Saturday, June 04, 2016

Degradation Turnstile

In the past few weeks, I've had the pleasure to tour areas that have been under ecosystem restoration projects for several years. Fire management, cedar removal, some hardwood thinning have all been facets of the restoration with the primary driver of restoring the understory's native biodiversity, suppressed for over 100 years by fire cessation and grazing by domestic livestock. I have enjoyed seeing early restoration sites, considering that I normally work with areas that have been managed for at least 20 years and are further along in the restoration process (and therefore more botanically diverse).

I visited a couple of sites last week with a decent enough understory, which is a key component in restoring a given area since fire behaves differently through a grass-forb mix than dense, thick oak leaf litter. Early restoration should really focus on getting enough light to the ground to promote an understory response since it is the understory that will dictate future fire behavior. One site witnessed a January fire that took out the cedars but the overstory was still quite closed, resulting in a sparse understory dominated by legumes and oak sprouts. Recommendation? Don't burn for a year and maybe do some girdling of all the out-of-context red oak/black oak that shouldn't be there to begin with.

I've thought a lot about these managers who are, today, embarking on restoration efforts and hopefully thinking about the lessons I've learned through the years, lessons which may not appear in published papers but are based on anecdotal evidence, not the strongest argument in the box. For example, super hot fires can be highly damaging. And excessive thinning in degraded woodlands can result in years of brush production. Not all ecosystems are restorable. Areas that were once hog lots may not ever recover species richness, but, depending on the level of abuse, they may be recoverable to some degree, which I have noted on a particular glade complex in the Western Ozarks.

But mostly I'm concerned about the managers who feel that a "one size fits all" approach to ecosystem management will result in high quality restoration sites. Too often I have seen highly damaged areas treated with fire at inappropriate times which has resulted in a monoculture of Hieracium (fireweed), or brush, or both. Every tract of land has had a different land disturbance history and that must be taken into account before restoration efforts are employed. If not, the future desired condition may never be met.

Yesterday I spent a rainy morning in what I normally think of as beater land, Oregon County, degraded to hell from years of grazing. We had a first fire there in January under mild prescription. Legumes came on really strong and the spare understory pointed to a highly closed canopy that does not promote an herbaceous response. But it was a first fire, and I was interested to see what would come up in this area that had not seen fire in at least 60 years. Based on my experience, this area may be vaguely recoverable, so definitely worth keeping up with a fire regime. But this area, like so many thousands of acres across the Ozarks, have seen serious damage, so restoration through fire and thinning should be implemented very very carefully. One super hot April fire through this area and the soil will be damaged to the point of no return. Logging practices would damage the fragile soils to the degree that the area would only produce brush and weeds. Ecosystem restoration is a very sensitive and highly technical process. One mistake- one fire in late April that cooks the soil and destroys the understory, one logging practice that ruts the soil making it vulnerable to exotics- can be the death knell of ecosystem health. Restoration is a one way turnstile: one mistake, one ill-planned event of a too hot fire, of a too aggressive thinning, and the system will not respond positively. Maybe some folks want bare soil or an understory dominated by generalists and exotics, but it shouldn't be called ecosystem restoration. It only takes one mistake by managers to send a system to the point of no return. One tractor bulldozing a trail and rutting up the surrounding area, one hot spring fire that kills all of the native flora, or one mistake of overstocking a native herbivore in an effort to emulate natural disturbance factors such as grazing. In the name of restoration, too many acres of our natural landscapes are being lost because of poor management decisions. Viable ecologists dictating ecosystem management are few and far between, and sadly, our lands can't recover from management mistakes. It's a one way turnstile. Once high quality systems are gone, they don't readily recover from management mistakes. If they did, we would have a lot more land that could be characterized as high quality. It's shrinking thanks to human error.


Jill said...

I always enjoy reading your blog and learning about how fire is used to improve habitat and forest health. But setting an intentional fire is daunting, to say the least, and I'm wondering if there is a good guide out there that can help landowners understand how to conduct a successful burn and use fire appropriately for their particular land type?

Allison Vaughn said...

You're right, prescribed fire is certainly a daunting task! I recommend contacting your local private lands steward with the conservation department--they can certainly help with rx fire. Also correct that not all landscapes burned--Missouri is home to certain moist slopes and forest conditions that are shaped primarily by windthrow and ice storms rather than fire. Appropriate use of this ancient natural process should be measurably calculated rather than a "one size fits all" approach...
Thanks for reading!

Luis said...

Hello, Allison,

Great post, thank you so much

Are you familiar with the USFS Butler Hollow Project?

We have a deadline of July 8th to Save Butler Hollow. USFS has decided prescribed fires are needed to restore the forest to Glades.

There are many elderly, disabled and frail people in the forest; they would have to move or die from wood smoke PM.

Here is some info on the project:

Allison Vaughn said...

Thanks for reading, Luis. I am quite familiar with the Butler Hollow controversy. I think there may be some misunderstanding of the intentions of the FS, however. In areas of the White River Hills that are managed for the protection of biodiversity, such a small fraction of the area, actually, thinning, cedar removal, and properly applied prescribed fire is vital to the health of the ecosystem. I understand the concern about smoke and the aesthetics of changing the landscape for the benefit of biodiversity and wildlife, but if the fire is applied in a responsible manner, the smoke should be a short pulse and have excellent lift so as not to cause any health issues. I feel that the fumes coming out of millions of cars on a constant basis is much more damaging to health and to the environment than one short pulse of woodland fires. The FS is not trying to convert forest to glades; they are embarking on a well-planned and thoughtful attempt at restoring biodiversity, not to harken back to one period in time as some have tried to explain, but to restore the natural processes on a landscape scale to enhance biodiversity, to allow a rich understory to develop that will in turn sequester much more carbon and help water reach the aquifer rather than massive runoff. The intent is also to bring back native flora upon which all wildlife depends--wildflowers for pollinators, pollinators for birds, oak regeneration for a myriad of species. This White River Hills landscape is one of the leading areas in the state with a high level of endemism. The only way this significant landscape can maximize biodiversity is with thinning, cedar removal, and fire. I trust that the FS will be cautious an surgical with their thinning and fire implementation. As I mentioned in my post, one careless mistake can ruin an ecosystem.

Luis said...

Hello Allison,

Thank you for your comments

You know a lot more about this project than me - I did not see your great blog until yesterday!

I have two questions:

1. I went to see the Chute Ridge Glade near Roaring River State Park. Why is Chute Ridge on the new project, if it was restored in 2010-2013?

2. Why is timber sales and constructing logging roads part of this project? How is timber sales part of glade restoration?

Look forward to your answers, thank you


Allison Vaughn said...

Hello again, The Roaring River SP Chute Ridge Glade Restoration effort began many years ago and not only included the glade proper but the surrounding woodlands. Sadly, this it the only part of the park with highly functioning ecosystems as the rest of the park is out of context with its natural character--restoration efforts have been slow, barring Chute Ridge. The FS partnered with the state park on Chute Ridge and often collaborate to burn the whole unit. While I think burning massive piles of red needle stage cedar as occurred in recent years is damaging to soil and to the scattered hardwoods such as chinquapin oaks, both areas need fire. Again, properly applied fire within prescription for the rx of ecosystem restoration. The Chute Ridge area is included in the Butler Hollow project because it all covers the same NEPA area. There are certainly overstocked woodlands associated with the glades of Chute Ridge that need hardwood thinning, cedar removal and rx fire, so, while I am not intimately familiar with the FS I can understand that Chute Ridge is part of Butler project. A bit of concern that the Butler Hollow project will adversely affect woodland bird populations is not based in monitoring data; I have collected significant data from the area and find that areas treated with thinning, cedar removal, and rx fire harbor far more species of birds of continental concern, birds declining across their range, than the overstocked woodlands with nothing in the understory. Bird life depends on insect life and insect life depends on plant life, so when you take blooming plants and native flora out of the equation, one sees a trophic cascade of ecological collapse. While I'm not crazy about new roads in any intact system, the Butler project is on FS land, and by Congressional statutes, they are a logging organization, so logging will always be part of the modus operandi of the FS across the board, not just on the Mark Twain....