1993 Proceedings of the Midwest Oak Savanna Conferences
Michael P. Currier
Missouri Department of Natural Resources
Division of Parks
Recreation and Historic Preservation
P.O. Box 176
Jefferson City, MO 65102
For ten years the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) has actively managed oak savanna in Missouri State Parks. During this time resource management has grown from a community oriented management program in five state parks, to a landscape scale ecological stewardship management program in 32 state parks. Savanna restoration and management in Missouri State Parks is possible because of the administrative support developed through the MDNR Natural History Program. Resource management objectives evolved through a process of inventory and research, program designations, interpretation, mission, and policy development, and transference of program values. While formerly not recognized as a widespread community type present in Missouri, oak and oak/pine savanna is now accepted as a fire-dependent lost landscape requiring active restoration and management. In this paper the evolution of the resource management program to actively mange oak savanna will be explored. Restoration projects will be show-cased which illustrate the process of developing management guidelines.
The Ecological Stewardship Program in Missouri State Parks is dedicated to the restoration and maintenance of original landscapes. Over the past ten years the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) has actively managed prairies, glades and savannas. Recently the program has expanded to restore diverse landscapes. In a relative sense, MDNR is a small land management agency (ca. 124,000 acres). However, the experience gained through the promotion of and commitment to ecological stewardship, and the knowledge developed through ten years of savanna management provides a model that may be helpful to others in the process of developing a resource management program.
Oak savannas and rocky barrens were recognized as an upland forest type in the non-glaciated region of Missouri as early as 1974 (Missouri Natural Areas Committee). It was described as a prairie transition community scattered on the sandstones, dolomites and limestones of western and southwestern Missouri, and granite outcrops of the southeastern Ozarks, and was considered to be limited in distribution. In contrast, today its importance as a biologically significant and historically dominant landscape is well documented (Clubine 1993; McCarty 1992; Ladd 1991; Nelson 1985).
Missouri savannas are classified using the underlying substrate when bedrock or residual rock occur at or near the surface (e.g., chert savanna) or moisture modifiers in regions dominated by deep soils (e.g., wet-mesic savanna) (Nelson 1985). Dominated by oak, pine, or a combination of oak and pine, they are characterized as having a canopy cover of 10 to 50 percent, the absence of a developed shrub layer, and a diverse ground layer consisting of grasses, sedges, and forbs. In woodland transition areas the canopy cover may reach 80 percent. Over 80 percent of the floristic diversity of these ecosystems is expressed at the herbaceous level (e.g., forb 64.5%; grass 10.9%; sedge 5.3%) (Ladd 1992).
Dry savannas on limestone, dolomite, chert, granite, and sandstone are well represented within the Missouri State Park System, however, mostly in a degraded state. While restoration projects have been ongoing for ten years; a landscape approach to ecosystem management that addresses the compositional, structural, and functional components of biodiversity has shown positive demonstrated results in the recovery of the ecosystem.
The historical range of savanna in Missouri is estimated at 13 million acres (5,261,000 hectares) (Nelson 1985). Millions of acres of restorable savanna on various substrates remain today. Of this roughly 10,000-20,000 acres (24,700-49,400 hectares) retains the floristic diversity to merit preservation as natural area quality communities. While it is possible to identify savanna remnants adjacent to glades or in areas where wildfires maintained original structure and composition, most of what remains of the original savanna landscape is not readily identifiable to the untrained eye.
The alteration of fundamental biological relationships, provoked by land use practices including grazing, fire suppression, and logging, has resulted in the invasion of opportunistic woody species and loss of biodiversity. This can be observed in the proliferation of oak saplings, eastern red cedar, sugar maple, and woody shrubs on formerly open glades, savannas, and woodlands; but most notably as a significant t decrease in the representation of both conservative and typical herbaceous plants.
Old growth, fire-pruned oak or pine enshrouded by a vigorous growth of young saplings remain as a testament to what was once a dynamic, functioning, integrated landscape. With the rapid encroachment of invasive woody species (e.g., eastern red cedar) in the absence of periodic regenerative fires, characteristic herbaceous species disappear within as little as 20 years (Gehring and Bragg 1992). In Missouri State Parks, through an aggressive program of management that includes mechanical removal of woody vegetation, prescribed fire, and species enrichment, characteristic landscapes that include savanna, glade, woodland, and riparian communities are being restored (McCarty 1992). Due to competing interests and philosophies within and between state land management agencies, and limited knowledge concerning the resource base it has not been easy to gain administrative support to plan and implement landscape restoration projects.
In the early 1960s a lack of knowledge and understanding about the natural resources present in Missouri State Parks, and the ecological processes that shaped and maintained them was reflected in a passive preservation policy. The occurrence and value of specialized ecosystems and the associated biota that depended on them for survival was not widely recognized. The lack of a strong resource-oriented mission under the Park Board, which administered parks from 1938-1974, resulted in the alteration and loss of significant ecosystems (Flader 1992).
In 1974, the authority for the administration of state parks was transferred to the newly created Department of Natural Resources. This marked the beginning of a fundamental change in mission and policy and a new emphasis on resource-based recreation and stewardship. For the first time natural resources, cultural resources, and recreation were placed on an equal level (Flader 1992). The Natural History Program was created in 1977 within the Division of State Parks as a commitment to address growing concerns about the protection of natural resources and strengthen interpretive programs given by park naturalists. The goals articulated for the program were to identify and categorize the resource base; develop management and public use policies; identify, classify and preserve significant natural features through special program designations; and provide interpretive services to elevate public awareness of the value of the natural resources of the state. The presence of a statewide naturalist staff that had supplied traditional interpretive services since 1938 played an important role by providing basic information on resources, values and classifications.
In 1977, the Natural Features Inventory of Missouri State Parks was initiated, coordinated by the Natural History Program. Park staff participated in identifying and interpreting significant natural resources. The development of site specific management plans was a primary objective.
In the completed report (Nelson 1980), natural area quality communities and significant biological and physical elements were identified throughout the park system. The largest grassland management areas designated were prairies. As a consequence of the inventory a new Special Ecological Management Policy was established that permitted the manipulation of vegetation in specified situations for the purpose of maintaining or reestablishing native communities; using mowing, prescribed burning, native grass seedings, and physical removal of invasive woody vegetation.
The first coordinated effort using stewardship crews to control problem exotic or aggressive native species and accomplish major natural area restoration began in 1983. through the Small Business Administration Award Grants Program of the Reagan Administration, $84,000 was made available for stewardship projects through the parks landscaping budget. Savanna restoration was initiated at five state parks (Iffrig and Nelson 1982).
The Special Ecological Management Plan for HaHa Tonka State Park provided historical and biological justification for restoration, outlined interpretive needs, and included a burn plan for a 40 acre demonstration area. Select removal of woody vegetation by stewardship crews and prescribed fire were the methods used for restoration work. The degree of thinning was determined by original land survey tree densities as well as the distribution of the old growth trees that remained, coupled with periodic diagnosis of each year’s vegetative response. The result of management was the regeneration of herbaceous species in proportion to the variety of propagates present; reflecting past land use history. To fulfill interpretive needs, a self-guided interpretive trail was designed to educate visitors about savanna and the ecological processes required for restoration and maintenance.
While HaHa Tonka State Park was the initial savanna restoration project, a site identified in 1982 on private land quickly became the recognized standard for chert savanna in the Upper Ozarks of Missouri. The Missouri Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) purchased the 160-acre tract in 1983. Since that time it has been cooperatively managed by TNC and MDNR, with TNC providing scientific expertise and MDNR assisting with the prescribed burn program. It is now leased by MDNR as a satellite of Bennett Spring State Park. Comprised of several units exhibiting variable land use history, Bennett Spring Savanna is a scientific benchmark for savanna restoration. TNC has monitored the site since 1987, collecting data on the restoration and maintenance of high quality and degraded tracts under a regular prescribed burn program (Ladd 1992).
Although stewardship had adequate funding initially, in the early 1980s the park system was thrown into a financial crisis as federal funds dried up and support from general revenue decreased due to inflation. In the midst of this crisis the Missouri Parks Association was established as a citizen advocacy group (Flader 1992). It played an important role in efforts to gain voter support for the Parks and Soil Tax (one-tenth cent sales tax) passed in 1984 and reauthorized in 1989. The majority of funds secured were targeted for the renovation of campgrounds and related facilities; and capital development projects including visitor centers, interpretive displays, and boardwalks. Although 32 projects had been funded through 1988, at an average of $46,400 per year, stewardship took a back seat to more visible capital improvements; in part because of incomplete documentation of the range of threats to park resources.
In 1988, a comprehensive survey to document threats was initiated, modeled after a study conducted by the National Park Service (U.S. Department of the Interior 1980). The final report included a list of 1,552 threats distributed among eight threat categories. Loss of natural diversity, undesirable succession, and exotic plant invasions ranked among the ten most common threats, and twelve most widely distributed serious threats. Ecosystem degradation, as a broad category, ranked as one of the top threats over which park administration could exercise control through better planning and an aggressive resource management program (MDNR 1991).
The study emphasized the need for an expanded science program and additional technical staff to diagnose problems and guide resource management. Key recommendations called for: increased responsibility for resource management within MDNR, a shift in funding priorities to promote an aggressive restoration campaign, the development of a knowledgeable park constituency, critical land acquisitions, and the establishment of a dependable and adequate funding base. These are the major strategic and political challenges facing park administration in the coming decade.
The Threats Study generated administrative support for an expanded Ecological Stewardship Management Program. A second resource scientist was hired in 1992. Management plans were approved for 32 parks, roughly 62,000 acres, 22 of which include savanna, or landscapes characterized by savanna, glades and woodlands.
In fifteen years through a process of inventory, program designations, interpretation, and active resource management, the mission and policies that guide stewardship in Missouri State Parks have been redefined. And during this time a lost landscape has been rediscovered. For 10 years, savanna restoration plans have been implemented. Initiated as pilot projects to test the effectiveness of restoration techniques, such work is now coordinated state wide. Larger projects are now being accomplished through the use of stewardship crews, timber sale contracts, court-appointed labor, and volunteers. Projects like the restoration of pine savanna at Hawn State Park in southeast Missouri will be advanced through the use of timber sale contracts and prison labor crews. Potential exists to restore habitat for the Brown-headed Nuthatch (EXT), Bachman’s Sparrow (C2,E), and the Red-cockaded Woodpecker (E, EXT) (Eddlemann 1984).
Prescribed burn units throughout the park system now average in the hundreds of acres; staff training and the development of burn certification guidelines is a high priority. The long term success of the stewardship program depends on the understanding, commitment, and appreciation of a dedicated park staff. Much emphasis is placed on working with park superintendents, naturalists, and maintenance staff to provide training opportunities and education on resource management principles.
Transfer of values and concepts through administrative, political, and social change requires a sustained effort. The special mission of Missouri State Parks “to preserve original landscapes” signifies the intent to preserve biodiversity, utilizing stewardship practices that return natural process and function back to the landscape.
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