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Nature's Clearcut

May 22, 2009

Trees across the Ozarks that stood tall weeks ago now lie scattered like so many matchsticks in the wake of straight-line winds and tornadoes. Tornado ImpactSome of the areas hit hard included Shannon, Dent, Reynolds, Madison, Bollinger, Perry and Ste. Genevieve counties.

Lots of news stories focused understandably on the personal and immediate challenges caused by having a 100-year-old tree crash into a house or by having roads closed due to trees down.

What most people didn’t hear about is what it means for the long-term quality of our forests—those larger acres of trees. Missouri’s forests provide a lot of great things: habitat for all sorts of wildlife, wood for many uses, scenic beauty, outdoor recreation, better water quality and carbon storage.

Hillside down treesThe Missouri Department of Conservation manages many acres of forests with an eye to sustaining those benefits for years to come. Just a few weeks ago, State Forester Lisa Allen (who is head of the Missouri Conservation Department’s Forestry Division) described an upcoming planned harvest of selected trees on one of our conservation areas.

In that case, it would have meant a “selective” or “uneven-aged cut.” In forestry terms, that would have meant taking certain trees out and leaving a mix of other trees still standing. (In some cases, though, when the plan is to help the forest grow back in trees that need lots of sunlight to get started naturally, they might prescribe an even-age cut to leave a more open patch in the woods. Technically, that would be a clearcut. That’s a term often associated in people’s minds with very large areas, but on conservation areas clearcuts are relatively small (20 acres or fewer). They’re intended to mimic Mother Nature’s activities such as tornadoes that favor growth of native sun-loving trees like oaks and shortleaf pines. Clearcuts also help wildlife that need open brushy areas for food and cover.)

Well, the winds of last week changed the plan—significantly. Taking care of whole forests in Missouri means taking a really long-term view of when you can harvest trees—think in terms of a 80 to 100 years. Nature just did one heck of a mess of “clearcuts” in a way that made getting useful wood out a whole lot harder. And the piles of dead tree limbs, branches and trunks scattered about could lead to hotter wildfires that are more intense and harder to put out.

I asked Lisa what this widespread storm means in terms of how they care for the forests. “Natural events like tornadoes and fires have always had an impact on the landscape,” she said. “In a way, what we do is just copy those actions, but in a more controlled way. It will be good for some kinds of trees like oaks and pines with all that sunlight coming in now. But in terms of getting value out of all those now-dead trees it couldn’t have come at a worse time. The demand for wood products is down because the economy is down. So Missourians won’t get the value that they might have gotten out of the trees if they had been harvested while still standing or the economy was better. But it’s still important to remove trees on the ground if possible because they create a fire hazard and ripe ground for insect and disease issues. Unfortunately, the trees knocked down won’t all be where and what we would have chosen to cut.”

On the plus side, wildlife that thrive in more open, brushy areas will have a lot of habitat in the next decade or two until the forests grow up again. And if it’s not practical to remove many of the trees, at least the nutrients of the decaying wood will slowly—very slowly—return to the soil. But for anyone planning to hunt, hike or otherwise enjoy moving easily through the woods on some of those hard-hit conservation areas, it will be some years before they’re so walkable again.

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