Saturday, August 12, 2017

In the St. Francois Mountains

On May 8, 2009, in the middle of the day, straight line winds in excess of 100mph ripped through the Ozark Highlands and toppled the largely wooded canopy across approximately 150 miles. The wind event, labeled as a derecho (pronounced both in the proper Spanish pronunciation and the Americanized version), was predicted by Drew and the other fine folks at Springfield NOAA. This storm that brought us a bow echo wind event resulted in not only flattened trees across thousands of acres, but damaged buildings, closed roads and caused power outages for at least a week if not more.

While many private and public landowners began salvage logging all of the red oak, black oak and scattered white oak that had fallen during the storm, some landowners left the downed trees to let nature take its course, beetle food, natural decomposition and all. Deep in the heart of the St. Francois Mountains this one area that did not see heavy equipment rip up the soil and damage the understory has served as a lesson in recovery through the years. Looking at the original General Land Office survey records, one can read about the abundance of hazelnut shrubs in the midstory and a scattered post oak and shortleaf pine overstory that existed before intensive settlement of the area began in the mid-1800s. Visiting the areas that did not see the wind event, one may be hard pressed to find hazelnut and pine, and, after many years of open range grazing and fire suppression, there is an explosion of a red oak-black oak component that does not coincide with the historic character. But visit the regenerating woodlands that have now been managed with infrequent fire, witnessed no salvage logging, and allowed to regenerate naturally, and one will find a canopy and midstory composition much in line with the historic survey records.

And so, in summer 2017, the pines are skyrocketing, the post oak-white oak shrubs are maturing into trees, and looking out across the landscape, from a long view at least, it's difficult to discern that 90% of the canopy had been uprooted by that windstorm. On the ground, hiking the maintained Ozark Trail, the shrub layer is dense and thick and in need of a prescribed fire to encourage the canopy trees and to knock back some of the dense thickets of black gum, drought stressed last week and already turning red.

The hazelnut shrubs are producing a bumper crop of nuts which must be absolutely great for the black bear population down there. The brush is so thick and dense, but the canopy trees that were felled by the windstorm are melting thanks to successive fires and sheer time. Shrubland birds thrive here, with a cacophony of towhees and yellow-breasted chats surrounding us as we duct taped off the thousands of seed ticks littering our trouser legs. The area spared from salvage logging is a din of bird life, insect life, good forb diversity and blooming goldenrods and blazing stars. Resiliency in our highest quality areas is possible if we don't mess with them too much.

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