Shaping a forest for people and trees

Forest City, Mo. -- Red oak trees alive during the Civil War and seedlings hand planted in recent days share the sun, soil and moisture nourishing the Riverbreaks Conservation Area forest. 

But choices by forest managers help, too.

A woodland tended best benefits wildlife and people. As 2011 is observed as the international “Year of the Forest,” MDC Resource Forester Lonnie Messbarger is utilizing saw log harvests, undergrowth thinning, prescribed fires and even some hand planting of red oak seedlings to make the Riverbreaks area more natural and productive.

Since trees grow for centuries, forest management is about today and generations to come.

“To promote healthy forests, we have to forecast what a forest is going to be like in the future,” Messbarger said. “We have to create younger trees and younger stands of woodlands within the whole forest system. It spreads out the age so not everything is old at the same time.”

Riverbreaks is located in southern Holt County where tall ridges and deep-cut valleys meet the Missouri River bottoms. Though northwest Missouri was originally dominated by tallgrass prairie, forests intermingled with the prairie grasses and wildflowers in the moist, shaded areas along rivers and creeks.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition camped along the Missouri River across from the Riverbreaks bluffs on July 9, 1804, and they traveled on upstream past the area the next day.

William Clark wrote in his journal for July 10, “The bottom is very extensive on the starboard (east) side and thickly interspersed with vines.”

Those vines were undoubtedly hanging on trees at the forest edge.

Clark wrote of the river’s west shore, “The High Land approaches near the river on the (leeward side) and well timbered next to the river, back of those hills the Plains Commence.”

Prairies in northwest Missouri vanished because the open and more-level lands could be more easily plowed for crops or grazed by cattle. But natural woodlands survived in the roughest terrain, and the Riverbreaks Conservation Area preserves timber stands that in some places are close to what Lewis and Clark saw.

Messbarger on a recent spring day inspected a tall, straight red oak growing near a small creek in a narrow valley, and then he pointed to other oaks growing on nearby slopes. Visitors this spring are searching for morel mushrooms amid the ferns, grasses, shrubs and wildflowers growing beneath the trees.

“This is upland mesic old-growth forest,” he said. “Some of these trees are 150 to 200 years old. There’s also a white oak patch in the corner of this stand.”

Current management plans call for that timber not to be harvested because it’s a fairly pristine stand. But the trees in this valley are a small part of the 2,306-acre conservation area, and other timber stands and meadows within this forest need different management.

Several tree species such as hickories, basswood, sugar maple, paw paw, locust and chinquapin oaks grow at Riverbreaks. But the red oaks are highly desired because they’re a dominant species for a mature forest in this area. The red oaks produce acorn crops that help sustain wildlife such as deer and turkeys.

So in a timber stand beyond the old growth valley, a worker this spring is hand planting red oak seedlings. Oak and other trees will be harvested by commercial loggers from that area in a few years, an economic boost for the community. But young red oaks will already be growing to replace them.

Large trees that may be hollow and serve as dens for raccoons, squirrels and owls are often left untouched in timber harvest stands, as are smaller trees of desirable species.

“We prefer to leave some of the large trees like oaks, hickories and ash,” Messbarger said. “They serve as seed trees and protect the scenery.”

The woodlands at Riverbreaks have served people by cleaning air, providing lumber, shading streams and holding highly-erodible loess soils in place on steep ridges since 1837. That’s when the federal government added the “Platte Purchase” as the northwest corner of Missouri and opened the land to settlement.

Today, some old farm fields on the area are being restored to woodlands or native prairie grasses. Low-quality timber stands are being thinned to boost oaks. Prescribed fire opens up the woodlands and helps manage invasive non-native species like garlic mustard. Fire timed correctly also increases the soil contact that allows native tree seeds to sprout into seedlings.

“It helps things green up,” Messbarger said. “You get a lot more browse for the deer and the turkey to feed on. The berry producers go crazy, like blackberry and raspberry.”

Diversity in tree age and plant species helps the forest withstand problems such as oak wilt disease. But that diversity also serves forest users, from people hunting deer or turkeys to woodland songbirds that use Riverbreaks as a stopover during migrations.

“The more diversity in habitat we provide,” Messbarger said, “the greater number of species will find the food and shelter they’re looking for.”