“Three hundred ninety-five feet south,” says Susan Farrington as she glances at her GPS device and hikes downhill through a 13-year-old clear-cut portion of southeast Missouri Ozark forest. She pushes away brown, dying blackberry bushes and grapevines and passes under thin, regenerating 20- to 30-foot-tall oak and hickory trees. “You should’ve seen this area a few years ago,” she says over her shoulder.
Back then a dense tangle of vegetation made traveling difficult, but now it’s shriveling away as the developing forest canopy shades out the early succession plants, revealing a familiar forest-floor assemblage. Farrington glides through the developing saplings’ trunks and over scattered woodland detritus and thin soil to reach the goal: a 1-square-meter ground flora study plot marked by stakes abutting a black hickory tree.
This square-meter plot, or quadrat, is one of the 16 quadrats at vegetation plot 70 on site 3 of the Missouri Ozark Forest Ecosystem Project, known as MOFEP. It helped Farrington to determine that clear-cuts may actually be good for ground flora diversity, at least in the short term. With abundant light reaching the ground after a clear-cut, open woodland plants reemerge.
During the summer of 2009, Farrington, a Missouri Department of Conservation resource scientist, led a crew that catalogued more than 500 species of plants in the 16 quadrats associated with each of the 648 vegetation plots scattered throughout the project’s 9,200-acre study area. MOFEP crews also inventoried trees, mammals, hard and soft mast (acorns, seeds, nuts, berries, fruit), birds, insects, amphibians and reptiles, carbon flux and more. Someone, if the project persists, will kneel to inventory the plants at the same quadrat of site 3’s plot 70, along with all the other plots’ quadrats, 80 years from now.
MOFEP asks two simple, yet ambitious questions: What effect do different timber harvesting techniques have on elements of a forest ecosystem at a landscape scale? And how do forest ecosystems change?
Creating The Experiment
The project has a roundabout beginning. Twenty years ago (1989) at an MDC meeting on brown-headed cowbird parasitism of Neotropical migrant birds’ nests in Ozark forests, the question arose: Do clear-cut harvests in extensive, mature forests, like those found in the Ozarks, increase cowbird parasitism? (Cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, forcing the foster parents to raise them at the expense of their own young, hence “parasitism.”) Steve Sheriff, a biometrician with MDC who helped design the MOFEP