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Missouri's Forestkeepers

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Published on: Sep. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

Herb Overstreet spread the message throughout southwestern Missouri by sponsoring a streamside planting on Jordan Creek. Cal Royall and the Fayette Rotary Club surveyed trees at nine sites throughout the city. And when Joplin fourth-grader Logan Skelley is not climbing trees, he is closely watching them for potential gypsy moth infestation.

All across Missouri, everyday citizens are turning a critical and caring eye to the state's forests. Rural and urban, young and younger, they are members of the Missouri Forestkeepers Network, and they are taking a hands-on approach to caring for natural resources.

Launched in July 1996, the Missouri Forestkeepers Network is a forest health monitoring program with a two-fold mission: to educate Missourians about the care and management of Missouri's trees and forests and to enlist volunteer support in monitoring forest health. The program was developed and is administered by the Conservation Department and the nonprofit Forest ReLeaf of Missouri.

"Forestkeepers are filling a key role in helping keep our woodlands healthy," says State Forester Marvin Brown. "Their spirit and drive are part of a big job that really can't be accomplished by a single agency or individual."

Enrollment in Forestkeepers is by application and is open to Missourians of all ages and interests. As in its highly successful sister program, Missouri Stream Team, participation in Forestkeepers is determined by the needs, interests and drive of each applicant.

Members receive a free starter kit with tools and techniques to help them assess the health of trees based on the condition of the crown, branches, foliage and trunk. The kit includes a field manual and stickers to create a Biltmore Stick, a forester's yardstick that measures the diameter of tree trunks at breast height. The tools are equally applicable for rural and urban sites.

The program offers a range of activities. In addition to monitoring trees on plots selected by the members, Forestkeepers attend optional training classes on use of the inventory kit or proper planting techniques. Members receive "The Monitor," a quarterly newsletter, and monthly Forest Health Updates that alert them to the presence of particular tree pests. At present, program facilitators are developing the framework for a comprehensive training program, the Forestkeepers Academy, which should be fully implemented in two years.

The early success of the program clearly shows the tremendous volunteer and stewardship ethic of Missouri's citizens. In its debut enrollment year, more than 730 people signed up to assess trees on an annual basis.

As of early May 1999, membership had passed 1,080 enrollees, many of whom represent Scouts, 4-H clubs, school classes or civic organizations. An early survey of Forestkeeper interests showed that nearly 20 percent of the members also are active in a number of other conservation organizations, including the Conservation Federation of Missouri, The Nature Conservancy and The National Arbor Day Foundation. At present, Forestkeepers represent 104 of the state's 114 counties.

"I'm tickled to death to see the way the program has taken off," says Forestkeeper Scott Dye. "As soon as I heard about it, I knew it would be really successful. When it comes to volunteers, this state is a juggernaut."

Dye and his Forestkeepers team, all family farmers, also are "state trained water quality monitors" with Missouri Stream Team #714. They joined both organizations because they see a crucial interdependence between streams and trees. Says Dye, "There's a symbiotic relationship between stream health and the riparian corridor. Without needed wooded corridors, stream biology suffers through erosion and polluted runoff."

Dye's team also believes strongly in taking action. "We put in a cedar tree revetment," he explains. "If you want to preach clean water by cedar revetment, you'd better lead by example. As family farmers, it's easy for us to send a message." His team replanted a riparian corridor along Locust Creek and in Unionville's city park. "Wise land use is wise land use," Dye says. "It improves aquatic habitat, the riparian corridor and forest health, and it leaves something behind for the next generation. That's what it's all about."

Forestkeeper Overstreet marked Arbor Day in 1998 by sponsoring the Jordan Creek cleanup, as well as a riparian tree planting. He distributed 1,500 seedlings to landowners for stream bank plantings in Greene, Christian, McDonald and Stone counties. Fayette's Royall encouraged fellow members of his Rotary Club to join Forestkeepers, and in summer 1998 they surveyed trees at nine sites throughout the city. And Joplin's Skelley, who is credited with conducting a highly creative third-grade research project on the gypsy moth, was a "junior trapper" in the state's monitoring program.

Teachers also use Forestkeepers materials, which adhere to many of the Show Me Standards for education. Irene Unger, an instructor at Southwest Missouri State University-West Plains, asked her biology students to survey trees at Vanderhoef Memorial State Forest, a Conservation Department facility near West Plains. Students assessed tree health at two sites: an area that had suffered tornado damage and a mesic area near a stream. This year, students will repeat the visit. "We'll analyze the results and draw some conclusions and comparisons with last year to see changes from year to year," Unger says.

Forestkeepers submitted the first returns of tree observation data in fall 1997. An analysis of the information painted an overall picture of forest health, with 77 percent of the trees rated as healthy. That picture was largely repeated when data were returned in 1998.

In the second year of Forestkeeper data collection, 88 members shared inventory data taken from 102 sites. In the process, they measured 3,640 trees. Most trees measured 6 to 14 inches in diameter at breast height (dbh) and were growing vigorously. Of all trees measured, 35 percent were oaks. Elms, maples, pines and hickories each accounted for 6 to 7 percent of the trees assessed. The largest tree measured was a 66 inch dbh northern red oak measured by a school group in St. Louis.

Even though 85 percent of Missouri's forest lands are privately owned, only 53 percent of the sites being monitored by Forestkeepers are under private ownership. This figure indicates a high level of concern among Forestkeepers for our public trees. Twelve sites monitored in 1998 were state or federally owned, nine were schools and 21 were community parks or public rights-of-way.

Because of their high interest in trees on public sites, Forestkeepers can provide assistance to land managers by alerting them to immediate management needs. On the nine school sites inventoried in 1998, for example, school groups measured a large number of trees (693 total), so a fairly good estimation of the populations on each site could be determined. Of those trees, 30 percent across all species were dead or dying.

While tree wounds and hollows and standing dead trees are an important component of any healthy forest because they provide food and shelter to many varieties of wildlife, they can also present a serious danger to people and their belongings. If the dead or damaged trees are located away from playgrounds and trails, they may provide a valuable learning experience to the students. However, if these trees are near high-use areas, they can threaten our most valuable resource-our children-and should be dealt with immediately.

Land managers often are short-staffed and may find it difficult to inspect every tree under their charge on a regular basis. Caring volunteers can provide the needed information on which managers can base informed decisions. In some cases, volunteers can even lend a hand to get needed field work done, like tree planting and the extra care needed to get young trees established.

The largest number of sites monitored in 1998 were on private lands, where public officials have the least amount of information about the health of the forests, a fact that hints at one of the chief values of the program. Forestkeepers serve as eyes and ears on the forest. They also can serve as an early warning system to alert us about the presence of tree pests, such as gypsy moths.

The 1998 data may demonstrate just such a pest occurrence among pine and elm. More than one-third of the pine on rural sites and a third of the elm on urban sites were recorded as dead or dying. Because this trend was not seen in the 1997 data, it may represent the difference between the sites selected or it may represent a new development.

The incidence of reports of sick pine and elm coming into the diagnostic lab has been relatively high over the last several years. The most common problems reported were root rots and wilt diseases. While the impact of these problems across the entire resource is relatively small, it may affect the species composition of our future forests. Only time and repeat inventories will tell.

In the meantime, volunteers continue to swell the ranks of Forestkeepers, a trend that program coordinators believe will continue. Coordinator Mary Sherfy, executive director of Forest ReLeaf of Missouri, stresses, "The Forestkeepers program provides the perfect opportunity for volunteers who want to take meaningful action to care for Missouri's natural resources. They've already shown a tremendous interest, and the growth potential of this program is unlimited."

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