Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Rare Plants of Lake Guntersville State Park

Following up on the previous post, many thanks to botanist Dan Spaulding of the Anniston Museum of Natural History for sharing with me his 1995 Jacksonville State University master's thesis titled The Vascular Flora of Lake Guntersville State Park, Marshall County, Alabama. Dan reported 1,076 plant species, a remarkable diversity for an area the size of the park. Of these, 30 are today tracked as species of conservation concern by the Alabama Natural Heritage Program. They are listed below, followed by their state NatureServe rank (S = State. 1 = critically imperiled, 2 = imperiled, 3 = vulnerable).
  • Allium speculae, Little River Canyon Onion (S2)
  • Aralia racemosa, American Spikenard (S1)
  • Aster (Eurybia) surculosus, Purple Aster (S1)
  • Bigelowia nuttallii, Rayless Goldenrod (S3)
  • Castilleja coccinea, Indian Paintbrush (S1)
  • Corallorhiza wisteriana, Spring Coral-root (S2)
  • Coreopsis pulchra Woodland Tickseed (S2)
  • Croomia pauciflora, Croomia (S2)
  • Cuscuta harperi, Harper's Dodder (S2)
  • Dicentra cucullaria, Dutchman's-breeches (S2)
  • Diervilla rivularis, Riverbank Bush-honeysuckle (S2)
  • Elodea canadensis, Broad Water-weed (S1)
  • Fothergilla major, Witch-alder (S2)
  • Frasera caroliniensis, American Columbo (S2)
  • Helianthus longifolius, Long-leaf Sunflower (S1S2)
  • Hydrastis canadensis, Goldenseal (S2)
  • Juglans cinerea, Butternut (S1)
  • Monarda clinopodia, Basil-balm (S2)
  • Pachysandra procumbens, Allegheny-spurge (S2S3)
  • Ribes curvatum, Drooping Gooseberry (S2)
  • Rudbeckia heliopsidis, Sun-facing Coneflower (S2)
  • Sabatia capitata, Upland Rose-pink (S2)
  • Schoenolirion wrightii, Texas Sunnybell (S1)
  • Silene caroliniana spp. wherryi, Wherry's Catchfly (S1S2)
  • Silene ovata, Ovate Catchfly (S2)
  • Silphium mohrii, Mohr's Rosinweed (S1)
  • Stewartia ovata, Mountain Camellia (S2S3)
  • Talinum (Phemeranthus) mengesii, Menge's Fameflower (S2S3)
  • Trillium sulcatum, Southern Red Trillium (S1)
  • Veratrum (Melanthium) parviflorum, Small-flowered False-hellebore (S1S2)
Describing the park's diverse forest, Dan writes,
Some of the canopy trees in the park include basswood (Tilia americana), tulip-poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), white oak (Quercus alba), black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), white ash (Fraxinus americana), black walnut (Juglans nigra), yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava), northern red oak (Quercus rubra), American beech (Fagus grandifolia), chestnut oak (Quercus montana), black oak (Quercus velutina), mockernut hickory (Carya tomentosa), chinquapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii), shagbark hickory (Carya ovata), and sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua). The understory trees documented from the park include flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), red bud (Cercis canadensis), sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), chalk maple (Acer leucoderme), ironwood (Carpinus caroliniana), hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), cucumber magnolia (Magnolia acuminata), mountain-camellia (Stewartia ovata), and American holly (Ilex opaca). Many shrubs such as witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), spicebush (Lindera benzoin), drooping gooseberry (Ribes curvatum), leatherwood (Dirca palustris), maple-leaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium), mountain rose-bay (Rhododendron catawbiense), and oak-leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) are frequently encountered. The herbaceous ground cover is also rich and varied and is characterized by a number of wildflowers, grasses, sedges, and ferns.
Dan Spaulding is arguably the authority on the flora of the park, yet neither he nor any other knowledgeable biologist was consulted during the decision making process regarding the logging there. A poorly publicized "public comment period" hardly counts. ADCNR's Parks Division employs a forester yet has no botanist or community ecologist staff position. Other state park systems with far less biodiversity than Alabama's, like New York, do. I would say that other states might have more money, but what fraction of that $26 million recently spent on upgrading just Lake Guntersville State Park would fund such a position in the Montgomery office?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Logging Lake Guntersville State Park

Loading large hardwood logs, Lake Guntersville State Park, September 16, 2010

On September 16, 2010 I visited Lake Guntersville State Park in Marshall County, Alabama to see firsthand the logging and herbiciding that I'd been told was taking place on the park's mixed hardwood slopes. I understand a similar logging project has recently been completed at Cathedral Caverns State Park as well. The people of Alabama perceive their state parks as special places deserving of and afforded the highest protections, but unfortunately this is not what they receive. The Department of Conservation operates several of its parks primarily as resorts and convention centers, and revenues from these help subsidize the smaller parks. At Guntersville, for example, ADCNR recently spent $26 million on lodge and golf course renovations. By comparison, natural resource stewardship is a lot farther down the priority list.

According to ADCNR's own
State Wildlife Action Plan (page 63), a
high priority conservation action is for managers of mesic hardwood forests "to favor mature and old-growth hardwood stands (because these are most often in shortest supply on a landscape scale)." This plan evidently was not consulted in the management decisions at Guntersville and Cathedral Caverns.

In a recent interview with a local newspaper, the State Parks Division's forester said, "The work we're doing will create a park full of big, mature trees with open areas underneath that provide more habitat for more wildlife and more opportunities for visitors to see the wildlife." That's a forester talking, not a biologist. I rather doubt wildflowers, ferns, mushrooms, warblers, salamanders, and box turtles are the kind of wildlife he's speaking of. I know what he's saying--you really can get bigger trees faster if you thin some of them out. But who decides which species to shift the tree community composition toward? And has the cost of disturbance been fully weighed? Through soil disturbance you make the forest highly vulnerable to noxious invasive species, such as Nepalese browntop and Chinese privet, which are already established in portions of the park.

Careful cutting of trees in a park is often necessary to remove invasive species, maintain fire lanes, reduce hazards to hikers/campers, etc. But what I saw was a large-scale and in my opinion misguided removal of oaks, hickories, maples, and other trees, large and small. Part of the justification behind this, as a contact in Parks has told me, was that there was a desire to create an open forest experience that was more aesthetically pleasing to the park visitor. I was assured that this was not economically-driven, and that the cost of the specialized low impact equipment, cut-to-length logging practices, mulching, and herbicides would make this at best a break-even deal for ADCNR.
I guess at least the loggers are making a profit.

This is what ADCNR State Parks is "improving." Blue paint and ribbons indicate trees to be cut. The flagged tree in the right background is a 16" diameter white oak.

This area has already been logged through, and a log is being transported to one of many cleared loading decks.

Another "thinned" and mulched area.

To achieve this, however, heavy machinery has crisscrossed much of the forest floor, resulting in untold impacts to soils, plants, and ground-dwelling animals. No pre-logging inventory of sensitive plants or natural communities was conducted. No such inventory has ever been conducted in the park, although the state can find millions to upgrade its infrastructure. [9/22 edit: Dan Spaulding's 1995 JSU thesis was on the flora of the park, and 30 imperiled or critically imperiled species were reported, but few specific locations are mapped.] New forest roads were gouged into the slopes, decreasing the size of roadless areas and further fragmenting the forest. Contract loggers were allowed to work unsupervised, with no park personnel present, on an "operator-select" basis, meaning some of the most mature and economically valuable trees are being removed. Large portions of the park have been all but sanitized, with dead standing trees (snags) removed, along with naturally fallen trees. The woods have been further "cleaned up" following the logging, with virtually all woody debris mulched by yet another heavy machine. My contact in the Parks Division tells me that that this was done in the name of aesthetics, safety, wildlife, and forest health.

In addition to the logging is herbiciding of vegetation that might obscure a motorists' view into the unnaturally thinned forest. I was stunned to see perennial and annual wildflowers and shrubs dead for up to 50 feet out into the woods while the opposite shoulder of the road had thriving stands of the exotic invasive Chinese privet, the only plant in sight that actually
needed killing.

A large stand of herbicide-sprayed fall-flowering Silphium between the road and the golf course. The logic here seems to be that visitors would rather look at a golf course than native wildflowers.

The invasive privet across the road apparently was not sprayed because no visibility into the woods would be gained due to the slope.

This new logging road cuts deep into what had been a mostly unfragmented block of forest.

The upslope part of the road cut is about three feet deep.

It leads to this.

This Facebook group has been set up by concerned citizens, and contains more photographs and links.

I was told yesterday by my contact in the Parks Division that due to the public outcry, the logging has been stopped, at least temporarily, and whether it continues will be up to Representative Jeff McLaughlin (27th District) and others of the legislative delegation. If you find this kind of management of your parks objectionable, below are some people who may need to hear from you.

Jeff McLaughlin,
Representative, 27th District

Barnett Lawley, ADCNR Commissioner

Mark Easterwood, ADCNR State Parks Director

Addendum, 9/19/10
Here is my email to the gentlemen above:
Commissioner Lawley, Mr. Easterwood, and Representative McLaughlin:

The people of Alabama perceive their parks as special places deserving of and afforded the highest protections, but unfortunately this is not always the case. I recently visited Lake Guntersville State Park and was greatly disappointed by the impacts of the logging, new road construction, and excessive herbiciding that has unfortunately been permitted to occur. Detailed comments and photos are posted at my blog here. I am not necessarily saying that some vegetation management is not needed, but now that these practices are at least temporarily on hold, I urge you to enact a policy of no logging or herbiciding of native vegetation in any state park prior to 1.) development and multi-agency/stakeholder approval of a comprehensive plan for all State Parks, similar to the statewide Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy (Wildlife Action Plan) developed in 2005 by the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries and the statewide Forest Assessment and Resource Strategy developed this year by the Alabama Forestry Commission, and 2.) a thorough inventory of each park’s biological diversity. Spending $26 million on infrastructure and virtually nothing on inventorying the park’s natural treasures before logging it simply makes no sense. In the words of Aldo Leopold, to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.

Please take a moment to look at one or two of these detailed park management plans developed by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Park Planning. If Alabama’s State Parks have anything similar, other than this one (not available through ADCNR’s website) for Oak Mountain, I am unaware of it, but the need is great. If I may be of any assistance, please don’t hesitate to call on me.


Mark Bailey
Conservation Biologist
Conservation Southeast, Inc.
Andalusia, AL

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Post 101

My 100th post here was almost 2 months ago, something I only just realized. I've been remiss in regular postings this summer, but here are some cool things I've seen in the field in only the last two days:

When inspecting a tract of land on Wolf Bay (south Baldwin County, AL) with botanist Alvin Diamond of Troy University on Sept. 2, we heard a loud splashing near the marsh. Upon investigating, there were a couple of dolphins in the shallows chasing fish [edit: John Dindo tells me they were more likely courting]. There are fewer and fewer places left in Alabama where you can see a dolphin near a shoreline of natural forest, but here's one:

The following day (yesterday) I was in Monroe County to conduct the annual monitoring on a 4,000 acre conservation easement. As I drove through a large planted wildlife food plot around 4:00 PM, I noticed a black animal standing at the far end, perhaps 150 yards away. I wasn't sure what I was seeing even as I photographed it:

With a little enlargement, it's evidently a melanistic coyote, and apparently a young one. I've never seen a black coyote before.

As I left the property, I came upon this congregation of Gulf fritillaries on fresh coyote scat in the road. Butterflies on feces make me smile.