Saturday, November 07, 2015

Natural Integrity

Not too long ago, after I had become trained to recognize landscape degradation while under the wing of scholars in the field, I migrated to the good places, the sites with a high level of ecosystem functioning and integrity. Few and scattered, these sites include my first jobsite in Missouri, an area in the Niangua Basin that I truly thought represented all of the Ozark Highlands. How abysmally wrong I was, of course, but even today in the darkest hours I return there, I hike the trails and go cross country to witness nature on a landscape scale, one without signs of degradation and human impact. I go there like a pilgrim rubbing a damned stone or coin for faith: the rest of the world is doomed ecologically, but we'll always have this place.

The past week, while surrounded by natural history experts, I thought often of visiting this place, the one place I know where I can always go to see a functioning system on a landscape scale, one managed with properly applied prescribed fire. It seems that in the past five years every field visit I've taken results in either a prognosis that the woodlands are doomed from a deer overpopulation problem, a feral hog problem, an exotic species out of control problem, or that most woodlands in Missouri are so out of context with their historic character and an artifact of overgrazing and fire suppression that nothing will bring them back to a level of natural integrity. So I go here, to the Niangua Basin country with stunted post oaks, landscape-scale fire regimes, high quality forbs and grasses and with no exotics. High quality systems with functioning fire regimes generally don't have exotic species problems. Exotic species generally take hold in damaged systems, areas of soil disturbance or where there is no competition by the strong native flora. The only exotics here exist on roadsides or where the powerline easements are maintained with less-than-ideal management regimes.

We looked once more for the Asplenium hybrid between A. platyneuron and walking fern, but to no avail. Both parents are there, existing on the sandstone cliff, but all of the A. ebenoides have been collected to the point of extirpation. I'll keep checking for the cross, and if it shows up I will not collect it. While I understand the value of herbarium collections, there is also value in allowing the natural crosses to exist on the landscape. This is the same location where compass plant crosses with prairie dock, both species of Silphium and they intergrade here. No, I haven't collected it but it has been documented in literature.

As daylengths shorten to a ridiculous degree, dark by 5:30 and the tennis court lights coming on at 5, camping season draws to an uneventful close. It's no fun to camp out when darkness comes so early, especially after a long summer of going to bed in the tent at a 9:30pm sunset. This is the season for buckling down and actually analyzing all of that data we collected this summer, of writing the reports, and planning for another growing season coming soon.

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