Saturday, May 28, 2016

Saturday Morning in the Yard Forest

In November 2007, shortly after I had accepted a position outside of the Southeast Missouri Lowlands where I had lived since the storm, I began combing through Craigslist looking for rental property close to downtown. I had a dog, dart frogs, and a penchant for Craftsman architecture, so I landed on a street with numerous rentals in a downtown neighborhood. People were frightened when I told them the address. Of course, having lived in downtown New Orleans for many years, this neighborhood with ethnic, age and income diversity was not "scary" to me. Nonetheless, when I moved into this house, colleagues recommended I "pack heat" to walk to the gym and grocery store. That's pretty stupid, racist, and classist, and not based in any facts but solely in fear of "other," so I relished the new house which I rented based on multiple factors: the yard, the old growth trees, the original hardwood floors, the proximity to a thriving downtown, and the gas stove. All of my nice pans were trashed from the electric stove in the Bootheel.

I rented this house from 2007 until I bought it in September 2015. Upon renting, I immediately began an exotic species eradication program. Being situated in an urban area, bush honeysuckle and wintercreeper coursed throughout the yard, despite the native flora that persisted under the canopy. There is no lawn here, and if there ever was one, it was lost to the natives that lived in the seedbank which have been stimulated by the recurring management regimes we have put in place. I have not introduced any plants to the yard except for a small vegetable garden of kale and some lousy peppers. The Craftsman bungalow with no air conditioning had been owned by an elderly lady whom the neighbors called the "paper towel lady" because she was always wiping her windows with paper towels. She lived here quietly for over 50 years and after she died, my landlady bought the bungalow primarily for the yard. I rented it for the yard. Being close to downtown and in the middle of a city, the yard in 2007 did not have any super floristic diversity, but the understory was predominantly native. While walking through the backyard upon signing the lease that November, my trousers became vectors for the spread of Tovara, Solidago canadense, and three species of Desmodiums. I could see recovery. I moved in and immediately began managing the yard. (Sadly, Google Earth's street view drive-by occurred when there was still an abandoned van in the front yard and there was no vegetation but some crummy catalpas that remain today. On Google Earth my house looks like a crack den-- lots of bare soil and old, broken clay tiles from the roof replacement.) The developer who renovated the house after the paper towel lady died put a slap of paint and a new roof on it and sold it to my landlady for a ridiculous amount at the height of the housing boom. But the yard was restorable. And it had a witness tree in the back, a sickly chinquapin oak that stood sentry over a black oak-walnut woodland that grew to huge heights thanks to the Missouri loessal soils.

Since 2007, we have managed the yard and have had run-ins with the weed inspector, meetings which I have catalogued here through the years. The backyard continues to accrue species richness, though dominated by Silphium perfoliatum and Tovara--not the worst plants for pollinators by any stretch, but not intact natural community-loyal species. Blue-eyed grass and inland sea oats showed up a few years ago, along with morel mushrooms around my elm. But I have no lawn. My sedge list has increased from two species in 2007 to eight in 2016 with Carex davisii and C. amphibola serving as the dominant species. After a few years of management, Penstemon digitalis and spiderwort appeared, and their populations continue to expand across the yard. Now that I own the house and have worked closely through the years with the weed inspector to impart the importance of native landscapes, I feel confident that my yard will not be brushhogged thanks to my National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Habitat sign, even when the Desmodium and Solidago reach two feet high.

I now have four species of native grape in my yard and this spring they have matured to the point that the flowers are pollinated. The insect, bird, and herptile diversity in the yard is significant, especially considering how close I am to downtown and the urban interface. My witness tree still stands. Thanks to James Harlan's incredible digitization of Missouri's General Land Office survey records, I have created a map for my Neighborhood Association that shows which witness trees persist in neighborhood yards. My chinquapin oak is one of them. I love that tree. Anyone else would cut it down and plant a Bradford pear. The chinquapin oak was a primary driver in my securing funding to buy this little 645 ft.2 bungalow with no air conditioning and no attic fan or duct work.

So I think a lot about the recent trend in native plant gardening. I have not added any plants to my yard, but recognize that if I brought in more natives I could probably entice more pollinators, but I prefer to preserve my landscape however altered it has been from years of mowing. Doug Tallamy's landmark book, Bringing Nature Home, has caused a huge movement in native plant gardening which is a great trend. Of course, native plants are certainly preferred over exotics and petunias loaded in chemicals. When I worked in New Orleans in a largely destroyed ecosystem, I worked closely with the local Native Plant Society chapter to secure local genotypes to restore species richness in a garden setting for my workplace. Now, using natives is mainstream, especially with the decline of monarchs and other pollinators. Unfortunately, these native plants are being scattered throughout our community without much regard for local genotype. Native to Missouri does not mean native to Shannon County or native to the moist slopes of the streambanks of the Jack's Fork River, for example.

Recently, on multiple occasions, I have visited places touting their "native flowerbeds" which "support pollinators and wildlife." This is all good and fine, but when I am in an area with distinct, unique characteristic natural communities such as chert glades, globally significant chert glades, mind you, I sort of recoil at seeing native plant beds filled with dolomite glade species collected from the White River Hills region. Baptisia australis? Gorgeous plant. Does it belong in an area outside of its natural range? Oh, I can see planting it in a yard in St. Louis in a suburb of nothing but turfgrass, but it should not be planted anywhere near natural communities -restored or degraded- where it may escape cultivation. Where are the genetics hailing from? And is it a cultivar? We lose the scientific value of native flora when we start playing Johnny Appleseed. So many native trees are succumbing to old age only to be replaced in the urban landscape with cultivars. Red maple var. 'Duraheat' for example. You won't find that variety in an intact system...at least not until it escapes cultivation.

I recognize that not everyone has the luxury of owning a backyard that has been spared transformation, the step beyond homogenization, but both representing the point of no return for biodiversity and species accrual. Native plant gardening is all good and well in areas that have been destroyed. In monocultures of Tifway 319 or fescue where there is no chance of species accrual from natural systems, sure, plant away. But in my yard, managed with fire and showing some resiliency in the understory along with recruitment in the canopy layer, I won't do it. I won't be planting "natives." My local weed inspector has learned a lot about Aster drummondii and Solidago ulmifolia, neither of which are particularly showy until the fall, but when they reach maturity, they're incredible. My yard will never be natural area status, of course, but I'm happy I bought it and that chinquapin oak is very happy with all the fire management.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Filthy Rivers

According to local hearsay, the rain event earlier this week brought much needed water to the Ozarks. Tuesday, I set out into the interior in search of nice streams, bottomland woodlands, and breeding birds. The three to four inches of rain came mostly on Tuesday, with Wednesday's forecast reaching the upper 60s and sunny. It's not unusual to have a drenching rain in mid-May, but apparently, as evidenced by the flooding rivers, the ground was already saturated.

Wednesday morning, at every turn, the creeks and streams were in flood stage. Not the devastating floods that came in December that sent the Meramec River so far over its banks that entire towns flooded, but in flood enough to close roads. Current River? Flooding. Niangua River? Flooding. Meramec River? Flooding. Historically, when the world was mantled in grass-forb mix and contiguous woodland cover, a spring thunderstorm system in karst topography really wouldn't impact the rivers this way; historically, water would seep into the ground and slowly percolate through carbonate rock and end up in springs. Hence, the clear, swift, blue water streams that we normally associate with the Ozarks.

But that was in a different era. The Meramec River, for example, has long been heralded as a biodiversity hotspot, but also a threatened resource. Mussel, crayfish and fish diversity were (in the not too distant past) considered globally significant. Many conservation initiatives to protect biodiversity in the Meramec watershed have occurred throughout the years, but the river is seriously imperiled. Development in the watershed including large, ranch style homes built on the banks,improperly managed septic systems and cattle grazing have resulted in significant sediment loading and a truly filthy river. Mussels that depend on clean water don't have a chance. The long pincered crayfish that depends on slab bedrock-bottomed streams are probably extirpated with all the gravel loading and interstitial spaces filled with soil from the bottomlands and cyanobacteria. Drum? The trash fish of lousy rivers? Thriving. Probably Asian carp and largemouth bass, too.

After driving almost 300 miles in search of clean water and a good place for streambank breeding birds, I ended up at Maramec Spring, a little city park near St. James. This area had the same rain event that the rest of the Meramec watershed had, but, unlike the big river, the watershed is mostly protected by the forested cover of the Mark Twain. This small trout park that still has the cultural relict furnaces from the early years of iron smelting during the height of the age of extraction. The bottomland woodland along the spring branch still had some blooming violets, nice flowering sedges, big trees, good streambank birds. The spring branch was really quite spectacular for the trout fishermen at this trout park.

Walk the distance of the spring branch to the confluence of the Meramec River after a rain event and you'll see this:

All of the runoff in the Meramec River watershed, all the creeks and streams that feed into it turned the river into a flowing stream of chocolate milk. The karst protected waters of the spring and spring branch show a sharp contrast that illustrate the difference between protected lands and imperiled watersheds. But the Current River at Akers Ferry resembled the muddy Meramec the same day. All of those feeder streams in the watershed with pastures and logged land around them have seriously impacted water quality. Eventually, the sediment will settle, filling in the spaces that normally give rise to waterpennies, caddisfly larvae, and other aquatic invertebrates upon which fish diversity depends. Watershed conservation planning and protection is the only way to protect these streams, but the increased urbanization and external threats will only continue in the future. So seek out the good places and enjoy them while you can.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Watersheds protected, but not fully

The threat of rain dissipated early Tuesday morning in the Outer Ozark Border region where we had a scheduled fieldtrip for the day. This was fortuitous for me because not only did I forget my raincoat but also decent shoes, so in a raggedy 5K t-shirt and my Brooks Ravenna 5 running shoes with holes on three sides on both feet, we set out for a cross-country hike. The rain ended earlier that morning which left the vegetation nice and dewy, and the streams in lousy shape.

The area we visited is touted to be one of the largest protected watersheds in the Ozark Highlands, which is fabulous. High sandstone canyons, dry mesic sandstone woodlands, a few small sandstone glades, a bit of dolomite expression, and an incredibly rich stream that courses through the area. Faunal attributes, particularly salamander and fish diversity, are significant here. The small sandstone glades harbor awesome forbs like Oenothera linarifolia and the small dolomite glades in the area have prairie turnip (Pediomelum)on them. The bottomland woodlands around the stream are particularly rich with pawpaws and undoubtedly an incredible spring wildflower display. And much of this wonderland is in public ownership, protected from housing development, clearing for grazing, a new Wal-Mart and more impervious surfaces.

It was really fun to spend a day hiking through mid-range to high quality natural communities through a great route that didn't traverse powerline cuts and homesteads, just the natural world for a 5 hour hike. An amble, or, as the British would call it, a walk about. Stream crossings with no bridges, which was nice (and made me thankful I have speed holes in my totally ragged-out running shoes, fast draining of water), mud and quicksand on the bottomland woodlands which left my trousers totally thrashed, but easy to clean, slippery, moss-covered rocks with neat bryophytes. It was a lovely day in the field, but for the brown water coming into the stream. Most of the watershed is protected by public land ownership, but that contingent that grazes and farms the rest of the watershed resulted in sediment-laden waters coursing through the streams and creek that are signature for this area.

The whole day we encountered gross brown water, coming off the waterfalls and in the creeks. I am reminded of a trout fishing show my brother-in-law in Jackson Hole showed me: trout fishermen went to some river in China to test their salmon fly lures and on the show they described this wilderness condition river system, but the whole time I was looking at the foam and froth and sediment that is a direct result of high nutrient loading from grazing. I kind of felt like that on this hike. Here we were in this neat landscape but the water quality was really crappy with all the sediment from grazing in the watershed. Maybe I'm picky and I just don't like being reminded that all of our aquatic systems are related to larger landscapes, but it really detracted from the natural quality of the whole area.

Oh well, it doesn't really matter, I guess, that there are now increasingly fewer places where largescale watersheds are being protected. Homogenization is a process occurring on my watch and it's disheartening that there is little to nothing I can do to stop it.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Yet another threat...

Last spring, while hiking through a really great sinkhole with a mesic forest, we discovered a new exotic for the site location: Veronica hederifolia, a little speedwell, a small and hairy annual that was carpeting the location of native spring wildflowers. We pulled a sackful of it, but, apparently the seeds had blasted out already. This spring, visiting the same site, we documented a full-on infestation of this plant native to Eurasia. This little lawn weed didn't get here on it's own, it surely came in on a shoe of a hiker and found a perfect home in a moist bottomland forest system once rich with bluebells and Dutchman's breeches.

Fast forward one growing season later and this annual weed (common to lawns in St. Louis) has all but overtaken the native flora in this high quality designated natural area sinkhole. Collectively, we have pulled several trash bags full of this plant this year. With it being an annual and seeding readily, I don't know if we'll ever get a hold on it. Staff have continued to pull and bag and discard, over and over and over again, but the plant persists. One little seed made its way into this intact natural community and now it's threatening the very existence of it. Homogenization is happening in our lifetime, our timeframe. Biodiversity is threatened by an onslaught of homogenization, not only from exotic species like this Veronica but by deer, by the lack of fire, and the worst of all, bush honeysuckle. We need to be vigilant, and if it takes multiple visits to hand pull this little exotic weed, we should keep doing it. So few natural communities have a semblance of biodiversity left, we must preserve what we can as assiduously as humanly possible.