Saturday, April 30, 2016

After the Rain

Spring has been rather clement with occasional rainy days and plenty of sunshine. Vegetation in a lot of places looks as though there have been steroids injected into the rain, tall huge and rangy plant life with abundant flowers. I took advantage of a sunny afternoon to take a long hike to see the last of the dogwoods, to hear some of the first of the gray treefrogs calling from the woodland canopy, and to enjoy a nice spring day in nice woods.

Dogwood flowers have all fallen off the understory shrubs in recent days and full- on tree cover is in play now, shutting out light for spring ephemeral wildflowers. But we had a nice spring wildflower season with reports coming from all over the state that this was a particularly good year for Celandine Poppy and Bluebells in a true forest on the Missouri River. Migrating warblers are all in town and waking me up at 5am since I sleep with my windows open. Upon hearing a bird call I don't recognize as a yard resident, I bolt out of bed, grab coffee, and go searching. I've had Tennessee and Nashville warblers in my yard this month and I heard a Veery a couple of mornings ago. If you're not familiar with this haunting bird call, visit any of the websites that play bird calls upon demand. It's downright eerie with circuits of threes, sort of like a Duke Ellington tune.

Meanwhile, May is upon us and it's a busy month with conferences, meetings, and presentations. Tick season is here in earnest, much earlier than it was ten years ago; I recall not having my first ticks until late May, but this year I started attracting them in late February. All of those millions of seed ticks that hatched last July are now little subadults that latch on and creep all over in the hundreds. Thank heavens for hotels with pools with exceedingly high chlorine levels to kill them outright. Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Castile Soap works wonders on ticks, as well.

I had a nice hike through decent little woods that, in localized areas, have seen certain periods of heavy grazing and are still in recovery mode. But the woods are coming back, slowly, maybe through another two hundred years, but there's species accrual and structural building, and it's a long way from being a super nice woodland. On the upside, there's no bush honeysuckle, which is more than I can write about thousands of acres in Missouri. The heart of the Ozarks, protected by acres of buffering private lands that are not urbanized with bush honeysuckle, are not under the siege of this closed canopy-loving exotic species. But biotic homogenization is occurring at a rapid pace, so we must be vigilant, keep up with the fire, treat exotic infestations before they spread. Resiliency in the landscape is key. Make the landscape as healthy as possible with prescribed fire, no disturbance from heavy equipment or ATVs, keep the hogs out, keep deer numbers low, allow the ground flora to thrive and flourish.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Back to the Steyermark Site

Everyone in the office knows the routine: when Missouri's morel season is two weeks underway, so too is the bloom cycle of Amethyst Shooting Star (Dodecatheon amethystinum), known from only a handful of locations in the Ozarks. This glacial relict plant resembles the more common shooting star (Dodecatheon meadii) found on both glades and rock faces, but there are distinct genetic differences between the two. The location of the rare Amethyst Shooting Star was noted by Julian Steyermark in his discussion of the species in his landmark 1963 Flora of Missouri. Unfortunately, the homogenization of this site through the conversion of the woodlands to a monoculture of bush honeysuckle makes the shooting star location highly vulnerable. So, since 2008, every April we dedicate several days to pulling and cutting and stump treating bush honeysuckle around this moist cliff face. Unfortunately, the rest of the woods are doomed.

This is not the job for one person. The Steyermark site of the rare shooting star covers about ten square meters with hundreds of basal rosettes of this plant poking through thick moss and surrounded by other small spring wildflowers. The entire shrub layer in the photo to the right is bush honeysuckle. If we stopped making our annual trek to the shooting star location, these plants would vanish. Bush honeysuckle not only blocks light to the woodland floor, thereby blocking any hope of flora growing, but it's also allelopathic which means it poisons everything around it. Once the canopy trees die, there will not be regeneration in bush honeysuckle-filled woods. And sadly, one plant can produce thousands of seeds, manifest in those pretty shiny berries each fall.

At a recent conference, attendees from Montana asked our presenter on non-native invasive species if Missouri had any native flora left, considering how many species of exotics have taken a foothold in recent years. Of course, we do still have native flora, but fire-starved woodlands (thousands of acres in the Ozarks) with their closed canopy has not met an exotic species as detrimental to biodiversity as bush honeysuckle. Japanese stiltgrass is running a close second, but it has not been documented from every county like bush honeysuckle has in recent years. Exotics that can thrive in closed canopy conditions are certainly a bigger threat than roadside exotics.

After our day of honeysuckle removal, the area we worked in was free of honeysuckle. The cliff face is obviously very steep, so pulling plants required a lot of holding onto trees so we didn't fall into the river valley below. There are still hundreds of shooting star plants, not all in bloom that day, but hundreds of rosettes. The increasing urbanization and the lack of regularly occurring prescribed fire have left us with a new plant association: bush honeysuckle, deer, wintercreeper association. Sadly, this is what homogenization looks like and to protect landscapes from the ever-burgeoning threat of this detrimental process, it takes a lot of work. In the long run, bush honeysuckle will win.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Loved to Death

In March 2003, I began my tenure as a seasonal worker in an incredible tract of woodlands in the Ozarks. I finally had a chance to see wildflowers that I had learned from field guides of spring flora in Louisiana but in the flesh, since most of the spring flora in Louisiana had been extirpated from years of fire suppression or utter destruction of natural communities, they were listed as "rare or declining." I really loved seeing Dutchman's breeches and wild geranium for the first time, and certainly loved seeing that they were considered "common spring wildflowers" in the Ozark Highlands. So I really relished my work site and wanted to make sure that everyone else could experience that same excitement of seeing an incredible spring wildflower display.

Years pass, visitation to my favorite place increases, publicity highlighting how great this place is increases, and my favorite place starts to see visitation reaching one million, not just a few thousand visitors a year, but close to one million people wanting to see all of these great features. Approximately one million people hike the little footpath wanting to see the wildflower display, the geologic formations, the little footpath that also affords a good little hike for health purposes, despite the natural history one may encounter, it's a hike! The little footpath becomes a large trail, a wide trail from all of the trampling of vegetation. The little trail is now a main path that sees over 500 visitors a day, so all of the vegetation that existed along the edges of the small footpath is now gone, the ground totally compacted and eroded.

Let's fast forward another five years and more publicity for this site: Best site for spring wildflowers! Best site for hiking! Best site for a natural setting! Best day trip from multiple urban areas! Best area to see a microcosm of the Ozarks! Ach. So, more publicity, more traffic to this precious site that is so fragile because it represents the highest quality landscape in the region, but it has hiking trails, and picnic tables, and day use! More visitation, more widening of the trail. With increased visitation, hikers decide to go off trail, to trample native vegetation to see rock formations. The few hikers that go off trail then create rogue trails that everyone else follows, which means that these illegal trails to no real destination end up as eroded areas of no vegetation. All of the spring flora that once existed here has been destroyed by visitors going off the trail.

The image to the right represents an illegal trail. Note the erosion around the roots of the tree, note the lack of vegetation. This area on a slope did not look like this several years ago. Illegal trail use and trampling has damaged this area, and it will take many years to recover.

When a populace learns of special natural places, how does one protect these areas from being loved to death? Will it take boardwalk installation everywhere before the publication of an article in a St. Louis newspaper? One person going off trail and trampling vegetation will invite others to do the same. Fragile spring wildflowers do not recover, they don't just "bounce back" from repeated trampling. In areas that are loved by millions of people, please stay on designated trails. The features for which the area was protected, the reasons for which the area was designated as a significant site, will suffer with illegal, rogue and social trails. Sadly, this site that I fell in love with in 2003 is being loved to death. Everyone wants to explore, to hike over every inch, and to see the area in all its biodiverse beauty. Unfortunately, that love will kill the resource in the end.