How Winter Work Creates a Summer Landscape at Riveredge

Winter forestry efforts create a healthier summer landscape.

As someone working in the conservation field, people might assume I spend my days planting trees, watering new seedlings, telling gentle sweet nothings to budding prairie flowers, and sowing seed as I walk. And while I do those things as well, much of my days are spent collecting data on the plants and animals we manage, educating others, developing long-term restoration plans reciprocal to the capacity for a tree to live a long life, and creating disturbances as many of the species that reside here need disturbance to thrive. It is this disturbance that can be hard to pallet or understand why you might cut something or burn something to help.

It can be initially a strange feeling how conservation can manifest in acts that are reductive, however, in order to build a stronger house, you sometimes have to knock some things down.

The spartan February forest and prairie beyond at Riveredge.

Felling trees might seem anathema to a healthy forest, but in terms of what trees offer to the surrounding ecosystem, all trees are not equal in every situation. The work we engage in throughout the winter is an excellent example. Volunteers who help in these efforts are invaluable, and I invite you to join us in conserving and restoring the rolling prairie hills and strong oak edges of Riveredge.

In nature, oak trees are like a grocery store. Some oaks can live to be hundreds of years old and provide a remarkable abundance of sustenance to migratory and resident birds, a bevy of insects, and literally hundreds of other species. Some oak species have such a positive effect on the surrounding wildlife that their effect almost seems disproportionate. Additionally, oaks are the framework of our imperiled fire dependent savanna and woodland ecosystems.

Newly sparse surroundings will allow this oak to stretch out in summertime.

In this forest, we’re seeing Sugar Maples encroaching into a previously more open oak woodland. Sugar Maples, while a treasured species near and dear to us at Riveredge, are in direct opposition to the success of an oak savanna or woodland. Maples grow much faster and quickly out-compete oaks. In the absence of fire and with an overabundance of White-tailed Deer, maples have a competitive advantage.

Territories are continually changing in forests between older, slower growth fire tolerant species and faster growing, less fire tolerant trees. At present, some of these tall and slim Sugar Maples, a fraction of the diameter of the oaks, are winning the race to canopy sunlight. In this location, we’ve “daylighted” or opened up the landscape for oaks to stretch out and breathe. In an effort to provide more space for oaks to have a greater positive influence on the surrounding environment, we’re trimming back these Sugar Maples.

The result: an oak tree with plenty of space to leaf out and flourish.

The good news is that all of these trees will go on to be valuable – either to us humans or to countless forest species. For our part, we’ll use some of these logs for construction lumber and others for logs on which to grow shiitake mushrooms. In the following decades, logs that remain in the forest will provide valuable habitat for birds, salamanders, fungi, flowers, insects and other species.

By thinning the forest canopy at these locations, and all that apply, we approach our work with the spirit that nothing in nature is ever wasted, and apply our efforts earnestly with a 200-year mindset.

An oak with sky surrounding its branches can be a healthier oak.

Written by Matt Smith, Riveredge Land Manager