The peaceful Sunday afternoon air was disturbed by chainsaws and a massive industrial wood chipper. We had a large group of guys from Missouri State University, all members of the Phi Kapa Alpha fraternity, out at the Watershed Center helping with a major habitat restoration effort. On top of the hill, nearest to the North West corner of the property there is a large, flat grassy area filled with skinny trees and brush. Poison ivy grows in straight sticks, each three feet high, like blades of grass throughout this area. Buck Brush tangles and weaves itself into an impossible net anywhere the poison ivy has not already claimed. Endless five-foot tall oaks, hickories, and thorny black locust trees grow within inches of one another, competing for space and sunlight, their trunks nearly overlapping. Dozens of small cedars successfully push their competitors aside, adding growth in the winter with their evergreen needles while their neighbors lie dormant and covering the earth in a carpet of needles which prevents green vegetation from taking hold. The area is a mess. Home to ticks and irritating plant life all summer, and offering little food or habitat for other wildlife, the segment of forest is a prime example of an area disturbed by humans and left to sprout all types of aggressive invasive plant species. With a little imagination, you can picture a sprawling savannah; tall golden grasses reach into the full sunlight which is only partially disrupted by the dappled shadows of a handful of tall, mature oaks and hickories. The savannah habitat is an important transitional ecological unit between a grassland and a forest. Loved by birds and many insect species, these sparse tracts offer a variety of food sources and many types of microhabitat. They are a disappearing feature of the Ozarks and the diversity they offer to an area is tremendous.

 

Back to the chainsaws and wood chipper. We are cutting most of the trees out; a large black cherry gets a pass, as well as a few larger oaks and hickories and one charming hackberry. Everything else goes. The first step, which was begun on Sunday, is cut the trees out. With chainsaws and professional help from Ryan Lawn and Tree, we were able to make progress clearing our existing trail of overgrowing vegetation and starting the long war with the overgrown savannah. As the professionals and staff cut the trees down, our friends from Missouri State University dragged them to be converted into a mulch pile by the chipper, or a brush pile for wildlife. The mulch will serve its second purpose when we begin to lay out a new trail through our rehabbed savannah. All said and done, the group put in four hours of work and accomplished quite a lot. I will not fail to mention Linda Ellis of the Missouri Master Naturalists who came out to meet me early in the cold morning to mark the “keeper” trees and establish a working boundary. I also owe a great deal of gratitude to Kelley and Edward Posey, local high school brothers, who became my hands and feet for the day while I was able to run around and trouble shoot, as well as chop a few trees down myself!

After another day or two of this type of work, we hope to bring in a large brush mower to clear the poison ivy, the dead grasses, and the buck brush. Our hope is that, with a couple years of diligent treatment and maintenance, we will open the area up enough to encourage new growth of beautiful native species and the savannah can begin to care for itself. Until then, however, it is up to us to undo what we have done in the past and allow the natural ecosystem to thrive once again. Thanks for reading, and if you like what you read, maybe you can get in on some of the fun! Contact us if you’d like to know more about our work days.

 

-Rob Hunt, Watershed Center Coordinator.

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