November 8, 2007

Digging in for diversity

Overton Bottoms Tree Planting
November 3, 2007
Big Muddy National Fish & Wildlife Refuge

text by Steve Schnarr, photos by Melanie Cheney
(Note: The hardwood trees we planted were donated by Living Lands and Waters ( and Forrest Keeling Nursery. The native bottomland shrubs were purchased at more than 50 percent discount from Missouri Wildflower Nursery. Refuge staff selected the site and species and mowed the area. Friends of Big Muddy and Missouri River Relief coordinated the event. 37 volunteers from Kansas City, Orrick, Columbia, Rocheport, Lupus & Boonville planted the trees)

We drove down the steep hill from the cabin, crossed the railroad tracks, and drove across the bottoms. A light frost, soon to melt, blanketed the grass and the table we had set up the day before.

Just as the gloves, t-shirts and coffee were laid out, the first volunteers started to arrive. The immediate task at hand was wrapping the trunks. 150 trees were wrapped by a growing army. Another group grabbed shovels and headed down into the lower terrace with refuge Asst. Manager Barbara Moran to plant shrubs: elderberry, rough-leaved dogwood, false indigo & buttonbush.

A trailer was loaded with wrapped trees and pulled through the planting, with a couple folks unloading five trees at a time into small clumps. The trees got laid out in a grid (for easy mowing…not natural aesthetics…) and pretty people split into pairs and were planting away.

Looking across the planting field, scattered with young oaks and backs bent putting them in the ground, the background was a dark line running five feet high throughout the woods edging the bottom. The line marks the height of this spring's flood, serving as a reminder that any messing around we do in these bottoms is subject to the whims of the river herself.

The morning was perfect down in the valley. The sugar maples along the bluffs were at peak color, brightening as the morning went on. It was quick work, and soon we realized…we’re done.

37 folks took part, including some very small children who did everything from gathering empty pots and flags to patting down the soil around the young trees.

The effort was symbolic. Another new tract of land had just been added to the Big Muddy Refuge, and here was a bunch of river loving folks showing up early on a Saturday morning to help shape it. As the last pots and flags were gathered up, most of the folks went with refuge Asst. Manager Barbara Moran and Troy Gordon of Friends of Big Muddy for a walk down to the river, passing through the thick, new cottonwood forest, patches of older forest and past several scour hole ponds created in the 93 flood and continuing to harbor waterfowl throughout the winter season.

We met back at the beautiful blufftop cabin for lunch and a presentation on the refuge. Everyone still had energy and time to enjoy the beautiful fall day.

Click here to check out the great Columbia Tribune article on the day!

Restoring what?

Overton Bottoms Tree Planting
November 3, 2007
Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge

text by Steve Schnarr, photo by Melanie Cheney
These tree plantings are often called restorations, but that is probably the wrong word for what’s happening. If you want trees to grow in most places of these bottoms, you just stop mowing. You’ll get trees – you don’t have to plant them. These hardwood plantings are actually a real artificial attempt to bring something back to the area that nature rarely, but importantly, provided before historic times.

The situation on the ground now is that a majority of land on the refuge is undergoing a rapid natural succession cycle. There are patches of older forest, but most of the visible bottomland is cottonwood, willow, silver maple and sycamore grown up since the 95 flood. It’s a race for sunlight, and these fast growing trees are tall and slender. Only the oldest trees have branches that stretch out into the forest.

Those trees that get crowded out die and fall to the ground. The forest floor is criss-crossed with logs, branches and fallen vines – slow-release fertilizer for the future. In this scramble for the sky, slower growing trees like oaks don’t have a chance. When the river ran free across the bottoms, accumulating patches of disturbance, varied soils and topography, trees like oaks and hickories found places where they could get a foothold. In this new situation, where suddenly thousands of acres of land are being taken out of cultivation and allowed to grow up in trees, where are these footholds?

So humans make decisions, based on a lot of ecologically irrelevant reasons (like property boundaries, previous land uses and available funds), to artificially bring a little diversity to the equation. History and old survey lines show that there were rare pockets of oaks throughout the Missouri River bottomlands, attracting their own mix of wildlife. Most of these were logged for firewood, to fuel steamboats and as railroad ties. Occasional pockets of pecans were found in the Missouri River bottoms. Some speculate that these were all planted by Native Americans who saw how useful and flood tolerant they were.

So, once again, nature and human intention are mixing. It’s yet another time of rapid change in the Missouri River bottoms, and once again, people and the many forces of nature are in a push-pull effort. We just hope that this time, our efforts will help and not harm.