Monday, 03 December 2018

Natural Forests …

Picture of red cedar trees.

Seldom found growing so tall or close together, this grove of mature red cedars is at the UW Arboretum.

Someone recently asked, “How do the trees in forests grow by themselves?” I was stumped at first, because her question was so very broad. After collecting thoughts for a moment here is (more or less) what I came up with.

Where Forests Come From

Trees, like all plants, need: water, light, soil and shelter. In natural forests, new seedlings sprout from seeds that drop from trees above. Other seeds arrive on the wind dispersed from nearby trees. Still other trees arrive in the forest via animals such as squirrels who carry the seed from neighboring woodlands and bury them in the new forest. Chance determines which species arrive and what happens when they get there.

Managed woodlands grow by choice, not by chance. State nurseries provide seedlings. Woodland managers decide the species mix, the planting plan, thinning and management practices. The result is a healthy woodland that provides habitat for a wide range of wildlife. It also produces high quality forest products like timber, pulp and maple syrup.

Of course, natural regeneration needs to be included in forest management plans. Mature trees will produce seeds that sprout and help ensure the next generation. To the extent that mother nature does her bit, working with nature is a great strategy.

Wise landowners understand that the jeanie is out of the bottle. Climate change, habitat loss and invasive species mean “letting nature take care of things” no longer works. Understanding what makes a natural forest requires knowing where forests come from and why they are where they are. 

Plant Succession

Forests are the final stage in what biologists call natural plant community succession. It all begins with bare soil. The first plants to grow are grasses and forbs (wildflowers). They form plant communities called grasslands and prairies. If there are no serious disturbances (primarily wildfire) shrubs will find their way into the grasslands or prairie. As the percentage of shrub cover increases, tree seedlings follow. Trees use the shade of the shrubs to protected them from weather and soil moisture extremes. Some tree species, such as aspen, boxelder, birch and cottonwood do not need need shrub cover and can can colonized grasslands and prairies directly.

Picture of paper birch with cedar grove in the background.

Birch is an early succession species that grows fast and quickly replaced by more shade tolerant trees.

Pioneering tree species grow fast and need lots of sunlight. Because they cannot grow in shade, these early forest creators eventually are pushed out by more shade tolerant trees like maple and hemlock.

The final stage of plant community succession is the shade tolerant forest. These tree species can germinate and grow with very little light. They do well in the cool damp conditions created by the deep shade of a tightly closed canopy.

Fire Adapted Landscapes

Before pioneer settlement, much of America frequent “natural disturbance events.” The most common of these events was fire. Lightning caused many of these fires burning over the land and pushing back the plant community succession. Native Americans also used fire. By periodically setting fire to grasslands and prairies they kept most shrubs and trees from growing. This was desirable because grasslands and prairies were more productive for game and made travel easier. Fire prevented late succession forests from developing; creating the grasslands, prairies and savannahs that covered southern and western Wisconsin.

Some trees are fire adapted, which means that their bark is thick and can prevented them from being killed during by wildfire. Oak and hickory trees are the iconic fire adapted trees of the midwest. They can withstand prairie fires that kill species like cherry and maple. Several species of pine are also fire adapted. Some like the loblolly grow in the southeast. Others like lodgepole and ponderosa pine are common western forest species.

Because it takes time for the heavy protective bark to form on these fire adapted species, young seedlings would perish in prairie fires. Drought and animal browsing also take a heavy toll on seedlings For these reasons, woodlands created by these fire adapted species were sparse. They had open canopies that let light reach the ground between trees. The grasses and wildflowers that grew around the trees provided light fuels which caused fire to easily carry through the forests. Where fires were more frequent and trees even more widely spaced, the system that evolved was called a savannah.

Where Fire Rarely Visits

Picture of balsam fir branch.

Balsam fir is a classic northern forest tree. It grows as an understory tree in shade where other trees find hard to make a living.

Up north the snow pack is deeper and lasts later in the spring. Because of that soils are wetter and fire  less frequent. Trees that were more shade tolerant and less fire adapted could gain a foothold. Swamps, and shady northern slopes provide the similar conditions for isolated woodland pockets in southern Wisconsin.

What Does It Mean

Picture of oak hickory woodland.

Traditional Wisconsin oak hickory woodland. This would have been familiar to your parents of grandparents; before they got choked out by invasive shrubs and shade tolerant trees.

Today, with humans surpassing wildfire, much of the former oak and hickory savannah is moving toward late succession forests.  Wisconsin has lost more than 95% of its historic oak savannah. Oak and hickory are dying out of their historic woodlands replaced by more shade tolerant species. The closed canopy allows shade tolerant shrubs like buckthorn and honeysuckle to steel the remaining sunlight. The result is a serious decline of savannah and woodland wildflowers in Wisconsin. Likewise, western forests are becoming denser creating high fuel loads. This sets up conditions for the devastating wildfires that are plaguing the American west.

Private landowners and public land managers who put in place forest management plans are making a difference. They use selective thinning, forestry mowing and prescribed fire to reduce fire loading and let more sunlight reach the forest floor. Wise stewardship is restoring healthy forests, woodlands and savannas. This is how we take protect our natural heritage.

Forests, therefore, really do not grow by themselves. We steer its future; either by conscious management or benign neglect. It took 150 years of exploitation and total fire suppression to put our forests in their present condition. Wise stewardship and effective management can restore healthy forests over the next century. The choice is simple — it is, however, neither cheap nor easy.

January 2018

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Landowners Get Help from CSP

CSP poster encourage landowners to participate.

You probably know about the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and may already be participating. But there are more things you can do around the farm or ranch to improve your bottom line while helping the land. The Conservation Stewardship Program provides help for forest landowners, ranchers and farmers. Your application must be received by March 2, 2018 to be considered this year for this funding but year. Applications received later will be considered for the 2019 growing season.

Apply for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to improve your operation and land health. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) uses CSP to help private landowners build their business while using conservation practices that improve sustainability. NRCS plans to enroll up to 10 million acres in CSP in 2018.

How Does This Work?

CSP lets you earn payments for actively managing, maintaining, and expanding conservation activities, including: cover crops, ecologically-based pest management, buffer strips and pollinator habitat. These go hand in hand with maintaining active agriculture production on your land. CSP also helps you adopt new technologies and management practices such as precision agriculture applications, on-site carbon storage & planting for high carbon sequestration rate, and new soil amendments to improve water quality.

Some of the benefits of CSP include: improved cattle gains per acre; increased crop yields; lower input costs; more and wider variety of wildlife. CSP activities can also improve drought resistance and storm water management.

The CSP website has a CSP Enhancements tool that lets you select your land use and conservation concern. Then it displays a list of recommended enhancement practices. There is a downloadable pdf file for each enhancement.

Contact your local USDA service center or visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/GetStarted for more information.

We’re Just Getting Started

CSP and CRP are by no means the only games in town. There are more programs that can help with both money and technical assistance.  The programs you choose will depend on your management goals; as well as current and planned land uses. Here is a listing of landowners programs, run by both governments and non-profit groups. You might just find the help you need for your next conservation project.

2017

December 2017

Monday, 11 December 2017

Forest Killing Weed: Japanese knotweed

closeup of Japanese knotweed flower

Japanese knotweed, also called Mexican bamboo grows up to 15 feet tall.

What would you say if somebody told you that a weed could crack the asphalt in you driveway, force its way through the foundation of you house and prevent maple regeneration in your woodland? The weed is called Japanese knotweed and it is here in Wisconsin.

Picture of silver maple floodplain forest community.

Healthy silver maple lowland floodplain forest community with native ferns as ground cover. Courtesy of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

Researchers in Pennsylvania found that the invasive plant, Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica), can grow so thick in river floodplains that it can prevent silver maple seeds from taking root and regenerating the forest canopy.

It appears, however, that poison ivy may be a competitor for Japanese knotweed. And unlike knotweed, poison ivy seems to be much more of a team player. Areas with high density of poison ivy had more diversity than those dominated by knotweed. Not withstanding the problems it causes humans, poison ivy seems to be  better neighbor for stream bank plants.

Japanese knotweed is a serious threat in wet soils, especially in lowlands and along riverbanks. Knotweed is also found along bike paths in Madison and roadways in Iowa County.

Knotweed Control

Getting rid of Japanese knotweed is very tough. It grows up six to ten feet tall on hollow stalks that die back in the winter. Knotweed produces a large amount of seed that sprouts really well. High water and even mower decks can easily spread seed or small pieces of cut stalks; both of which can start an whole new infestation. Knotweed also spreads through underground roots called rhizomes that can grow up to fifteen feet deep and twenty feet horizontally in a single year.

Kill very small patches by covering with black tarps that must be held down in place and cover an area fifteen feet wider than the patch itself to keep the roots from creeping out around the edge. The tarps must be left in place continuously for at least three years. This approach does not work for most situations.

Use a combined approach to attacking your Japanese knotweed problem. Cut down in June when the plants are around knee high. This removes stored nutrients from the roots and weakens the plant. Carefully bag and remove EVERYTHING and burn it completely or take it to a commercial landfill. Every small piece of stem that contains a node (where the leaf and stem meet) can form a completely new plant. NEVER take cuttings to a compost facility or place them on a home compost pile.

Repeat the process of cutting, bagging and removing all stems, leaves, flowers and seeds in late August or the first week of September. Again, burn the cuttings completely or taken them to a commercial landfill.

Three weeks later, spray the plants that have re-sprouted with Glyphosate (commercial products include Roundup) according to the label directions.

Japanese knotweed requires three years or more following the same regime to totally eliminate the problem.

Find More Help

For more information about managing Japanese knotweed, check out the Wisconsin DNR Invasive Species factsheet or the UW Extension bulletin.

August 2017

Monday, 21 August 2017

Heads Up: Time to Check Your Oaks

If you have oak trees on your property, this is the time of year to cruise the woodlot and look for signs of oak wilt. Once a tree becomes infected, an entire stand can be affected because the disease moves across root grafts from one tree to the next. Oak wilt has been confirmed in 61 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties.

The Wisconsin DNR has a quick online Oak Wilt Guide that can help you assess your oak wilt risk. Now is the time to identify oak wilt if it exists on your land and make plans for dealing with it this coming winter.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, oak wilt is transmitted by a beetle that is attracted to sap from open wounds. This beetle carries the oak wilt fungus (Ceratocystis fagacearum). That is why it is very important that landowners only prune oaks during the dormant season; late fall through mid-winter. Trees should not be pruned during April, May, or June or whenever the beetles are active.

There is no cure for infected trees. According to the US Forest Service, the only control action available is to isolate infected trees by cutting any root grafts between infected and uninfected trees. A trencher or vibrating plow set to 2-4 feet deep separates the root systems of adjacent oaks, preventing underground spread.

Infected trees should be cut down before April 1st; burned, chipped or covered with plastic for sixty days to prevent overhead spread of the beetles and fungus. New sprouts from infected roots need to be controlled with herbicide.

UW Extension has an informative Oak Wilt Bulletin that provides useful information about the pest; its diagnosis and control.For more information, contact the Wisconsin DNR Forest Health Staff.

April 2017

Thursday, 06 April 2017

Getting Ahead of Gypsy Moths

Picture of gypsy moth egg masses on maple tree.

There are only a couple weeks left until gypsy moth caterpillars emerge from their egg masses to start eating their way through your trees. You can stack the deck in your favor by taking action now.

Start by learning to identify gypsy moth egg masses. They are typically 1-2 inches long, often appearing like a light tan teardrop shape.

Picture of gypsy moth egg mass black locust tree.

Remove the egg masses before the caterpillars crawl out in mid-April. Wear gloves when removing the egg masses as the small hairs in the egg masses can cause a skin rash.

You can scape the egg masses into a jar and microwave them for two minutes. Another way to kill the eggs is to cover the egg masses in the jar with soapy water and leave them covered for two days.

There is an insecticidal spray called Golden Pest Spray Oil, by Stoller Enterprises, Inc. (800-777-2486) that works by coating the eggs and suffocating the larval embryo inside. The active ingredient is soybean oil which is coupled with adjutants that allow the soybean oil to penetrate the hairy egg masses. Thoroughly soak each egg mass to ensure adequate coverage.