Plants grow by themselves, regardless of our blessings or curses. We know that plants don’t listen to our voices, but they do respond to our actions. This is why forests, especially the National Forests and National Parks in the southern Appalachians, look the way they do.
P eople have talked the talk about forest management, but they haven’t walked the walk. We have talked to each other, sometimes cordially, sometimes combatively, but it’s all been talk. For 80 years we’ve talked, and the plants didn’t heed a word we say. Here’s an example. Mountain laurel and rhododendron are evergreen shrubs in the heath family. Heaths grow well in the acidic soils of the southern appalachians. The coverage of mountain laurel and rhododendron varies from room-size patches to solid jungles covering a mountain. Old timers call the heath jungles “laurel hells” because of the thick, almost impenetrable growth.
There have always been native stands of each shrub, but it was not like this. They were held in check by fire, ignited by people and lightening. We stopped the fires about 80 years ago — on private and public land. Most of us know the story: in three words or less, “Smokey the Bear.” Forestry Commissions were established, fire towers were built, and Smokey was invented by a marketing expert. The effort was successful. We put out the fires and kept them out.
When we stopped the fires, we ended a management practice that had been in place for thousands of years. recent studies indicate that frequent fires were common in the mountains beginning well before Christ. even in the deep coves, fire visited with enough frequency to control plant growth.
The plants took notice when we stopped burning. Out spread the rhododendron, inching up the mountain sides from the moist ravines, and spreading down from high elevation mountaintops. Out spread the laurel, creeping off the dry ridges to cover sunny mountainsides. The control that people had exerted on the forests for thousands of years changed drastically. In forest time, the change came overnight, and the plants woke up to a whole new world. The shrubs shaded out under growth, and suppressed hardwood regeneration, thus changing the ecosystem.
The forests we see today as we explore public lands are a consequence of our actions. enough time — about 80 years or so — has passed under our new management scheme. Forest researchers have enough data to plot the trajectory and predict the future. My primary interest is in wildlife conservation, and i do not like what i read in the research reports regarding wildlife habitat trends.
Research predicts further decline in oak coverage, in part due to competition with mountain laurel and rhododendron. This is definitely not good for wildlife. Grouse living in oak/hickory forests are heavily dependent on acorns for successful nesting. Under nourished hens produce weak eggs that hatch weak chicks. in one study, 96% of the chicks died before they were five weeks old. Populations disappear with survival that low...
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