Saturday, May 30, 2015

A Rumble becomes a Roar

Stepping out of the car into a beautiful woodland on a clement 70 degree day, I could hear the calls of the yellow-billed cuckoo and Eastern wood pewee loud and clear. They were directly above me, along with the summer tanagers setting up their breeding spots and the red-headed woodpeckers chattering among the post oak snags. Large, contiguous, high quality forested blocks of uneven aged mixed white oak-post oak-black oak woodlands with a well-developed understory are becoming increasingly rare in the Missouri Ozark Highlands, and this White River Hills area, nestled just west of Cassville, represents one of the best examples of this natural landscape. After thirty years of carefully applied prescribed fire in the dolomite glade-woodland complex I visited, few can argue that the wildlife and herbaceous response to this management has not been beneficial: plants rare in Missouri have a stronghold in the region, including American beakgrass, Liatris mucronata, Callirhoe bushii. Greater roadrunners, wild turkey, black vultures are common inhabitants here, and Bear #1, the first recorded black bear in Missouri's modern era, was documented from this area, a region that certainly supplies enough food, wild land, and denning areas to support a teeming population of this incredible mammal.

Unfortunately, the outreach and education aspect of prescribed fire management has not trickled down through the generations. Today, longtime practitioners of prescribed fire in Missouri take it for granted that they've passed that political hurdle, that surely everyone has read the Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri(Nelson, 2005, 2010), as well as all of the supporting literature that reiterates the importance of prescribed fire for our once pyrrhic landscapes--academic papers that support fire for the benefit of wildlife, oak and pine regeneration, and rare plants. So, today, resentment and anger is mounting in this fire-mediated landscape, with outcry against prescribed fire, perhaps because of misapplication of this management tool, but outcry against all such management. Serious criticism and a misunderstanding of the benefits of low intensity prescribed fires for wildlife and endemic flora is evident in a mounting campaign, complete with yard signs.

It's a shame, really, that I don't live closer or that I can't get involved in politics because I would like to explain that properly applied prescribed fire is beneficial, that Eastern red cedar is only in the area because of a long history of overgrazing, and once you get rid of it and apply fire, a suite of indigenous plants and animals will rebound. The White River Hills Important Bird Area, a designation from the National Audubon Society, has been elevated to a Globally Significant IBA because of the high level of endemism, all the rare plants and birds and functioning ecological systems. Without fire, all of the rare elements that make this such a special place in the Ozarks will disappear. Unfortunately, and conversely, with improperly applied fire, all of these assets will disappear. Ecosystem management and restoration should be accomplished carefully, and it has been on thousands of acres in the region. Sadly, the results of a couple of situations in recent history have unleashed a firestorm of criticism.

I don't know the outcome of all the politics and I can't get involved, but I hope that the lovely woodlands and glades, rich with such an incredible diversity of flora and fauna rare in Missouri because most of the state does not see fire, will persist. Fire remains the primary management tool to restore healthy ecosystems in Missouri. I'm sad that it has been misapplied, and hope for the future management that prescription parameters including humidity, wind, date of green-up, and fuel loading will be taken into account before causing another firestorm.

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