On the Trail: Our oak forests are in trouble

Oak forests in southern Illinois are in trouble and that's bad news for the hundreds of plant and animal species that depend on healthy oak ecosystems.

A conversion from mostly sun-loving oaks and hickories to mostly shade-tolerant beech and maple trees is happening, in part, due to a lack of natural disturbance, like fire, in our forests for almost 100 years.

The good news is that there is a suite of forest management practices that can help reverse this trend and a demonstration project at the Trail of Tears State Forest is testing the use of different combinations of those management techniques and monitoring the results.

The nearly 1,000-acre project, coordinated by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, is using different combinations of prescribed fire, understory thinning, and overstory tree harvest to determine the best way to help revitalize ailing oak forests in southern Illinois.

The demonstration project is being modeled after similar projects in Missouri and Indiana and our Illinois effort promises to provide valuable insight and guidance to IDNR District Foresters as they make forest management recommendations to private landowners.

The public is encouraged to visit the demonstration area at Trail of Tears and see "management in action." There is an informational kiosk located along the North Forest Road and signage along trails in the area explains what a visitor is seeing.

I recently toured a group of 30-plus teachers through the forest. They were participating in a Noyce Master Teaching Fellows program with an emphasis on biodiversity issues. The program is led locally by faculty at SIU-Carbondale.

As our car caravan turned off the State Highway and onto the narrow, graveled North Forest Road, the difference between managed and unmanaged forest was immediately apparent. On the east side of the road is the "control," or unmanaged forest, and on the west side of the road is one of the "experimental," or managed tracts.

The managed tracts are more open than the unmanaged forest and there is more sunlight getting through the canopy and down to the forest floor. This sunlight is the key to getting new oak trees to grow and will also encourage the growth of woodland wildflowers.

We stopped at several points along the road and talked about maintaining plant and animal biodiversity at Trail of Tears State Forest.

The reality is that conservation in the 21st century is not as simple as letting nature take its course - not if we want to preserve much of what has historically been here in southern Illinois.

What we have today instead, are novel ecosystems, lacking natural disturbance regimes and often full of nonnative invasive species, that will require some intelligent tinkering to be maintained. And you can see some of that tinkering, with your own eyes, at Trail of Tears State Forest.

Mike Baltz has a doctorate in biology and writes about changing the world from his home in Carbondale.