Managing Nature Preserves

 What’s a Land Trust to do?

BY FRED YOUNG
PHOTO CREDIT: JULIE YOUMANS

The Greenbelt Land Trust of Mid-Missouri owns two Nature Preserves. These are properties that were donated to Greenbelt with the provision that they remain in a natural condition.

So, what does that mean, exactly? No soccer fields, cattle, or golf courses; got it, no problem there. But, beyond the obvious, what should Greenbelt do? Here are some possible options:

1)    Do Nothing. This is a common management practice in Missouri and elsewhere. Philosophically, the Do Nothing approach is based on the idea that humans just mess things up, and if left alone, Mother Nature will take care of everything. It’s an easy way to manage property, but is it really the best way? After all, humans have definitely been on and around these properties, leaving a legacy of invasive species, trash, etc. We don’t think these things are compatible with the Nature Preserve concept.

2)    Manage for what’s “popular”. Assuming that we can get rid of the nasty invasives, then what? Should we do any woodland management? Sugar maples are certainly popular, and as a result of long-term fire suppression, maples are becoming the dominant species on some sites in Greenbelt preserves. But maples don’t provide much food for wildlife, and a closed-canopy maple woodland shades out the ground flora. What about white or red oak? Plenty of acorns for wildlife… but are all sites really suited for oak? The answer is, “no,” and plenty of time and effort has been expended in Missouri trying to get white and red oaks to thrive on sites where they are not well suited.

3)    Manage by Ecological Site. Sounds good… but what is an “ecological site”? It is a particular combination of landscape position, soils and geology that, historically, developed a discrete type of vegetation. For example, deep loamy soils in floodplains supported forests dominated by cottonwood, silver maple, sycamore, elm and other species that tolerate flooding. This ecological site is called a “Loamy Floodplain Forest”. Some areas on Greenbelt properties have gravelly upland soils underlain with limestone at about two to three feet. These Chert Limestone Backslope Woodland ecological sites historically supported an open woodland of black oak, chinkapin oak and other species. As the soils get shallower, with darker surfaces, the site grades to the Calcareous Limestone Backslope Woodland ecological site, which historically supported more chinkapin oak along with blue ash, post oak and other species.

Can we recreate the past? Can Greenbelt manage the Nature Preserves so they look like they did when Lewis & Clark took their famous boat ride up the Missouri? Well, no, we can’t. But with ecological sites, we at least have a frame of reference to help guide our management.

If you are interested in ecological restoration and ecological sites, consider getting involved in Greenbelt workdays.

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