista at the tasting bar. Wenwood doesn't keep a lot of older vintages around, and while they serve a suite of sweeter wines, their Norton blend (called Heritage) is amply oaked with nice vanilla in the finish. Wenwood is a charming little place with food and music on weekends, and open daily, even in winter! (A bottle of their Heritage is in my wine rack and won't be opened for several years.)

Head back to A road towards Hwy 50, the gut of Osage County (though pleasantly vacant on my day in the area), and make a right towards Owensville to visit two more small Ozark wineries: Phoenix Winery and White Mule Winery and Bed and Breakfast.

When Becky at Wenwood told me that Phoenix is a one man show, a winery operated by an older gentleman from Frankfurt, she could have told me it was reminiscent of Heinrichhaus Winery outside of St. James. The tasting room was wide open as I pulled into the driveway, passing several acres of beautifully maintained grape trellises on the way. Two signs in the window: "Out for ten minutes." "Honk your horn for service." I honked my horn as soon as I read the sign, not waiting for ten minutes. Out of the house came a gentleman with a porkpie hat and a cigarette dangling from his lips, hunched over and telling me in a very strong German accent that his back is giving him a lot of trouble lately. Oh, he's seeing a chiropractor, a neighbor who retired from the business, but "it takes time" with those lower vertebrae.

Guenther Heeb makes wine in the Burgundian tradition, elegant, light bodied reds and crisp dry whites. His tasting room is decorated with wonderful maps of the Rhine River valley and older bottles that were likely served when he operated the Edelweiss Dining Club, a German food dining club that I regret not witnessing. Herr Heeb once sold homemade sausage from his winery, but the sausage was so popular he didn't have time to do anything else but make and sell sausage. He continues to serve sausage on the weekends with piped in German music in the courtyard. He's been in Osage County selling wine for years now (and how did I not know about it until the passport program?), and would like to retire soon, please. Phoenix Winery is the only producer of the Valiant grape, a varietal most known in America from the Northeast but finicky in Missouri. Guenther likes it so much that he takes great care of his vines to produce a full bodied wine from them. His whites are particularly reminiscent of German wines. If you can't make it to the winery, Phoenix offers a pickup delivery service along certain routes.

Back on Hwy 50 towards Rosebud located on the left is a big barn, an old farmhouse (bed and breakfast now), farm implements, and a spacious tasting room, a woodsy, rustic log cabin sort of place, you've reached White Mule Winery, owned by the Schlottach's. Ample seating, a light menu, a rural setting of an old working farmstead and a quaint little bed and breakfast makes this winery most inviting. The story of this old farmstead goes back to the 1800s when the homes and barns sat behind the old Charlotte store and post office. The Schlottach's great grandfather was a blacksmith in Charlotte. The Schlottach's acquired the neighboring Roethemeyer's farm in 2004 and planted their first vineyard. They restored the house and named it the White Mule after the white mules that the Roethemeyer family continued to use to plow the fields well into the 1980s. White Mule offers traditional Missouri wines including Norton, Vidal Blanc, and Vignoles. They make very nice dry wines, and of course a sweet wine that sells very well.

I ended my tour of Gasconade country with three new bottles for the rack, and knowledge of three new destinations not too far from home. The earnest winemakers, the stunning river hills scenery, the variability of the wine from Osage County terroir added up to a few hours very well spent.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Early Echinaceas

Plant phenology has been thrown for a loop this year (to reiterate what I've repeatedly written since March). On a short visit to my favorite tract of burned woodlands today, among the silly yellow breasted chats in the shrubs and the multiple blue gray gnatcatchers in the canopy, I found a woodland full of blooming Psoralea, Monarda that's about to expire, Echinacea pallida just opening up. The glades are progressing much faster than the woodlands with blooms of Echinacea paradoxa tracking three weeks early in the Western Ozarks. My land, if I had stayed out of the Western Ozarks for a few days more, I would have completely missed the big luscious blooms of Missouri evening primrose! They resemble wads of yellow paper thrown along a roadcut, but up close, they're much more elegant than that.

I learned today that deer like Hydrophyllum appendiculatum, snipping off the delicate plant as though a pair of pruning shears had been let loose on the already compact forest understory plant. So far, the hooved creatures have left alone the New Jersey tea and the Aster patens, both ice cream plants for deer. Today, I didn't see a single browsed Liatris aspera, which was surprising. Forbs are erect, dogwood is branching upwards, and I didn't note a browse line, which is almost a rare case in Missouri these days.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Big Spring Country

Oh, Big Spring, how I love your crystalline waters, your cliff face, talus slope, and spring vegetation, the terrific cabins with little kitchens (and a reliable supply of coffee filters), the perfectly cured firewood, the losing streams which characterize the area and the nighttime company of over 100 fireflies with dark orange flashing that mimicked the dancing flames of a perfect campfire. It's pretty sad, of course, about the horrible deer problem in the surrounding woodlands.