Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Wilderness Comes to Town

A new book by Jim Sterba called Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds has received a lot of attention recently.  It focuses on the wildlife invasion into urban areas like we are facing in Springfield with deer.  There are even an estimated 2,000 coyote in Chicago alone.  While we are justifiably concerned with the accidental shooting deaths of 100 deer hunters a year, he points out that 250 people each year are killed in deer-vehicle accidents with another 30,000 injured.

Sterba's article opened my eyes to an unappreciated expansion of forests.  We usually think of woodlands being threatened by urban sprawl and housing developments.  Indeed, these trends are causing a lot of habitat fragmentation around our local counties.  On the other hand, it turns out that there has been dramatic reforestation occurring since the original agricultural clearing of land by early European settlers.  As Sterba writes in his Wall Street Journal article America Gone Wild,
"Today, the eastern third of the country has the largest forest in the contiguous U.S., as well as two-thirds of its people. Since the 19th century, forests have grown back to cover 60% of the land within this area. In New England, an astonishing 86.7% of the land that was forested in 1630 had been reforested by 2007, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Not since the collapse of Mayan civilization 1,200 years ago has reforestation on this scale happened in the Americas, says David Foster, director of the Harvard Forest, an ecology research unit of Harvard University. In 2007, forests covered 63.2% of Massachusetts and 58% of Connecticut, the third and fourth most densely populated states in the country, not counting forested suburban and exurban sprawl (though a lot of sprawl has enough trees to be called a real forest if people and their infrastructure weren't there)."
We certainly have experienced this in the Ozarks.  Following the timber harvests in the late 1800s and the suppression of natural and set fires, the previous balds and sparsely treed savannas described by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft have become covered with the dense woodlands and cedar forests we see today.

Click to enlarge
In Missouri we tend to think of the forests as the Mark Twain National Forest, but in fact of the 14,000 million acres of our forested land, 85% is privately owned.  This is true across the country as seen on this forest ownership map from the Private Land Owner Network.

Much of the early short leaf pine forest is now replaced with deciduous forest and our challenge now is maintaining quality growth.  A truly mature forest takes 150 years to develop on its own so it takes time and money to speed the process up by timber stand improvement and other management techniques.

We will be coming back to visit some of Sterba's ideas later, but meanwhile, I would recommend reading his America Gone Wild article which is available here.

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