Oakological Succession

What does the future hold for the Oak Savannas and Woodlands of Wisconsin?  I left the 2015 Oak Savanna Alliance workshop last Saturday at Camp Timber-Lee with a decidedly unsettled feeling aka, cognitive dissonance.  Am I fighting for another seemingly hopeless cause i.e., stopping the War On Drugs, or trying to get a real investigation into what happened on 9/11, when I volunteer my time and attention, my spiritual currency, to restore and preserve the oakosystems in the Kettle Moraine?  Can, or rather, should, anything be done to prevent the oakological succession of the oak forests below the “tension zone” to mixed central and northern hardwood forests?

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“Oak forests on medium- and high-productivity sites throughout the Midwest have been decreasing in extent for several decades. Historically, regeneration in these forests was facilitated by a periodic fire regime. Today, it is difficult to regenerate oaks on these nutrient-rich sites due to competition from native and nonnative plants that outcompete oak seedlings. Browsing by white-tailed deer also limits the survival and growth of oak seedlings. The lack of successful regeneration along with selective harvesting of mature oaks contribute to the gradual succession of oak forests to mixed central hardwoods, which includes species such as red and sugar maple, basswood, elms, green and white ash, and ironwood.Wisconsin’s Forests 2004 United States Department of Agriculture

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(see also: Shifts in Southern Wisconsin Forest Canopy and Understory Richness, Composition, and Heterogeneity)

DNR Natural Area Conservation Biologist Matt Zine made an excellent presentation about the progress of the oak succession and the master planning process currently happening at the Lulu Lake SNA.  But it appears, given the meager crumbs of financial support they get, that the Bureau of Natural Heritage Conservation should be renamed to the Museum of Natural Heritage Conservation.  With an annual budget of around $5 million, supporting 33.5 full time employees (of which only a handful are working in southeastern Wisconsin), to manage the endangered resources on 673 State Natural Areas comprising 373,000 acres, they are hard-pressed to do more than save a few choice relics.  Matt explained that they are 10 years behind when it comes to creating master plans for all of the SNAs, and that’s excluding the SNAs above the tension zone, which presumably do not contain any endangered resources, or stand to benefit from any formal management planning.   We don’t know how many, or what percentage, of the SNAs below the tension zone have master plans. This limited perspective on our endangered resources ignores the other 5 million acres of publicly owned lands in the state as well as the privately held lands (approximately 29 million acres.)

Wetlands near Lulu Lake

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Matt is the messenger and I’m having trouble with the message.  Am I fighting Mother Nature when I cling to the ideal of the pre-settlement oak savannas and woodlands and work to restore something that can never be again?  It’s not just the trees, it’s the oakosystems and the mystique of the Native Americans who nurtured and mastered a life sustaining and harmonious balance of flora and fauna.  I fear that, if we don’t preserve the oak savannas and woodlands, we will loose forever the native wisdom accumulated over centuries, that they intrinsically and beautifully embody.

Thank goodness there are people like Eric Tarman-Ramcheck, Emily Stahl and Amanda Kutka, who organized the Oak Savanna Alliance Workshop, and Zach Kastern and Ginny Coburn, who share my passion for the oak savannas and woodlands of the Kettle Moraine!  Zach and Ginny have been organizing volunteer workdays in the Southern Kettle Moraine in partnership with the DNR for three years now.  Zach was awarded the Land Steward of the Year award by the Oak Savanna Alliance.  Way to go Zach!

Zach receiving the award from Matt Zine.

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The Buckthorn Man made a decent presentation baring his heart and soul while sharing his experiences volunteering for 20 years in the Kettle Moraine.

I’m plagued with doubts as I continue my efforts at The Scuppernong Springs Nature Trail: am I doing “The Right Thing” or am I fighting the natural succession?  Is it wise to abandon the management practices of the people who lived here for thousands of years, which kept the natural succession in check?

On Tuesday May 12, I spent most of the day cutting garlic mustard with my brush cutter.  I am observing that in the areas where I concentrated on cutting garlic mustard last year, there is significantly less this year and the plants that are present are typically 6-8″ tall, spindly, and with relatively few seeds.  I am gaining confidence that the strategy of mowing garlic mustard can succeed by focusing on keeping it out of the “best” areas and then gradually expanding the no-GM zone.

The river is starting to make a head cut at the Hotel Spring bridge location where the DNR recently excavated (scroll down to the leprechaun image in this post for more details.)

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The sun made a dramatic appearance late in the afternoon.

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On Wednesday, May 13, I was back at it whacking garlic mustard and pulling water cress.  I also spent some time weeding the spotted knapweed from the patches of lupine that are proliferating on the west slope of the sand prairie.

Sunset at Ottawa Lake.

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On Saturday, May 16, Pati and I stopped at The Springs on the way home from the Oak Savanna Alliance Workshop to check out the lupine.

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And finally, on Monday, May 18, I spent an absolutely beautiful spring day cutting garlic mustard, pulling water cress and digging out spotted knapweed.

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I weeded quack grass and water cress from the Indian Springs.

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In the late afternoon I joined Pat Witkowski and the Ice Age Trail Alliance “Monday Mudders” to do a little trail maintenance near the tower at Lapham Peak State Park.

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Views from the tower.

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See you at The Springs!

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