SIU, foresters, attempt oak restoration at Trail of Tears - KFVS12 News & Weather Cape Girardeau, Carbondale, Poplar Bluff

SIU, foresters, attempt oak restoration at Trail of Tears

source:  Raycom Media source: Raycom Media
(KFVS) -

Foresters at Trail of Tears State Forest are attempting to restore health and resilience to the forest by encouraging oaks to grow there.

Charles Ruffner, forestry professor and a member of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, explains white oak and black oak populations have dropped at Trail of Tears by 50 percent since 1980, while American beech and maple are on the rise. 

Problems arise because the oak species that are crucial to biodiversity.

“We haven’t had a regeneration cycle for oak,” Ruffner said. “That’s one reason we are losing them.” 

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.

Ruffner explained that different species of trees require different environments.

“Oak need 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.”

Ruffner is also the faculty leader of the Saluki Fire Dawgs, a student organization at SIU devoted to ecological research and participants in prescribed burns. 

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

The foresters at Trail of Tears are also using commercial harvest in about 142 acres out of the 5,000 acres of forest to help this process. 

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,” Ruffner 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.” 

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