Age catches up with Ozarks' red oaks

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Age catches up with Ozarks' red oaks

Tim Renken, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

01/12/2002

* Millions of the trees are nearing death, and the land will be changed forever.

The red oak forests of the Ozarks are dying, and there is nothing anybody can do about it.

Already, millions of old trees are dead. In less than a decade, much of the Ozarks will be a different place.

The problem is much more advanced in Arkansas, but Missouri may be only two or three years behind. The trees are dying of old age, a natural process that has been turned into a crisis by ignorance and public prejudice against long-term forest management.

Oak trees, primarily red oaks, are the foundation of the wildlife in many parts of the Ozarks, so the change under way is fundamental. Creatures such as deer, squirrels, mice and turkeys must have that autumn shower of acorns. Where the red oaks are gone, the whole ecosystem will be different.

Millions of red oaks in the Ozarks are reaching the end of their life span at about the same time because they sprouted at the about same time. In the 1930s, another era -- the slash-and-burn cutting of the Ozarks -- came to an end. When the tie cutters and bankrupt farmers left, the hills were bare -- a perfect nursery for sprouting red oaks.

That's when the national forests, such as the Ozark, St. Francis and Mark Twain (formerly Clark) were created. The prevention of forest fires, the great regenerator of the forest for time immemorial, became almost a religion. Many believed that our dense oak forests would live forever if they were protected them from fire and cutting.

But they couldn't be protected from time. The Ozark forests were undermanaged and overprotected for 60 years.

People who hunted in the Ozarks last fall might have noticed the number of dead trees. In some places, it was dangerous to walk through the forest because of falling limbs. Instead of color on many hills in October, there was brown. The leaves didn't change, they just died.

In the spring, the die-off will accelerate in the worst-hit areas as old trees battling the usual assault of forest insects try to grow new suits of leaves. By summer, vast tracts in Arkansas will contain only dead trees. Next fall, there will be no mast crop on those hills. With all of that dead wood on the ground, the fires could be catastrophic.

It's true that the forests will regenerate, but what will emerge won't be dominated by red oaks. Maples, hickories and in some areas white oak will dominate. The places without oaks will be vastly different.

What can be done? The dense stands of red oaks will never return. They were an artificial leftover of the slash-and-burn era. With time, foresters could return the forest to the more open savannah/grassland that existed before 1800. In some places in Missouri, there could be a return of the beautiful, valuable shortleaf pine.

But this would take a long time, money and a change in public attitude. Clear-cutting and controlled fire would have to lose their negative image. And the bias to dense old-growth and even wilderness would have to change.
 
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