Conservation effort underway at Trail of Tears State Forest

It seems counterintuitive: in order to preserve something in nature, nature must be managed. 

And not gently: conservation management techniques include tree harvest, prescribed burns, even sometimes application of herbicides. 

James Zaczek, professor and chair of the Department of Forestry at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, explained that there are two basic schools of thought when it comes to protecting a natural area. 

One is preservation: mark off the area and leave it alone, no more human meddling. 

The other is conservation: determine what in the natural area is to be protected and protect it. 

The latter viewpoint is currently at work in the Trail of Tears State Forest in Union County. 

Charles Ruffner, forestry professor and a member of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, is also the faculty leader of the Saluki Fire Dawgs, a student organization at SIU devoted to ecological research and participants in prescribed burns. 

The group has been part of efforts to restore health and resilience to the forest, and in particular, to protect the oak species that are crucial to biodiversity. “It seems people think forests exist on the landscape forever,” Ruffner said. 

“Trees do have long life spans. White oak can live 200 to 400 years, but for black oak 100 years is old. Maples can live 200 to 300 years. However, trees do die of old age.” 

Ruffner explained that different species of trees require different environments. “Oak needs a more open canopy,” he said. “When they are young trees, they put growth energy into their root systems. Maples put growth energy into growing taller. Maples can crowd out the young oak, closing up the holes in the canopy the oak need.” 

That’s what is happening in the Trail of Tears forest. According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, oak has dropped there by 50 percent since 1980, while American beech and maple are on the rise. 

Without intervention, the oak species could disappear, and that will change the nature of the forest.  

Bringing the oak back protects more than just the oak trees. If oak is once again the dominant tree species in the forest that means the forest floor will receive more light, which benefits wildflowers and grasses and the pollinators and bird species that prefer grassy spaces and sunlight. 

In addition, oak provides food for multiple species of animals, creating a biologically diverse habitat. 

Zaczek referred to a natural history survey area in the Kaskaskia River bottoms where data has been collected regularly for more than 60 years. 

There has been almost no human intervention. The result is that sugar maple have increased from less than 20 percent of new tree stems to more than 60 percent, and that’s at the expense of oak and hickory. 

The maple outgrows the oak and hickory in the early stages, closing the canopy. In 62 years of keeping records in that area, not a single oak or hickory stem made it to tree-hood. 

“Wildlife in this area has evolved with oak and hickory forests,” Zaczek said. “Without those tree species, we can have a real problem with biodiversity and wildlife habitat.” 

The foresters at Trail of Tears are undertaking the process of restoring oak by selective tree removal, including commercial harvest, in about 142 acres out of the 5,000 acres of forest. 

Prescribed burns can be part of the strategy as well, particularly when it comes to managing invasive species. 

Ruffner’s research specialty is historical ecology. He said Native Americans regularly used prescribed burn to manage the forest to achieve some of the same results the Trail of Tears conservationists hope for: promoting oak and hickory and the biodiversity that goes with them. 

 Ruffner noted that, for many years, public opinion about the Shawnee National Forest and state forests near it has been strongly against tree harvest of any kind. 

As more people understand the goals of conservation, though, public support for scientific, ecologically sound management has increased. The problem now is funding. 

“We’ve mapped out areas that are unique habitats, areas we want to protect,” he said. 

“The Illinois Nature Preserves Commission identifies these areas on private land and works to negotiate contracts for future purchase of those areas. That is dependent on state funding. What we’re seeing to fill in the gaps or delays in funding is the rise of citizen groups who are stepping up to help manage for native prairie and oak and hickory forest.” 

Ruffner referred to the Southern Illinois Prescribed Burn Association, the first of its kind east of the Mississippi River, established in 2006. This group of landowners and conservationists works with SIU and the IDNR in the 11 southern-most counties of Illinois to restore natural habitat. 

The Gazette-Democrat

112 Lafayette St.
Anna, Illinois 62906
Office Number: (618) 833-2158

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