Wednesday, February 12, 2014

When there's snow on the ground...

Successive snow events and poor travel conditions for the past few weeks have kept me stuck inside suffering from serious cabin fever. While the Ozarks are still mantled in several inches of snow, I finally paid a visit this week to a dry dolomite woodland-glade complex in Current River country, the site of restoration efforts for the past couple of months. Winter is an ideal time for cedar removal. This particularly stickery and labor-intensive activity involves limbing up mature trees and piling branches in small heaps to prepare for burning. A lot of sweat equity goes into cedar removal projects, and trying to conduct these projects in the heat of summer and early fall can be downright unbearable. In winter months, burning the freshly cut piles provides a campfire setting to warm by, which is nice when you're soaked in sweat from hauling cedar logs all over the place.

Not only are winter cedar removal projects easier on folks doing the work, but also easier on fragile glade ecosystems with the vegetation well dormant, the ground frozen to avoid soil disturbance from trampling. Unfortunately, I've seen cedar removal projects conducted by a certain agency in Missouri that involved the use of heavy machinery rather than a team of workers with chainsaws. This heavy handed management typical for this agency is patently destructive and has resulted in significant erosion, soil disturbance, and the utter ruination of glade-woodland ecosystems throughout the state. However, most conscientious landowners are aware that proper glade restoration efforts involve cutting cedars, burning cedars when they're green to avoid the heat of red needle stage and avoiding large brush pile development under old growth chinquapin and post oaks that are an integral part of the system. I think most people I work with in Missouri are pretty well versed in this old and established process. Well, except for the practitioners from that aforementioned agency.

However, there's a greater benefit to cedar removal projects when there's snow on the ground, and it involves the cleanup of all those cedar boughs and logs. Burning green, freshly cut cedars results in a total burn with no remnant logs and skeletons. And when there's snow on the ground, especially the 4 to 10 inches we've had lately, burning those cedar piles results in very little scarification. With snow and ice on the ground below the green cedar piles, the heat from the fire wasn't even enough to burn the residual leaf litter below. While most cedar removal projects that involve burning brushpiles invariably end up with sacrifice areas that will eventually be recolonized with native vegetation, a lot of sacrifice areas turn into moss patches for at least a few years. From a largescale landscape perspective, these dots on the glade barely make a dent in the overall quality of the glade (though if the glade is particularly small, isolated, and not part of a larger system, these sacrifice burnpile areas can certainly seem like a very destructive impact of cedar clearing). But burn when there is a mound of snow beneath the piles and the burnpile will look like this after the fire with ash settling on leaf litter:

Across this 12 acre restoration unit nestled in a landscape of similar high quality and old growth structure, the site of brushpiles from the cedar removal exercise this winter won't even be noticeable in June when I return to the site for vegetation sampling. Snowpack, you're making winter walks in the woods a little monotonous, but you've done a great job of protecting fragile Ozark soils.

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