Butler Hollow forestry project ongoing
Alternative proposals being developed
The U.S. Forestry Service's Butler Hollow project is ongoing, and it is hoping to have more information for residents near the end of the summer, when a list of alternatives to the original plan will be decided.
The project mandates that the U.S. Forestry Service address declines in forest health and native plant communities over an 18,181-acre area of national forest lands on the Cassville Unit of the Mark Twain Forest in Barry County. The forestry service proposed it carry out that directive by removing dead and dying black, red and scarlet oaks, and managing vegetation to achieve the desired conditions throughout the project area, which also includes treatments such as restoration thinning, pre-commercial thinning, cut and leave, prescribed burning and riparian plantings, which support a healthy ecosystem along waterways and provides multiple benefits to wildlife and the soil.
Since the initial proposal last fall, the public has had opportunities to meet with District Ranger Joseph Koloski for the Ava, Cassville and the Willow Springs District of the forest to address concerns. At an early May meeting, residents invited the forest service to an informal meeting, at which Koloski provided updates, answered questions and tried to address concerns and reaffirm his goals for the project, which was a "healthy forest."
According to Koloski, one of the main concerns include the overgrowth of cedar trees, which are an invasive species and have prevented native plants and flower species from growing. Along with disease affecting oak trees, with trees maturing and dying at the same rate. He said that 97 percent of Butler Hollow is forest and 3 percent are glades and that under his project, 83 percent would remain forest while 17 percent would be turned into glades.
"Koloski wants to make the forest healthier," said Mike Petersen, private land conservationist for the Missouri Department of Conservation in Cassville. "We have oak decline going on. He wants to get rid of the bugs and disease. In the last 10-15 years we have had droughts and stressed the trees out. It all goes back to the soil type. For instance if it's real rocky it dries out quick. Once you stress the trees it's an avenue for bugs and fungus to move in because their defense is down. He just wants to go in and do a thinning and harvest in certain areas and he's asking the public for input."
Petersen said one of the things that really important to wildlife is the understory, or the vegetation at ground level.
"And, there's not a whole lot going on there with conditions now," he said. "The other part of project is glade restoration, which with fire exclusion over time, used to be a grassy, forbes area with wildflowers but cedar has taken over. The proposal in a lot of those glade areas would cut those cedars out and over time restore the forest back to that condition. The understory vegetation is an important component of wildlife, for example in an oak forest, acorns are important because it's a food source, but it's just a piece of the puzzle that's currently lacking."
Petersen said based on the initial the interest in the project generated from the initial comment period last fall, the forest service decided to have another comment period in late January and early February, along with an open house in Cassville, where it received more comments.
"At that point, what we've been doing is evaluating those comments, identifying what the issues are, what do they have concerns with, what to focus our analysis on, and adjusting that base of comments as a source for us to develop a list of alternative proposals," he said. "We hope to have those completed by mid-June."
Koloski said afterward, he planned to return to discuss the alternatives.
"The way our National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process goes, once we have the alternatives developed, we'll do our analysis and based on that, I will develop and release a draft decision based on the alternatives in which I select one of the alternatives," he said. "At that point, once it's released, which we anticipate will be late summer or early fall, the people who have commented will have an opportunity to object. If they don't agree with the decision it will go through a review process and ultimately the forest supervisor will make a decision whether he agrees with my decision or not."
Allen Weathersbee, NEPA Coordinator for the Ava/Cassville/Willow Springs District of the Mark Twain National Forest, said Koloski really wants to work with the people and gain their trust.
"The forest service hasn't had a great presence there in last several years and not done a lot in Cassville as opposed to Ava and Willow Springs," he said. "The forest is very spread out. It used to be a separate district and is now combined. We're not expecting a draft decision until around September. We adjust if public concerns raise issues we hadn't thought of or maybe need to address because the public was concerned.
"Any objections would go to the regional office to see if the objections have merit, if the analysis was done correctly, and so on."
Peterson said when it designs a project, the forestry service surveys the soils and the vegetation there.
"They are just going to take out the cedars where the glades used to be," he said. "If you go back to the first aerials in 1931 by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and another series of photos from 1961 for Butler Hollow, it shows more open area in those days. If you talk to the old timers they agree. There were no fires then so cedars filled up that area."
"It's just basic forestry and biology. It's all based on the soil types, which are dictated by what kind of vegetation have been there for thousands of years. The doughtier soils are glades because the sun hits it all the time. They will be south-facing, west and southeast-facing slopes. The northern slopes are where you have good timber production, more organic matter, and more nutrients available to the plants and are more moist.
Peterson said they are wanting to restore the glades and woodlands because to restore plants to what was native.
"That's what Joe is doing, trying to restore to early settlement times," he said. "The Mark Twain forest is considered a multi-purpose area that hunters, bird watchers, horseback riders and others used so he's got to try to make all of those people happy. He's got his mandate for management of that area on the federal side because it's a natural forest so he has to maintain the vigor and health of that area but also the multi-use aspect of it too. But that's the way it is throughout the U.S. and other forested areas.
"If you look out west with all the fires, if the forest service had done more controlled burning to keep the fuel load down maybe some of those fires might not have been so bad. It depends on how much their budget and man power is. We try to do the same things on our property."
As for critters, Petersen said some will perish from controlled burning, but that they've adapted to environmental situations, and will adapt accordingly to controlled fires.
"They get out of the way in a hole, under a rock or log, just like they would if there was a lighting strike," he said. "They usually repopulate pretty quickly, but the unique thing with prescribed fires is a lot of parameters are evaluated before we set a fire off as far as humidly, wind direction and wind speed. It's a flash fire with low intensity."
Naysayers to the project have said to let mother nature take its course, which Petersen also addressed.
"If we were to let mother nature run its course, we have an increased fuel load, meaning the dead trees that are laying down," he said. "If we let that happen, you've got a situation that's dangerous because if a fire does start, it's going to be much hotter and tougher to put out."
Peterson referenced thousands of acres that had burned recently east of Van Buren, Ark., recently because the fuel load was so great, making it difficult to control.
According to Petersen, Native Americans set fires for the same reasons the forestry service is wanting, to manage the land.
"Native Americans burned it all the time," he said. "They'd burn it off then the new lush growth would come back then the bison and the elk would come back. The early settlers burned all the time for their cattle. But back then there wasn't as big of a population or structures, now we have a lot more structures. If they let the forest sit idle the woodies come back, that's the trees and the shrubs. It's early successional management.
"The whole point of burning was to stimulate the native grasses. I'm doing the same thing here the forestry service is doing they're just doing it on a larger scale. If we go in and knock down the cedars with chainsaws, let the needles dry and fall off, the vegetation grows back because the sun is hitting the soil again."
Peterson said going back to the 1930s with fire reduction and Smokey Bear campaigns, the cedars moved in in those areas. He said at one of the public meetings, an old-timer confirmed the area was a lot more open in the 1940s and 1950s.
"The newer generation has seen cedar glade," he said. "All the forestry service wants to do is take out the cedars because we consider them an invasive species that were always put in check. Any timber needs to be managed just like a garden, thinning out invasive trees or species, managing growth, sunlight and so on.
"Since the 1930s, we've really altered the landscape. They took timber for railroad ties, and they didn't do any management. So now we're trying to make up for the mistakes of the past so the forest is self-sustaining."
Petersen believes that lack of knowledge is contributing to the confusion and controversy.
"People don't do their homework and research the habitats we're discussing so they're not well-informed and going off hearsay," he said. "If they would read about how the vegetation evolves over time, they would understand it."
For those concerned the project will convert the forest into a barren wasteland or destroy large areas of habitat, both Petersen and Koloski confirmed it is not something that will happen all at once or quickly.
"When it starts, many think it will happen in two-three years and will look bad," said Petersen. "It will be a 10-20 year project done a little at a time. People are concerned which I understand. It's a tough issue."
One of the benefits that would follow prescribed burning, Petersen said, is native plant species and forbes (wildflowers) would return, soil and air quality would improve and many other environmental benefits.
"There's tons of seeds in the soil from years past, they stay viable," he said. "We call that the seed bank. It's a natural progression that occurs. If you make a forest healthier its takes in more carbon which impacts the soil quality and air pollution. The forbes or wildflowers are perennial and are great pollinator plants and help the bees, gardeners, everybody."