Saturday, May 24, 2014

Trashed out

When Doug drinks too much coffee, he grows increasingly anxious about asteroids or meteors slated to destroy Earth in 1,000,000 years or so. I don't share this anxiety about the asteroids or meteors, nor do I lose sleep about the future of the sun, which may involve a massive implosion in 5,000,000 years or something. I lose sleep over what's happening here and now, over unstoppable, largescale ecosystem destruction occurring on our prairies and in our woodlands, over unstoppable climate change, over the lasting impacts of the 2010 BP oil spill (which few are monitoring), Missouri's deer overpopulation problem, birds and cell phone towers, urban sprawl, and the list goes on. And it doesn't take caffeine to make me anxious.

So, for the sake of my mental health, I try to avoid places that show signs of degradation. I seek out the now-rare high quality sites in Missouri, the areas without a deer overpopulation problem, without mismanagement issues, places that haven't been destroyed by development, grazing, or other forms of resource extraction. Sadly, as the years progress, even in my short tenure here, there aren't a lot of places like that left.

I moved here permanently in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. Since then, I've focused much of my recreational time in Missouri's Ozark Highlands, especially in the woodlands, glades and fast moving, spring-fed streams. In less than ten years, I've seen biotic homogenization occur at a rapid pace; with development pressing at every corner, the White River glades that had suffered so many years of abuse from grazing are now housing developments. With increased urbanization all over the Ozarks, the deer overpopulation problem has increased exponentially with signs of deer browse on everything from coneflowers and white oaks to boxelder. I try to find places without a deer problem. Or places without a mismanagement problem that show signs of misapplication of fire, of "thinning" with no ecological sense behind it (like the recent anti-maple craze going on), and so forth. It's getting harder by the month.

I try to go to the rivers. In less than ten years, I saw the one last decent stretch of the Meramec River morph from a becoming-degraded stream to a river with ranch style houses on the banks, the smallmouth bass replaced with drum and carp, fertilizer runoff and cattle. Rare mussels don't have a chance. So I stay away from the bush honeysuckle-St. Louis sprawl areas like the Meramec. I try to visit other areas that were under threat of development in 2005, disappearing places that are becoming more urbanized and those remaining natural places more enticing to recreationalists seeking a natural experience. It's a one-two punch: With that love of natural places comes threats of their own right. "Loved to death." Some of the most pristine natural places in Missouri are loved to death with the features that attracted all the photographers and hikers and floaters disappearing because of all that love of place and development at the borders.

So I try to go to the places that helped me decide to move here after Katrina. It's sort of fun -even as a 41 year old- to see that small trees become big trees in nine years. But depressing in a less than juvenile fascination to see that as years progress, the constant pressure of introduced trout has annihilated the sculpin and other native populations in one of the rivers I liked to visit. In 2003, on my first Missouri Ozark river float, my canoe partner told me about growing up on the river and always finding hellbenders under the big slab rocks. And that was in his short lifetime. So hellbenders were history even when I fell in love with the river. But in my nine years I've seen major development of the whole valley by float outfitters with campgrounds (with little regard for wastewater treatment), cows in the river, continuous pressure by trout that have impacted the native crayfish and fish diversity, the introduction of non-native aquatic plants like Potomogeton crispus displacing spring flora, and so forth. Biotic homogenization is occurring at a rapid pace. My visits to the last remaining high quality sites are just writing testimony.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

On LaMotte Sandstone

The whip-poor-will started his nightly calling routine with a cough moments after the sun went down. I set up my tent along a stream last week in the heart of the LaMotte sandstone region of the Ozarks. It was only days before when a big storm rumbled through the area, bringing on fallout for migrating warblers. The next morning, bird song began at 5am with one mellifluous call I hadn't heard in months. And then the wood thrush started singing. One bird started the chorus that morning, but by 6am I was surrounded by thousands of singing birds, a surefire way to kick me out of the tent and grab my binoculars while coffee was brewing.

This is the land of regal ferns, moist sandstone cliffs, and high quality fire-mediated pine-white oak woodlands. The little sandstone-loving Saxifraga virginiensis was in full bloom, sharing the space with Tradescantia virginiana. The 26 year old fire program here has worked magic to restore this signature pine woodland site. When the heat of the day escalated to 85 degrees in early May, the pine duff took on the smell of South Dakota's Black Hills, reminding me of travel season, of barely staying inside long enough to chop cucumbers for my daily summer salad.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

What is not Desired Condition

"Ugh" is about all I could muster earlier this week when I drove through Current River country and saw the too often burned woods that I visit every spring. There's been some resistance to prescribed fire lately, largely due to the misapplication of this ancient natural process, and after seeing these woods burned again, I can begin to understand why.

In 1983, ecologist Paul Nelson instituted the prescribed fire program in woodlands after visual evidence indicated that prescribed fire in previously open woodlands could restore the thriving herbaceous layer that once existed before the age of extraction began. At that time, because "burning through timber" was so very controversial, Nelson and his colleagues instituted vegetation monitoring protocols to track restoration activities and the effects of prescribed fire on the landscape. What they found in those early days was that prescribed fire, implemented carefully and, in certain cases, combined with non-commercial thinning projects was integral to restoring a vibrant woodland ecosystem. Light to the ground was the goal, and landscape restoration -not timber management- remained the primary driver in the early days of prescribed fire.

Unfortunately, 31 years after that first prescribed fire event, certain folks implementing fire aren't quite following the guidelines Nelson laid out in his 2005 Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri. In the book's early chapter on ecosystem restoration, the author explains that one can't simply burn through woods and expect a thriving herbaceous layer to respond, especially in the Ozarks. Today, we're dealing with damaged systems, largescale landscapes that have been abused by logging practices and overgrazing by domestic livestock. And so, repeatedly running fire through a damaged woodland isn't going to restore the ecosystem. In the case of this Current River woods, an even-aged dog hair stand of red oaks and black oaks, there is no light reaching the woodland floor. The repeated fires are not accomplishing the task of opening the canopy; year after year, they're burning off leaves in the woods to reveal a chert rubble understory. This is not the desired future condition of a woodland ecosystem as explained in the book. Woods treated carefully with fire do not look like this in early May, despite the late spring:

Light to the ground. When the even-aged stand of scraggly oaks leaf out, light cannot reach the woodland floor. To add insult to injury, if any sign of floral diversity can poke through the chert rubble before leaf on, the ever-burgeoning deer herd in the area sniffs it out, leaving a few scattered sedges and some Bracken fern (a plant that Steyermark as far back as the 1960s noted as an indicator of damaged systems). Chert rubble and thick stands of red oak-black oak is the legacy of this tract of woods, not a high quality woodland ecosystem.

Now the opinion pendulum is swinging back to the early 1980s when folks deemed Nelson an "overzealous" advocate for prescribed fire. If the primary goal of prescribed fire in those Current River woodlands is for the restoration of an ecosystem, they need to lay off the fire and investigate some non-commercial thinning to allow light to reach the floor. Before any thoughts on regeneration of a canopy begins, one must restore the herbaceous layer first. Fire through a warm season grass/forb mix moves differently than fire through thick oak leaf litter. These woods do not represent desired condition of a woodland ecosystem, and, after regularly occurring fires in a damaged system, they have the ecological integrity of an overgrazed pasture.