Wednesday, July 23, 2014

In mesic streambank forests

The morning cicadas starting their droning around 10 o'clock this morning when the temperatures had already climbed into the lower 80s. I would rather have been on a river this morning but drinking hotel coffee along a streambank rich with the big strapping blades of Carex albursina and drooping white flowerheads of Polymnia, loyal to talus slopes and forested settings, was also nice.

Walking the spring branch and seeing the forces of nature working alone as they do in these mesic woods, shaped not by fire but by windthrow and rain events, I was reminded of comments from a forester who visited the site with me years ago. He tried to tell me that these moist north-facing slopes should possess a carpet of warm season grasses and widely spaced post oaks rather than the old maples, white oaks and wild hydrangeas that exist today. He tried to tell me that we need to burn these areas, these mesic forest settings, to "promote savanna." It's just silly, frankly, when folks unfamiliar with ecologically complex systems try to offer one prescription across all landscapes for "restoration." So today I was reminded of the anti-maple craze going on in the Ozarks in reaction to papers and studies from the Appalachians. The Ozark Highlands do not have a "maple problem" along the lines of the deer-infested Eastern Deciduous Forest range northeast of the Ozarks. Our widely spaced large girth maples and white oaks, pine and Kentucky coffee trees are not necessarily out of context with the historic character of so many acres across the area, and these wanton maple eradication projects that I'm discovering throughout the region are not based on any ecological standards but as a draw for timber? Or just meddling with forested settings because practitioners have chainsaws and Tordon? I really do not know.

Streambanks and mesic forests in the Ozarks are rich, rich sites with a suite of flora that includes Solidago flexicaulis and delicate little plants that depend on cooler temperatures and deep soil. Streambank wildlife in the Ozarks usually include Louisiana waterthrush and those sneaky green herons. Today we encountered a den of four mink frolicking in a fallen tree along the sreambank, the young pups chasing one another and the adults swimming through the Sparganium and duckweed in the cool 56 degree water. The hike in shady conditions represented such a vast departure from working on glades in the summer months. But, like so many other fabulous natural history sites in the Ozarks, the moist forested conditions along streams here are associated in a heterogeneous matrix with hot, dry uplands and glades where fire-mediated flora and fauna exist just a stone's throw away from the maple-white oak woods on the north slopes.

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