It is always reassuring to walk through a patch of woods that had been cut for timber and see the regeneration that takes place. We use a careful selective harvesting system, taking out the least desirable trees and leaving the best ones to reproduce. After over a century of high-grading (harvesting the best trees and leaving the culls), the balance of tree species in our Ozark forests has been pushed toward lower-value post oak and bitternut hickory. White oak is valued for whiskey barrels (still a thriving industry in Missouri), red and black oak are prized for flooring and cabinets, and is walnut desired for gun stocks and furniture. The timber is less valuable after each high-grade harvest, and eventually reaches the point where the most economical (from a business perspective) solution is to doze the remaining trees into big piles, burn them, plant fescue, and graze cows. As much as I like cows and even enjoy an occasional hamburger, they will have to graze elsewhere. I am doing my level best to restore our woods back toward a mixture of higher value species that more closely resembles the forest of 150 years ago. It will take generations to achieve.
A patch of woods that we harvested four years ago is showing great promise. It is on a west-facing slope that favors white oak. Possibly for the first time in seven generations, we harvested the undesirable trees, and left the best to regenerate. The loggers thought we were crazy, and promised us good money for the few good trees on the site, but they are still there, passing on their genetics for the next seven generations.
We mimic nature by creating 1/2 acre openings to allow the understory to develop naturally, much as they would after an ice storm, tornado or fire. Blackberries come in first, along with poke, multifloral rose, and grass. Trees show up by the second year. Cherry, sassafras and eastern red cedar thrive under full sunlight. Oak, hickory, and dogwood are more tolerant of shade, but need sunlight to grow well. With the new openings, they seem to pop up from nowhere. New seedlings are only half knee-high, but the sprouts grow much faster. Every spring, they sprout but die back, due to lack of sunlight. Each time, the roots grow a little deeper, the stem a little thicker. Now that they have an opening to the sky, they have shot up three times as tall as their younger siblings.
The management has been good for wildlife, as well. Low browse and white oak acorns are favorites of the deer, and the blackberries, rose hips, mulberriers, cherries, and wild grapes are food for everything from box turtles to the migratory song birds that pass through. There are dead standing trees to provide habitat for woodpeckers, owls, flying squirrels, and raccoons. When they fall, they provide low-rent housing for mice, lizards, and ground squirrels. After that, mulch to help the next generation of trees get its start. With brush piles and lush foliage to provide cover, I don’t see them, but signs of their presence is everywhere. Yesterday the dogs scared up a couple of deer that ran right in front of me. And the birds talk to each other around the clock. In the morning, the lonely call of mourning doves; in the afternoon the bluejays squabble in the high branches and the hammering of a pilated woodpeker rings through the woods; Whipporwhills in the evening, and owls through the night.
It took a long time for the woods to reach the state they are in, and it will take generations of care to restore it to a healthy forest. As a second generation tree farmer (the property was bought by my parents in 1971), I am an early link in that chain. At a time when property is bought and sold an average of every eight years, keeping the farm in the family so that the process can continue is another challenge… for a later blog.