by Mike Groenewold
Writing last spring, I mentioned Smith Falls State Park near Valentine has easily accessible aspen trees near the highest waterfall in the state, and that a management program is in place to help restore and maintain the aspens at the park. You won’t be disappointed if you visit the park and enjoy the short walk to see the trees and the falls.
Game and Parks staff and others are concerned because these small remnant stands of aspens are declining. A Biologist could write a book on the theory of their decline, but a host of factors seem to be at work. Climate change, disease and insects, as well as land use since 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 bur oak and red cedar. The 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. As as the region was settled, homesteaders protected their property by suppressing wildfires and the landscape changed dramatically. An open forest became a densely crowded forest.
The Smith Falls State Park Forest Enhancement project will hopefully reverse the decline of aspens in the park as we thin red cedar and excess ponderosa pine from the park forest. Eventually we hope to introduce prescribed fire to further restore and maintain the native grasslands and woodlands. This project 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.
There are four aspen groves, with four to six mature trees, and two aspen groves, with one to two mature trees, remaining in the park forest. Most competing red cedar trees have been thinned beneath the mature and declining aspens. With thinning complete we have noticed numerous sprouts developing from the roots of mature trees—definitely a good sign for our restoration efforts. Aspens will reproduce from seed, but new trees more readily develop from root sprouts.
As you might imagine our work is not nearly complete. A host of organisms including insects, fungi and viruses attack aspen. Deer also browse the young sprouts and are the current obstacle to encouraging the development of sprouts into trees which might perpetuate the groves. Therefore, we have recently completed protecting a substantial number of sprouts in the four largest aspen groves with wooden stakes and plastic netting to discourage browsing by deer. We hope to protect sufficient numbers of young aspen to begin replacing the mature trees.
Watch for additional updates on the Smith Falls Forest Enhancement Project in 2012.