Monday, May 29, 2017

A Woodland in Maintenance Mode

On March 23, 1983, this 61 acre woodland was set on fire for the first time in many years. It was an easy burn technically, just as it was in November 2016: one primary hill surrounded by steep draws and a glade on the northeast corner. This area has seen regularly occurring fire since 1983, often incorporated as part of a larger unit, sometimes on its own, but regular fire courses through it like clockwork. When my Audubon chapter Field Trip Coordinator asked if I would lead a fieldtrip in May, of course I suggested taking the long drive to this beautiful area.

Stepping out of the cars on a cloudy late May morning, a day with a forecast of torrential rain, we heard the prairie warblers as clearly as a trilling bell. Our birding hike through this burn unit turned into a botany class with so many rich woodland and glade plants in full flower that it was hard for some in our group to fathom that all of it is naturally occurring. I recall several fieldtrips where I have been asked about seed mixes, how much seed does it take to produce an area like this. Zero, none, no seeds have been added to this lovely woodland complex.

Quite different story from where I spent the bulk of my week. I attended a great workshop in this completely manufactured landscape. Imagine if you will a place unlike any natural setting where plants only found in backwater sloughs in North Missouri are growing next to plants that are only found in Ozark fens. Or rare plants known from two locations in Missouri growing in a garden setting. This artificial setting was disturbing at best from a natural community ecologist's position where plant conservation is tied to natural community protection. But then there's a side to plant conservation where growing in a garden setting is just as good or better than the natural community protection.

It's a political divide between plant conservation and ecosystem protection. I frankly think it' collect seeds from highly conservative plants, the ones with C values of 7-10 and then grow them in a garden to collect an Element of Occurrence record from them. While I would hate to see, for example, Solidago gattengeri to go extinct, I would much prefer to know that the plant's conservatism resulted in the conservation of degraded though restorable glades rather than the efforts of garden ladies in St. Louis who had success with their rich soils. It begs the question, one which made me leave the native plant society many years ago--if the plants disappear, we can just replant them from seeds, so the actions of our misinformed management will go unchallenged, we can just plant the seeds of the plants you want to see. A zoo setting. A botanical garden rather than a high quality ecosystem. To hell with proper ecosystem management if you can just play Johnny Appleseed on the landscape.

Move to Friday night at my grocery store where I was stocking up on wine and Greek yogurt for the weekend and found growing quite happily in their bioswale (installed because they just put in a gas station where I get great fuel points) a lovely specimen of Carex muskingumensis, known from remnant high quality sites in North Missouri. And now, thanks to the plant trade, known from the damned parking lot at my Gerbes store. And it's doing great. Natural community conservation and management is a lot harder than gardening. I'm actually glad to hear that propagating New Jersey tea is difficult. It should be. This high C value plant should only be seen in high quality areas like the one we visited this weekend. And it was everywhere there. What happens when the native plants propagated from genetics of who knows where in the Ozarks translocate to an equally high quality native landscape? And it takes off? To hell with the scientific value of native genetics.
Native plant gardening is fine in areas surrounded by destroyed native habitat, but please don't bring in "native plants" near intact systems. It's all very disruptive and disturbing at the same time. So which of my photos are from native plant gardens? None of them, they're all from a high quality ecosystem, an irreplaceable ecosystem that cannot be "replanted" once it's gone.


Anonymous said...

I know you argue to focus more efforts on securing and maintaining remnants. Yes, that should always be #1. But what follows? Isn't it imperative to build connections between them?

Allison Vaughn said...

You're right--connecting remnant high quality tracts and restoring larger landscapes should definitely be a top priority. It's wild to me that you can see where the hog wire fencing still remains separating really nice forb-grass dominated woodlands from oak leaf litter/woody sprouts dominated woodlands--Check out Bennett Spring Savanna on OO, owned by the Nature Conservancy--textbook case: the part that wasn't hard grazed is super rich floristically but the damaged part, treated with the same fire regime for almost 30 years, is not recovering, just dominated by oak sprouts and little diversity. Sometimes the past damage is just so severe that you never regain integrity, which is why it's so important to preserve the places that still have lots of diversity. Further, I see the benefits in native plantings in destroyed landscapes--When I lived in the bootheel, the part of Missouri that is 99.9% in agricultural cover, I planted a native plant bed with local genotypes and was amazed at the diversity of invertebrates and birds that used that planting. I guess what concerns me most is that native plantings are becoming more of a priority than protecting largescale landscapes retaining native cover. It's harder to restore than to create sometimes, but the ancient genetic memory of our intact systems is irreplaceable.

Anonymous said...

I agree that we need to protect and conserve remnant areas. For many years this has been the priority of conservation, which then led to the restoration of rural environments. Now, that we are in a time where cities are expanding more quickly creating urban/suburban sprawl, climate change impacts have a greater influence on policy decisions, and so on we are seeing an expansion in urban conservation efforts. The main focus in urban areas at this point has been to connect people (voters) with the natural world. For many practitioners this means convincing people to install native plants in their backyard and improving accessibility to natural areas. Until recently and even now urban conservation has been viewed as a secondary strategy in natural resource conservation. Should we stop encouraging homeowners to install native landscapes and not work with developers, landscapers, etc. to plant natives in our urban areas such as the Gerbes parking lot? No, because I don't think that'll help anything. Generally, people don't care about something unless it impacts them directly. It's easier to convince someone who knows very little about biology and whose priorities do not include natural resource conservation to plant natives to help with flooding in their backyard than to volunteer or spend money at a conservation area where some high conservation level species may exist. Our hope is that some people who see the benefits (ecosystem services) of native plants to their backyard or a grocery store parking lot will adopt these practices and in turn support the conservation efforts of our local, state, and national wildlife agencies who have the ability to conserve high quality habitats. We're not planting natives in parking lots to conserve plant genetics - we're doing it to mitigate/build resiliency to climate impacts, bring habitat to our urban areas, create more robust green spaces all to connect people to their natural environment and improve the future of conservation biology.

I don't disagree with you. I think that maintaining robust genetics is very important for the conservation of any species, but so is planting natives in parking lots.

Allison Vaughn said...

Agree, just hoping that we don't see random seed mixes going into intact systems when the local genetics are still present. Yes, native plants are certainly valuable in urban settings where no other native plants exist, just not wanting to disrupt any known native populations.