Saturday, April 27, 2013

Not all ecosystems are restorable.

"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.


Scott said...

I'm curious - Can such an area be (re)seeded? So I guess in essence try and reintroduce as many native grasses, forbs, etc as possible? Thanks

Allison Vaughn said...

Well, it depends on the soil layer. In this instance, there is no soil left so even reseeding wouldn't result in a rich glade. I have issues with reseeding and introducing plants even if they were once there--I don't like the idea of creating an artificial natural community on top of one that was destroyed. If it was in my yard, I would probably be inclined to try it (or not buy the property because it's too depressing), but for a native system in a natural setting, I don't like the idea of creating an ecosystem. It's sort of like dumping a bunch of native animals of who knows what genetics into a natural setting. More of a zoo than an ecosystem.

Scott said...

Are you implying Rocky Mtn elk aren't native to MO!? Hah ha just kidding. Yes I understand what you are saying in regard to the genetics of the local population. But I wonder is it the lesser of two evils? Is it better to try to establish some semblance of what it "should" be, assuming the land is so wasted as in this case? I don't know the answer.....but I do know that so much of the Ozarks is a mess I feel ripped off. And I hate feeling like there is simply no way forward, or no way to kinda sorta remedy the situation, but maybe that is the case and I need to accept that. I'm still trying to spot those damn elk by the way.

Scott said...

Still trying to think this through....

You write:
"for a native system in a natural setting, I don't like the idea of creating an ecosystem."

At what point does the scale tip to: "this is no longer a native system nor a natural setting"? Or maybe "this is no longer a native system, but the setting is natural." I wonder if when you hit that point maybe it's time to create the ecosystem? Then i guess it ends up looking like Shaw NR which is nice but weird and unsatisfying.

Allison Vaughn said...

There are literally thousands of acres of restorable natural communities in the Ozarks, from woodlands to glades to fens. The idea that we should be playing Johnny Appleseed by sprinkling seeds of Collinsia like Denison did in every valley in the St Francois Mountains, or scattering wood frog eggs in ridgetop ponds which are not only unnatural but out of the Missouri range of the wood frog just really bothers me. Imagine 50 years from now when some researcher wants to visit the Ozarks to examine our glacial relict populations of wood frogs (or Trauttvetaria, for that matter) which were, 25 years ago, restricted to glacial erratic ecosystems like moist, north facing coves, Jack's Fork River country, or sinkhole ponds. This researcher may find wood frogs existing in old farm ponds or bulldozer scraped ephemeral ponds on top of fire mediated ridgetops where wetlands do not naturally occur. Said researcher may do the genetic work and find that all these wood frogs that are scattered all over Missouri are not that rare at all, and that dry upland xeric ridgetops must be glacial relicts or that wood frogs persisted in Missouri during the hypsothermal period, all because one herpetologist "liked wood frogs" and knew that they were "rare in Missouri" so wanted to make sure the population was "stable," despite the fact that the reason they are rare in Missouri is that Pleistocene relicts should be rare because the Ozarks never saw glaciers and we certainly don't have the boreal forest in our backyard anymore. The species-specific approach to conserving natural history is a little short sighted, and I could give many examples of how it's being implemented today, with no regard to genetics or taxonomy. I'm particularly disturbed by the recent interest in Ozark chinquapins, historically restricted in Missouri to the fire mediated systems of White River-Elk River country, but today, having crossed some of the White River shrubs with some random genetics, folks are planting them for the "sustainability" of the species. I don't see the conservation value in the species approach to conservation if you altogether lose the ancient genetic memory of a functioning ecosystem in which a heterogeneous matrix of species evolved. And you lose that by extraction (grazing, logging, plowing, development) and in most cases, you can't get it back, esp. if the soil layer and seed bank are destroyed. But there are many others, like the ones who scatter Virginia sneezeweed into a designated natural area because they "like the plant" with no regard to the scientific background of the plant's natural history, who persist in the field. I don't roll like that. I think we should be working to restore our native ecosystems without playing Johnny Appleseed because we like collared lizards or prairie chickens and those ecosystems that are destroyed beyond repair, write them off. Do the work where it will count, and there are thousands of acres available for that.