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A Bloody Beautiful October

This past month we had the pleasure of once again hosting a crew from the conservation corps of Minnesota & Iowa (CCI for short) to help us meet our long-term habitat goals at Bloody Run County Park.

It’s the third time we’ve hosted a crew at Bloody Run. First, in 2016, we brought out a group in July to help us cut the primitive Well’s Hollow Trail. Then, in 2018, they came back in the summer to do some of the initial reclamation work on the high-quality oak savannas.

Prepping for another day

So it brought me a lot of personal joy to introduce this new crop of young conservationists to their deeper organizational history at one of our favorite success stories. It also gave me a real chance to reflect on the work we’ve done, the nature of restoration as a process and not a destination, and the value of patience in fully realizing the impact of projects like these.

But first, we’ve got to back up – what do I mean by high-quality? The term certainly has some measure of subjectivity, but restoration science does have some operational definitions with which to work. The US Corps of Engineers maintains a tool for site stewards to determine the “floristic quality” of a given site by inputting the results of a botanical survey.

The values spat out by the FQA tool can give us some apples-to-apples comparisons, but with enough time in the woods most of us get a pretty good sense based on simpler observations. We might key in on the presence of rare or “conservative” species, like the Kalm’s Brome and bastard toadflax at Bloody Run.

Bastard toadflax, a hemi-parasitic plant of high-quality natural areas

Or we might simply look at the overall diversity of the site. We’ve even done this with elementary aged students; set up a couple of small plots with flagging, and just count how many different species occur in each plot. This works great with kids because they don’t even need to know the specific species names, just whether this plant is different from the one next to it.

However you want to look at it, the floral community at Bloody Run proudly proclaims its “high-quality” status each year. What’s more, those proclamations have grown louder and louder each year as we continue to apply treatments like prescribed fire, thinning, and invasive species control on the site. Our plant inventory gets a little longer, it seems, every time we wander up there.

Rough blazing star spotted in 2021

Then you have the “goals” for our treatment. The original stewardship plan for the site focused mainly on the timber resources. The thinning of undesirable tree species originally sought to promote oak regeneration, a notoriously sticky wicket for timber managers.

But up at bloody run, the regeneration is coming along beautifully. The site is replete with oak seedlings, many of which are approaching ten years in age, meaning they’re coming through the fire and deer browse just fine (so far… knock on wood).

Happy little oak seedlings

A lot of the formal scientific literature is at odds with our observations at Bloody Run. Indeed, a forester friend came up while we were out there to survey the progress, and he started frantically snapping photos because, and I quote, “no one is going to believe it’s working this well if they don’t see it.”

A lot of the present best practices for oak regeneration involve clearcutting and replanting. Many foresters feel that the deer population in Iowa just won’t allow for more natural methods to work. Timing and selecting trees for a targeted thinning does involve a lot more careful consideration, to be sure.

Shelterwood cut/savanna reclamation

“Shelterwood cuts,” which involve pretty much the same prescription as oak savanna restoration, bank on nature to do the often-expensive (for humans) work of planting the next generation of trees. Studies on this strategy for oak regeneration are mixed at best, but it does work well in certain geographies. Apparently bloody run is one of them. We even got a stray white pine to volunteer.

White pine seedling

For a contract forester to plant and tube each individual tree seedling in a replanting operation would cost anywhere from $10-$12 per tree. In other words, the mature oaks overhead are providing hundreds if not thousands of dollars in reforestation services for… well, not free, because chainsaws and gas and bar oil and herbicide all cost money, but I’m liking the early returns as I see hundreds of tiny seedlings year-over-year making their way above the herbaceous layer and towards the canopy.

Oak seedling in year 7

So I’ve got a lot of immediately-obvious things to point out to the CCI crew about why this work matters, and why it's effective. They attacked it with their characteristic gusto; you just can’t beat the energy level of 18-25 year olds working on a beautiful fall day.

The crew had a blast with the project, and shared with me a less pleasant experience from earlier in their season. They’d been given a plan from the project leader and set loose on the landscape, only hearing from the host every few days who would show up and say they weren’t working fast enough.

They worked plenty fast for me, so I was wondering what was different. After a few days of working with them, it hit me. These are young people only just beginning their careers. One crew member was only 18, having just graduated high school a few months before the season began.

Before and after

While they’ve got all the energy in the world, they’re still working on the know-how. Of course they would go a little slower without someone on site to direct their efforts. It takes them time to get comfortable with a chainsaw, let alone tree identification. It takes confidence to lay the chain into a tree that’s been growing for 50 years, and it takes someone telling you “that’s okay” to get that confidence. I know the first time I felled a mature tree, I felt a little emotional pang. I think any nature lover would.

"Sorry big fella, your time has come."

But with someone watching their back, this crew did absolutely phenomenal work. The forester even commented that if he didn’t know better, he’d think it was a professional forestry crew that had done the work.

I’d like to think part of it was pride – it was one of their crews that built the trail we took into the work site each day. It was one of their crews that made the first cuts into massive bitternut hickories, beautiful bullies that were stifling the oak seedlings. This wasn’t just their project, this was part of a decades-long process to restore the function of a degraded landscape.

Ancient artifact of a frustrating day on the farm, no doubt.

I, too, felt a sense of responsibility beyond the scope of work laid out for this particular project. The corps members cut several ironwoods off of a rocky knob where I’d showed them lead plant and little bluestem, indicators of the goat prairie habitat we were aiming to expand. As they worked to ensure the correct ID of the ironwoods, I marveled at just how quickly the small trees’ canopy had encroached after the first restoration.

Goat prairie freed from ironwood shade

When the dust settles, it’s easy to say “job well done” and forget about a site until the next prescribed burn. But that’s not how restoration works. I couldn’t mow my lawn that first time in April and put away the mower until next spring, either.

But for restoration, the frog boils a lot more slowly. It wasn’t until the work was done that I realized how far back we’d slid. An oak savanna should have 50% or more sunlight penetration to ground level in midsummer at midday. However, following a thinning, trees in good growing conditions can increase their canopy diameter by 25% in a single growing season.

As of now it's 50%, but that won't last forever

Which leads us to the next phase. With the phenomenal work by this last crew, we’ve pretty much achieved our goals in terms of undesirable tree removal. All that’s left now is for the remaining oaks, shagbarks, scattered cherries, and a few too-big-to-fail maple trees to fill in the canopy which they will do in short order.

What then becomes of the oak seedlings? Well, then comes the hard part – choosing some of the mature oak trees for a harvest. As those mature trees decline, they’ll become vulnerable to disease. Under the shade of their parents, those oak seedlings will lack the vigor of their preferred full-sun environment and become exposed to similar vulnerabilities.

It will no doubt be even harder to see big oaks come down. But as the foresters laid out in the bloody run stewardship plan, “cutting trees will mean more trees in the future, not less.”

Long story short, Bloody Run is becoming a textbook case of conservation. Preservation would entail letting succession proceed, letting the oaks age out to become replaced by more shade-tolerant species without any intervention from us. Conservation entails using those woodland resources sustainably, and for the greater ecological good.

Between myself, the forester, and their own observations the CCI crew picks up on these concepts quickly. But even more striking was the response from the general public.

I hike the Well’s Hollow trail very often, for work and pleasure. For the first few years, I never saw anyone else on the trail. Increasingly, I’m encountering fellow oak woodland enthusiasts up on the trail.

Canine foresters welcome

Their comments on the work differ dramatically from what we heard in 2018. In those first forays, we got a lot of questions about why. I gave them the same answers outlined above – at the time more aspirational than observational – but I could see on their faces they still just didn’t like to see us cutting trees.

This past month, we had several hikers stop by to tell us how great the place looked. Hard to believe, given that an immediate post-TSI woodland often looks a lot less aesthetically pleasing than a climax-community forest primeval.

But these folks get it. They don’t even need my explanation to understand why it’s a good thing. And that’s a real departure from the commentary even just a few years ago. Admittedly, it might have been plain old good luck that we encountered only knowledgeable outdoorsy folk, but it warmed my heart.

It speaks to the value of patience in all aspects of natural resource management. It takes a while for young people to get comfortable committing to irreversible decisions like cutting a mature tree. It takes a few years to see the results we dream about like a healthy layer of regenerating oak. It takes a while for people to start using a trail. It takes a few encounters with success stories for people to realize we’re not laying waste to the woods, we’re trying to help it. But in time, that patience always pays off. People are using the trail - much more than I realized - and in doing so are becoming introduced to the kind of treatments many oak woodlands desperately need. After a few years, the treatment needs no explanation - it speaks for itself in the form of seedlings and wildflowers and woodpeckers and all that beautiful stuff we hope to see during a walk in the woods.

The Driftless Area Crew

Looking Back

Heritage Days occupied the better part of early October. For all of our preparations we can't do much about the weather, but gratefully this year was one of the nicest in recent memory from both a comfortable temperature and leaf-peeping perspective.

But we still had a few other fires to tend. Excavation crews were hard at work at the Becker West wildlife area to repair the dike in a retention pond. This effort is paired with many other ongoing habitat improvements in both the woods and the prairies to increase the wildlife carrying capacity of this off-the-beaten path wild space.

Slightly more on the beaten path, the Delaykee scouts brought a small army out to Joy Springs for their annual camporee. For the service component of their stay, the scouts planted 500 dogwood cuttings into the bank behind a recent fish habitat project; dogwoods were selected based on light requirements, and their ability to tolerate flooding on the flashy Maquoketa river.

Many hands made those trees disappear quick!

The O.W.L.S. took a "church crawl" tour of some of Northeast Iowa's favorite churches, starting at the basilica of St. Francis in Dyersville and meandering through the beautiful fall foliage.

Looking Forward

The Pony Hollow 15K is this Saturday, November 5th! We will have day-of registration available , so come on out and get one last flat, fast race in before winter.

The O.W.L.S. will have their last foray of the season down to the Waterloo Center for the Arts on Thursday, November 17th. Former CCCB naturalist Angi Reid will lead the group on a simple arts project before giving participants a chance to tour the museum. Call Osborne to reserve a spot and get your crafting on, y'all.

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