by Mike Groenewold
In the last issue of Landscape Notes, we mentioned Smith Falls State Park near Valentine has easily viewable aspen trees near the highest waterfall in the State. We hope you will visit the park and enjoy the short walk to see the trees and the falls sometime-you won’t be disappointed!
Staffs of Game and Parks and others are concerned about the condition of our aspens because these small remnant stands are declining. A Biologist could write a book on the theory of their decline, but to keep my article short, a host of factors seem to be at work. Climate change, disease and insects, as well as land use tied to settlement are some possible causes. Most agree this landscape looked far different prior to settlement 130 years ago. The pine-covered uplands were much more open than today and interspersed with an occasional bur oak and red cedar, while aspens probably flourished in moist spring seep canyons. Occasional wildfires started by lightning or Native Americans as well as grazing by wildlife (such as bison) once maintained open woodlands. In general, as the region was settled, homesteaders protected their property by suppressing wildfires.
In the absence of fire in the Central Niobrara, as well as other areas of Nebraska, eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) has flourished and reached extreme densities. This species survives and thrives on most any site in the state and has become a dominant component of both deciduous and coniferous woodlands in Nebraska. Cedar has become highly invasive as its seeds are readily spread by birds from windbreaks and woodlot plantings. Dense stands of cedars in the understory of pine forests provide fuel for potential wildfires. Managers of Smith Falls Park have recently focused on reducing numbers of red cedar and other understory trees as a way to help revive the aspens in the park’s woodlands. By thinning red cedars from oak, pine and aspen stands in the park, we hope to one day utilize prescribed fire to help restore this unique ecosystem. Organizations and landowners such as The Nature Conservancy, National Park Service, Nebraska Forest Service, Northern Prairies Land Trust, Niobrara Valley Prescribed Fire Association and Western Nebraska Resource Council are promoting or practicing similar management techniques and some are already utilizing prescribed fire to begin restoring grasslands and woodlands.
The Smith Falls State Park Forest Enhancement project, now underway, is partially funded through a grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust. The Trust is funded by proceeds from the Nebraska Lottery and has awarded more than $157 million to conservation projects in Nebraska since 1994.
Below are a few pictures relating to thinning operations at the park, most of which, contractors have performed. Most of the trees removed have been piled for burning. We hope to utilize grinding or chipping to eliminate trees in future thinning operations. Throughout 2011, I plan to update you on other projects related to managing the aspens and other resources of the park.
Pictures of thinning operations in July of 2010 and burning of slash piles in February of 2011 at Smith Falls State Park.