“Sometimes I come here and I sit and imagine what these woods looked like 500 years ago,” says McRee Anderson as he walks through the Ozark National Forest, not far from his bluff-top home near the Buffalo National River. “Then I imagine that someday, my great, great grandchildren may actually get to see what these woods looked like 500 years ago. That’s what motivates me as I work with our partners to create conditions that will allow these trees to become majestic again—giant red and white oaks with sprawling branches.”
Historical accounts of Southern woodlands are filled with descriptions of enormous trees and open, grassy floors. These same historical accounts often detail the abundance of animals that inhabited the woodlands as well. Take a walk in the Ozarks today and you’ll likely find yourself under a dense canopy of smaller, shade-loving trees instead of in a more open forest landscape.
“Most of our historical wildlife species, including game species like deer, quail and turkey, thrive in open woodland conditions,” says Martin Blaney, retired habitat coordinator with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. “When forests become too dense, sunlight cannot reach the forest floor to nourish the native plants and grasses that animals need for food and cover. Over thousands of years, our wildlife adapted to coexisting with human disturbances, mostly fire and ax, that kept our forests and woodlands more open. Unfortunately, these activities were curtailed during the last century, and, as a result, our forests look quite different nowadays.”
Blaney points out that according to historical data, there were about 38 to 76 trees per acre in the Ozarks’ Boston Mountains. “Today there are about 150 trees per acre on average, plus another 300 to 1,000 young stems,” he says. “That’s pretty dense for these thin soils and limited moisture in the hills. No wonder we experienced a huge oak die-off in the late 1990s.”
The oak forests, woodlands and savannas of the Ouachita and Ozark mountains, which together are known as the Interior Highlands, are the largest intact remnant of a habitat that once stretched from Oklahoma to the middle Appalachians and Eastern Seaboard.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Interior Highlands forests were heavily cut. “During the latter part of the 20th century, people began to realize what had been lost,” says Anderson, who serves as the Interior Highlands fire restoration manager for The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas. “So people did what seemed right at the time. The forests were allowed to grow, and fires, for the most part, were suppressed.”
What resulted, Anderson says, are weak forests with too many trees.
“It just makes sense that when you have three or four times the number of trees competing for the same amount of nutrients and water, you end up with a forest full of weak trees susceptible to drought, disease and pests,” Anderson says.
Case in point is the red oak borer, which in recent years has eaten its way through 1.6 million acres of Arkansas’ oaks. “The red oak borer is a native insect that’s always lived in Ozark forests,” Anderson says. “Entomologists who study these insects and these forests say an outbreak of this caliber has not happened in thousands of years.”
Overcrowded, unhealthy forests are also at risk for intense, uncontrollable wildfires that can threaten homes and communities.
At 96 plots throughout the Bayou-Buffalo demonstration area, researchers study and measure the effects of fire and thinning on trees, ground cover, shrubs, fuel loads and the soil. Results show a 40 percent increase in the number of ground plant species and an 11 percent increase in ground plant coverage with just one or two prescribed fires. And the number of shrubs, which can crowd out other ground plants, has decreased 75 percent per acre in burned areas.
These results equate to habitat that’s ideal for nearly all game animals, says Brad Carner, head of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s species coordinators. “Our folks on the ground see more game animals in areas where fire has been restored,” he says. “Anytime we make efforts to regularly burn areas, we definitely see positive responses from ground nesting birds like turkey and quail. And the burns increase forage for deer and elk and help increase their numbers as well.”
A prime example is at the Buffalo National River and the adjacent Gene Rush Wildlife Management Area, which have histories of intensive forest management, including thinnings and fire restoration. These practices have led to an “incredible increase in elk,” Carner says.
“Partnership is the most vital component to the Fire Learning Network,” says McRee Anderson of The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas. “Our goal is to restore 500,000 acres in the Interior Highlands. No agency or organization can do it alone.” Currently, partners have enrolled 306,000 acres of land in the Interior Highlands in the Fire Learning Network.
Partners at the Bayou-Buffalo demonstration area include:
- U.S. Department of the Interior
- U.S. Forest Service
- National Park Service, Buffalo National River
- Arkansas Game and Fish Commission
- Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission
- Arkansas Forestry Commission
- National Wild Turkey Federation
- Southwest Fire Use Training Academy
- Caddo Nation of Oklahoma
- Arkansas Audubon Society
- The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas