By Paul Deaton
SOLON– When Anthony Sells built the first sawmill with an upright saw in Big Grove Township in 1839, there were a lot of nearby trees. Things changed as the land was cleared for development, to the extent that when the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently marked a number of mature trees in the state park, people noticed and wondered what was going on.
The “Forest Stewardship Plan for Lake Macbride State Park” was published in July 2013, and the DNR has conducted public hearings on the document. The DNR also released a public notice in January 2014 that outlined several forest management practices to be conducted over the next two years. “(These practices) are aimed at improving the long term health and resiliency of the park’s woodlands,” according to the document.
Despite the DNR’s community engagement, a number of people who frequent the state park were unaware that the stands of oak and hickory trees present on park soil for multiple millennia were in decline. Rumor had it mature trees were marked to be cut down, and people didn’t understand why; many were concerned, and some were upset.
At a Feb. 22 meeting in the Twin View Heights rural subdivision, a small group of residents aired their concerns about forest management in the state park during a legislative listening post being held by Representative Bobby Kaufmann (R-Wilton). Kaufmann involved the DNR to facilitate communication between the agency and the public. As a result, a new public hearing was held at the Solon Library March 7.
“I arranged this meeting because a number of constituents expressed concern about the proposed Lake Macbride forestry plan,” said Kaufmann in an email to the Economist. “It is my number one job to be a conduit between the people I represent and all layers of government in Iowa, so I wanted to make sure all of their concerns and questions were answered by the DNR.”
The DNR delegation to the hearing included Park Ranger Gwen Prentice, Park Manager Ron Puettmann, District Supervisor Tom Basten, District Forester Mark Vitosh and two others. About 30 members of the public were present.
Vitosh made presentation of the park forestry plan, and reviewed the January public notice of forest management activities, followed by a question and answer session.
“It seems that the premise in this whole plan is that it’s best to return to oak and hickory as it once was rather than to let it naturalize into something else,” said one audience member. “Although we all probably love oak and hickory forests better than black locust and other things, what is that based on exactly? Is it based on any science other than the fact that we would prefer that, we like that? What’s the evidence that that’s a better thing to do to manage this land back to what it was than to let it maybe move on to something else?”
“It’s been oak and hickory for 3,000 years,” replied Vitosh.
While the composition of the forest has changed over time, according to Vitosh, disturbances such as forest fires help facilitate the regeneration of dominant oak and hickory trees. In recent times, there has been a lack of disturbance in the forest, enabling an understory of invasive and less desirable species to proliferate.
The canopy of mature oak and hickory trees provides shade in the park, something that inhibits the survival of new oak and hickory tree growth in the understory. Without direct action– including removing some mature trees– the state park forest will be dominated by other kinds of trees going forward.
“I was thinking long term about why you are doing this,” said local author and naturalist Connie Mutel. “If you look ahead 50 and 100 years, if something like this doesn’t happen, we won’t have oak in our natural areas in our parks and our private woods, too.”
“Correct,” said Vitosh. “If we do nothing, there will be no oak.”
“I was very encouraged by the way you are breaking this up into these small segments (for management),” said local resident and woodworker Jack Neuzil. “I had envisioned something greatly different.”
“I think a lot of people did,” Vitosh replied.
“As long as you don’t mess with the mushrooms...” said Neuzil.
Area resident Mary Gilchrist asked if there would be problems for people who like to hike through the woods or on the trail while the work is ongoing.
“As far as the trails go, those won’t be blocked,” said Vitosh. “Now through some of the wooded areas, initially, it may be a little more difficult to walk.
“If you hear a chainsaw, you may slow down and see what the situation is,” he said.
The DNR is required to hold a public hearing before removing mature trees, according to Vitosh. Tree removal is expected to begin next winter.
Due to persistent cold temperatures, Vitosh will direct contractors to begin some weed tree removal in the park this week. Work will cease once overnight temperatures rise above freezing for a few consecutive days.
Next steps include a public hearing on tree removal during the next three to four months.
The Lake Macbride State Park forest stewardship plan is available at http://www.iowadnr.gov/portals/idnr/uploads/parks/PDFS/lakemacbride_fore... .
The public notice on forest management activities at the state park is available at http://www.iowadnr.gov/portals/idnr/uploads/parks/PDFS/lakemacbride_publ... .