Restored Pine-Bluestem Forests; an Auto Tour

Project type:  Woodland Restoration (thinning, prescribed fire, habitat)
Location:  Ouachita National Forest, Arkansas 
Status: Management ongoing, open to public

Looking at a map of Arkansas there's that massive green blob in the center-west of the the state.  That's Ouachita National Forest, 1.7 million acres.  Surely something that size must have some ecological restoration projects worth visiting.

Sure enough, it has largest project I've heard of to date: 254,000 acres of shortleaf pine/bluestem grass restoration.[1]  The techniques have focused on habitat, but they've also "significantly increased" soil fertility, according to a study that compares nutrient levels in restored versus unrestored areas.[2]

Intrigued, I headed to the Poteau Ranger Station [3] to find out more about these techniques.  USFS Biologists B.J. Stevens and Jason Garret were there with the answers.  They recommended the Buffalo Road Auto Tour.  Seven miles south of the station begins a logging road, which also doubles as an educational tour complete with interpretive signs and demonstration sites.

So I grabbed a handy brochure and set off for a tour of Shortleaf-Bluestem renewal.

Stop #1 - First we visit an unmanaged or “undisturbed forest.” It's also an unhealthy one. For comparison's sake this area has been left unrestored. The result is densely packed stems, up to 250 per acre.[4]  The sun is blocked, nutrients are scarce and leaf litter suffocates the seed bed. The smaller, weaker trees are more prone to disease, blowdowns and blowups. The lack of habitat and edible understory reduces wildlife diversity. And worst of all fuel loads are compounded, increasing the risk of devastating wildfires.

Historically, the suppression of fire and clear-cutting by commercial loggers has created these dense, unhealthy forests.    

Next we enter the managed forests of Buffalo Road. The difference is as visible as the horizon between the pines, which are much larger and farther apart.  Bluestem grasses cover the floor below.

Stops #2A and B explain how this affects wildlife. The openness means more living space; the understory of grasses, flowers and shrubs provides food and shelter.
Research shows benefits for 150 species of herbaceous plants, 9 small mammals, 16 birds, and 5 types of bats, plus 33 assorted species including salamanders, frogs, toads, snakes and lizards.[5]

Red-cockaded woodpeckers are a favorite of local biologists, referred to so frequently they're on an initials-only basis, "RCW."  Endangered by the logging of their native pine habitat, they are now a major focus of research and restoration efforts. Metal guards around the trees help protect their roots from predators.

The USFS also builds ponds for wildlife, one every 160 acres, according to Jason Garrett.

Continuing along, Buffalo Road is still flanked by well-managed, open forests.  Stop #3 explains the first management technique: fire.  Prescribed burns require the right conditions (wind, temperature, humidity), a trained burn crew, and plots sectioned off by fire breaks, in intervals (ideally) of every 3 to 4 years.  

Here at Buffalo Road, the last burn date was at least three years ago, according to said B.J. Stevens, biologist at Poteau Ranger Station.  “The past two years have been bad for burning.”  Two years ago was unfavorable weather, and last year an unfortunate helicopter crash grounded the aviation unit. Next spring prescribed burning will hopefully resume at the park, said Mr. Stevens.

For more on the importance of fire, see my article on Gene Rush Wildlife Area.

Thinning a forest via logging is another management technique, with similar effects to burning. Stop #4 demonstrates the process of marking and removing certain trees. 

Blue dashes on pines and orange crosses on hardwoods are marks of death (or life, for RCWs and understory).  Unmarked pines and hardwoods with blue dashes are allowed to live on.  Then logging companies buy the rights to harvest, and proceeds help fund park operations.  Win-win.

According to Mr. Garret, logging is followed by certain ecological practices.  For instance, exposed ground must be sowed with bluestem seed.  Also, logging roads must be sealed with burms, and be graded to prevent erosion.

For more on logging in Arkansas, see my article on Warren Prairie Natural Reserve.

Stop #5 explains a wildlife conservation technique for... guess who?  No, not the black rat snake.  RCW's again.  Here we can see artificial roosts built by USFS personnel. Apparently providing homes helps speed their re-population rates.

Stop #6 shows a younger stand of pines. It was logged in 1982 using two sustainable forestry practices:
  • Seed tree, where a few trees (10 per acre) are spared for seed production for new growth.[6]
  • Shelterbelt, where strips of trees are spared to provide windbreaks and favorable microclimates for new growth.
Unfortunately these trees were lost when an arsonist struck three years later. Therefore this stand is even-aged and relatively young, because it grew from total desolation about 25 years ago. Since then it has been thinned as well as burned several times (1994, 1997, 2003 and 2006), according to the sign.

Just a heads up, the sign isn't located properly on the brochure map (it's after the intersection, not before). It took so long to locate, I was beginning to think the arsonist graduated to petty theft.

Stop #7, the final stop, is titled "regeneration."  Twenty years ago it was selectively logged, preserving some mature trees and allowing a new generation to grow, resulting in an uneven-aged forest.  Along with periodic controlled burns that clear the understory and regenerate its grasses, this has been restored to an ideal, productive forest.  

So it's true then; this tour has proven it.  If armed with ecological knowledge, technical skills and a bit of federal funding, humans can indeed have a positive impact on our ecosystems.  And for our efforts we are rewarded: clean air and water, sources of game, forage and timber, and a place to hike, camp and recreate, improving our quality of life with the beauty of nature.  

That's all then.  Thanks for riding along on the Buffalo Road Auto Tour.  And thanks to the US Forest Service for their efforts, both making the tour and restoring the forests.

Now it's time to reap those rewards and set up camp.  Firewood, shelter, a place to sleep without police bothering me.  And that knocking sound echoing through the canopy... that alone was worth the trip.

[1]  L.D. Hedrick, et. al., "Shortleaf Pine-Bluestem Renewal in the Ouachita Mountains," USFS (2006). 
[2]  Hal O Lietchy, et. al., "Soil Chemistry and Nutrient Regimes following 17-21 years of Shortleaf Pine-Bluestem Restoration," Forest Ecology and Management (Sept. 2004): 345-357.
[3]  USDA Forest Service, P.O. Box 2255, Waldron AR 72958, 479-637-4174
[4]  George Bukenhofer and L. D. Hedrick, "Shortleaf Pine/Bluestem Renewal," USFS - Ouachita N.F. website [link]
[5]  From brochure, "Pine-Bluestem Buffalo Road Tour."
[6]  Jeremy Stovall, "Regeneration Method: Seed Tree,"  SFA Silviculture Handbook (July 6, 2012) [link]

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