Locust Gap

Between Fallsville, Arkansas and Red Star on AR-16, there’s this breathtaking 3 miles where the South side of the highway falls steeply away and you can look out over thick waves of forested hollows. Native Arkansas. As seasons shift, the trees across the depth and rising slope beside you transition in color: dappled varieties of growth—yellow-green, olive, deep forest—punctuated by serviceberry and dogwood splashes of white, transitioning to hallmark canopies of maple orange-reds, Osage-orange yellows, black gum purple reds.

The US Forest Service is preparing to cut this all to a black and gray slash of erosion.

I’m pro-logging. …when logging is sustainable, best practices, beneficial to the local community. The Locust Gap project (here) calls for cutting this 7000-acre Northwestern Arkansas treasure.

MANAGING NATURAL RESOURCES

The US Forest Service has a lot stacked against them. Environmental issues are always contentious. And at the outset, Pleasant Hill District of USAG Forest Service does not have a good reputation among local outfitters, sportsmen and back-to-landers in Northwestern Arkansas for indiscriminate logging and burning. But I know most of those involved at Pleasant Hill District Office, and they are good people.

You have to understand that the Forest Service was founded to facilitate forest resource extraction for the betterment of US economy. The commission to manage for multiple uses is a relative recent one, and this has never comfortably fit with their original foundations. The Southern Region offices in Atlanta, Georgia assign cut quotas, but local district offices are ill equipped for long-term forest sustainability.

Most troubling is the fact that while resource management is required by law to announce plans and receive public comment, there is no requirement for land managers to align strategy to these comments. And procedures for appeal have been removed so that the only real means that citizens have to oppose decisions is filing an intent suit. The system isn’t set up to facilitate productive conversation.

On one hand there is precedence for nature left alone. The biosphere balanced itself for millennia prior to human subsistence strategies employed for the last 15 million years. In the Americas, it sustained itself for 15 to 30,000 years before humans touched it. On the other hand, prehistoric indigenous practices worldwide have interacted and shaped the landscape. In North America, European immigrants found a landscape they assumed to be natural; it was in fact managed by traditional Native land management, nearly from coast to coast (read 1491).

Over the last 200 years Western resource practices overexploited wildlife, suppressed natural regimes of fire and flooding to the point that much of what we call natural is dramatically altered. A return to “natural” begs these questions: What point in natural history are we selecting? Why? How do we get there? What quality of life and property are we willing to release to do so? In short, resource management is a catch-20 of conflicting values.

CUTTING NATIVE VISTAS

One rationale the USFS gives for this cut is the lack of oak and hickory regeneration. They believe there to be too many hardwoods and not enough savannahs in the Ozarks. But the body of literature shows Northwestern Arkansas Oak-Hickory forests as having a “closed canopy” (here), not an “open canopy” that would be indicative of more savannahs. Research on the Boston Mountain subsections of the Arkansas Ozark Mountains records them as dominated by closed canopy Oak-Hickory and Oak-Pine forest (historic distribution map here).

“the mountains were covered with oak, beech, and hickory” (here).

“the Boston Mountains had more closed forest than the Ozark Highlands to the north, but communities were more open than today, probably as a result of recent fire suppression”  (here).

Oak is an early successional species that thrives in exposed sun but if undisturbed is typically outlived by Beech-Maple forest that grows up beneath it. Oak is also a fire resistant species, and prehistoric forests were maintained by natural and Native-induced fire regimes (here). Western fire suppression over the last 100 years resulted in Beech-Maple forests and a nearly absurd buildup of deadwood on the forest floor that easily and frequently results in fire disasters.

Several weeks ago I and others hiked through Locust Gap. Much of the area is closed canopy Oak and Hickory, as it should be. Beneath this closed canopy, as you would expect in this ecology, Oak and Hickory saplings are not regenerating. Shade-loving Beech and Maple are, but the USFS considers these “junk trees” because they return dollars for lumber. However, as you would also expect, areas where the canopy is disturbed and opened to sunshine by blowdown do have Beech and Maple growing.

REDUCING FOREST QUALITY

Another rationale the USFS gives for this cut is forest decline evidenced by standing and fallen dead wood. Arkansans value their trees. Of the 1% of Eastern US old growth left, our own Boston Mountains have an estimated 70 square miles (here). While the near entirety of the Boston Mountains was logged off by the 1890s, it is the steep slopes in this area, such as Locust Gap, that offer some of the most intact forest.

It is difficult for the Forest Service to value dead wood because it is a resource they consider wasted instead of being harvested previously for quality lumber. In terms of sustainability, standing snags and fallen nurse logs provide habitat for wildlife (here) nutrients for ecology (here) that actually help recover from fire (here), and according to USFS literature, need to be increased (here). Even in Oak-Hickory upland (here).

The steep hollows of Locust Gap that we saw were beginning to take on qualities of old growth: older trees, multiple canopies, snags & nurse logs, epiphytes, etc. with Oak and Hickory dominating as they did in the 1800s. Whatever remnant of old growth or stands taking on old-growth characteristics should be preserved in order to support the genetic and ecological resiliency of the region. Especially as other areas are already heavily logged and burned.

Recent studies like Harvard’s (here) have pointed out the benefits that intact forests offer for climate change action and for local community resiliency. In fact, Harvard’s study supports a) increasing land conservation, b) clustering new development, and c) improving harvest practices to be selective and by local community-based logging.

POLLUTING THE MULBERRY

A third reason given for this cut is the presence of an invasive species: the Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima). The Forest Service proposes to combat this invasive using herbicides. The plant is a pioneer species, meaning it thrives in cleared areas exposed to direct sunlight where many other plants do not. So this plant invades where native Arkansas plants are removed. So it does not make sense, then, to mediate by clearing more native Arkansas plants, creating more areas exposed to direct sunlight.

Additionally in the miles that we travelled into the drainage, we saw only one Tree of Heaven, and it was located right beside the Little Mulberry Creek. With an increasing amount of our most precious 1% resource stolen by oil and gas extraction, we should all be concerned about our access to fresh, potable water. The Locust Gap area is headwaters to the Mulberry River, upon which many local outfitters and farmers depend for crops, livestock and recreation. The USFS’ own research says…

“Factors such as effects on fish habitat, soil productivity, and long-term slope stability, being difficult to quantify either physically or economically, are usually not adequately considered. Nonetheless, these must be considered in the decision process” (here).

Beyond the use of herbicides, which may be necessary to eradicate Tree of Heaven, removing existing growth destabilizes the soil and increases sediment runoff into the waterways. The pre-scoping letter suggests that areas managed as riparian will only be “along the Little Mulberry and Clifty creeks… 2% of the project area”.

Current average minimum recommendations for that riparian corridors be at least 50 feet of undisturbed forest immediately each side of perennial or intermittent streams and rivers, 50 to 100 feet of managed forest between undisturbed and deforested areas. Where there’s high erosion potential–slopes are steep, soil impermeable–recommendation increase to up to 100 meters or 328 feet (herehere & here).

It should not go without saying that the Natural State benefits economically from the aesthetics, locations and proximity of natural landscapes. The Locust Gap area is home to “Big Hole”—a well-known swimming hole—the Ozarks Highlands Trail, and real estate both sold and for sale. There are two outfitters on the Mulberry River, namely Turner Bend and Byrd’s Adventure Center. The value of this property and recreation is dependent upon the quality of these headwaters.

TELL THEM WHAT YOU THINK

As I said, Pleasant Hill District of USAG Forest Service are good people who live in our community. They have released their Scoping Letter, giving you until June 6, 2014 to comment. While public comment periods are typically only a way to let the public blow off steam, I believe District Ranger Pat Kowalewycz to be a reasonable person who will value your opinion. Whatever it is. Take responsibility for your Northwestern Arkansas.

Email Pat Kowalewycz, District Ranger, at comments-southern-ozark-stfrancis-pleasanthill@fs.fed.us 

or Mail Pat Kowalewycz, District Ranger, at 2591 Hwy 21 N, Clarksville, AR. 72830

6 Responses to “Locust Gap

  • Great post, Jamie. Way to go, too, including a call for action and providing contact info.

  • Don’t neglect to be accurate, and part of the process is to remember that different solar exposures require a different interpretation of enviromental concerns. For instance, as we all know, timber on south slopes tend to be of a different nature than timber on north slopes. One cannnot compare the circumstances of these two enviroments by documenting the number of dead trees within each study area. There ARE more dead trees on south slopes. I live on Boston Mountain, at the head of the White River, and the head of War Eagle Creek.

    • Totally right. A complete blog post or even a book could be dedicated to microclimates. It took me so long to write this post generally on the project–even not posting the last two weeks–because I was taking extra time to carefully research each point. I hope the links to research I referenced are helpful. Thanks for the comment, and for reading, Viiram!

  • Betty Robinson
    3 years ago

    Well done. I totally agree. Thanks for the update.

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