Sunday, April 19, 2015

Degraded, but not totally trashed

After I pitched camp, I hiked upslope and onto a glade. Evidenced by the spare vegetation in the surrounding woodlands and the scattered stands of buckbrush, the area had clearly seen a lot of grazing in the not too distant past. The old hogwire fencing at the toeslope only reiterated what was notable in the vegetation. But it was a dolomite glade in late March and the longer daylengths allowed for exploration well into evening hours.

Thick, rank warm season grasses still mantle the slope, holding glade soils intact. In other, more degraded settings, the rooting and wallowing caused by hogs and continuous pressure of hooves and grazing by cattle often result in worse ecological conditions. Throughout the glade mapping process, I visited hundreds of glades ranging from medium quality to absolutely destroyed. Yes, cedar invasion is one sign of overgrazing followed by fire suppression, but some glades have been so damaged that very little soil remains, leaving behind rock rubble and scattered annual forbs that reseed easily (parking lot plants, for example, like Leavenworthia uniflora down in the White River Hills or Arennaria patula on dolomite).

So, the grazing history on this glade wasn't nearly as severe as I've seen in similar settings throughout Missouri. While this glade suffers from serious damage, there were still some remnant spring forbs and, most importantly for the recoverability, the prairie grass matrix persists. A cedar removal project and some old fashioned fire would undoubtedly help restore the glade, but unfortunately, as is the case with thousands of glades in Missouri, once the conservative elements have been sniffed out and rooted up, they do not magically return. It is because of the long history of grazing that so many of our plants are conservative now. Even Julian Steyermark noted this. But the grass will help to rebuild the soil and work to repair the damage. If the glade lacked a thick grass component, I wouldn't even think of suggesting restoration--the damage is usually too severe, fire can't carry without grass, and so forth.

But it was sunset, and the screech owls were starting to call and saw my first of the year Viola pedata in full flower, the basal leaves of an Indian paintbrush, a draba or two. Not all of our intact natural communities are as resilient as this area may prove to be, the damage across the Ozarks from years of open range grazing is severe. While the glade soil is not as deep and rich as on some of the lesser-grazed glades in the area, there's still soil here. And grass--a lot of crummy Sporobolus neglectus that inhabits areas of damage, yes. But some semblance of restoration potential.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Central Plateau in Early April

Stepping out of my 365K miles strong-1995 Honda Civic onto a crunchy warm season grass mat, I was met this week with a cold wind, a wind bitter enough to make me wear a stupid fleece jacket even though the forecast was for temperatures in the upper 70s and sun--rare, rare sun. I do like the field verification of glades I've mapped, to step onto these areas that I've seen from multiple iterations of aerial photos ranging from Google Earth to infrared layers on ArcGIS and all, to see the glade on the ground. So, even though it was a casual hike through the Central Plateau on a cloudy day for a determined purpose that was not glade verification, the glade verification fit in quite nicely while I encountered some lovely spring flora along the way.

There isn't a lot of public land in the Gasconade country, even though the river valley represents some of the largest (the second largest, to be precise) concentrations of glades and intact post oak woodlands with river frontage. Not a lot of development in these parts, which is great in some aspects, but cause for concern in others, such as the lack of regulatory oversight for development, regulation on recreation that can cause serious streambank erosion and sheeting, and so forth. I can't do anything about it, of course, so I enjoy it while it exists. Large expanses of glade-woodland complexes of the Roubidoux Formation and Gasconade dolomite, undoubtedly the most common geologic structures in the Ozarks that still have a forest canopy. Oh, there's logging, of course there's logging, but still lots of intact woods. And glades.

As mentioned previously, and a million times before, the bottoms in Missouri are usually just chocked full of spring wildflowers. I was seriously saddened to see an eight mile stretch of riverine forest covered in garlic mustard, but there's no stopping the inevitable homogenization of our landscapes. I had to pull about thirty garlic mustard plants to frame this picture of a bluebell. They'll all disappear unless someone does something. But nothing will happen and in three years I won't be able to come here to take photos of bluebells. I guess I'll seek them out in gardens in Columbia, all surrounded by bush honeysuckle pruned to be a landscaped shrub.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Backpacking in Late March

The world is coming alive now after a long winter's nap. By late March, fire season was officially over in my playbook, so it was time to hit the trail for early spring backpacking. The screech owls have fledged, whinnying all up and down the creekbed, and Eastern phoebes are hawking insects all over warm glade openings before setting up their nests.

I pitched camp early in the day in a wooded bottomland, protected from the fierce south winds and surrounded by blooming spicebush. Just above was a little unmanaged dolomite glade with a few blooming drabas and bird's foot violets, my first of the year. The natural events seem to be on schedule this year, with the songs of Louisiana waterthrush beginning well before the streambank vegetation comes on.

Forested coves are awash in flowers, all taking advantage of the light and longer daylengths, but the fire-mediated dry woodlands and glades also harbor rich floral displays. It's a wonderful time of year when the insects emerge and turkeys gobble. Deep in the valley at my campsite, I didn't hear any traffic noise, just the bare branches of maples rustling together and the early morning bird song. Mourning cloaks were everywhere that warm March day, and really skittish Grapevine Epimenis butterflies were mobbing the scattered flowers in the uplands. Their larvae feed on grapevines, which are abundant in our Ozark woodlands.

Spring is such a fleeting season, the warm rains encouraging an amazing floral display and all the elements of our spectacular natural world renewing itself on its own.