"Do no harm," a key component of the Hippocratic Oath and a phrase that should be the mantra of folks engaging in ecosystem restoration projects in highly damaged systems in the Ozark Highlands. Alas, I don't think it is, especially considering the state of the "glade restoration" area I visited this week and numerous other projects throughout the region.
Out in the dry upland ridges of the Western Ozarks, where the plains meet the wooded hills, large pockets of limestone glades exist. On good examples of these glades, the ones that aren't surrounded by hog wire fencing and that still have a soil structure, one may find cool plants like Mentzelia and Polanisia, restricted in Missouri to this section of the Ozarks. Because this ground out here isn't very arable, it was heavily grazed for the past 200 years following European settlement. It's hard to find good examples of high quality natural communities in most of the Ozarks, areas which have been restored to the best quality they can exist within, but it's really difficult to find high quality limestone glades that still have a soil structure, a key component which serves as the base for a heterogeneous matrix of perennial grasses and forbs.
As part of the glade mapping project, I've field verified numerous complexes of glades in the Ozarks. I've seen glades totally destroyed by present day grazing, I've seen dense thickets of cedars with absolutely no remnant vegetation to recolonize were those cedars to be removed, and I've seen hundreds of glades like the one I visited this past week: grazed to hell, probably used as a hog lot. But it was at this glade where folks determined they should remove the cedars to see if anything would respond to the light availability.
This glade has no soil left on it from the years of extractive use. No remnant vegetation existed before the restoration project began, no hope for recolonization by warm season grasses that are so integral to building up the soil layer. In the past few months, crews have removed approximately 50 cedar trees and dragged them across the already damaged soil layer, which has caused scraping of what little soil had been formed by cedar duff. The day I visited, the "glade" looked like this:
Oh, rose verbena is a perfectly pretty plant when it's nestled among other native wildflowers and grasses in it's natural setting. But this explosion, resembling a planting at a botanical garden, is highly unnatural. Roadsides are awash now in rose verbena; it's a scraped soil-loving plant, able to spread and adapt to our flooded shorelines along Missouri's man-made reservoirs where the soil has been removed. This area, which was mapped as a glade in the glade mapping project, is so totally destroyed that even after all the cedars are removed (preferably by heaping and burning on site rather than dragging them across the glade), it will only be colonized by weedy annuals like Descurainia pinnata and maybe some Draba. Not all glades will respond well to cedar removal, especially if you're not using fire and instead hauling the cedars off site for some private enterprise which causes more soil disturbance. Sometimes, it's better for the landscape to leave the cedars. At least they're cover for chickadees.
Cut bait. If you try your hand at restoring a small patch of land and nothing comes up vegetatively for several years, stop cutting. Do the work in other areas that haven't been used as a hog lot for 100 years. Why waste the efforts of cedar removal for no return? It's the same story with woodland restoration projects I've visited in the past few years. Folks will cut down some trees to allow for more light to the understory, send some fire through, and the whole area grows up in oak bushes, a sure sign that the area had been grazed to hell. I was once asked recently what to do with all those oak bushes: cut and stump treat? continue burning through them? Oak brush and nothing else in the understory generally indicates a long grazing history, so even if they're cut and stump treated with Tordon, there won't be much else coming up. Bare soil. Grazing has been so detrimental to Missouri's native ecosystems that thousands if not millions of acres of them are unrestorable. Cut bait. Do the work where it will matter in ecosystems without a long grazing history.