November 8, 2007

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.

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