Magazine article American Forests

Returning Diversity - and Nuts - to Bottomland Forests

Magazine article American Forests

Returning Diversity - and Nuts - to Bottomland Forests

Article excerpt

"They're not far away now. Up on that ridge ahead," said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Forester Kevin Porteck as he led me through a tangled mass of nettles.

A ridge usually means a fairly drastic change in elevation. But only for those not used to rambling the bottomlands of the Mississippi River. For Porteck and follow forester Gary Swenson, ridges mean elevation rises of just a few feet above the pancake-flat mud of river islands.

When I climbed the tiny ridge I caught the forester's excitement. Before me were ancient and massive pecans, Kentucky coffeetrees, and oaks - a diverse contrast to the monotonous stands of silver maple that cover nearby islands and most of the shoreline.

Porteck dug around in the leaves and came up smiling. "Here's what it's all about," he said, as he showed me a smallish wild pecan nut. "Wildlife love pecans and acorns."

Although many foresters and most lay people assume the big river's banks and islands were always covered with pure stands of silver maple, broken by only occasional cottonwoods and box elders, Porteck and Swenson disagree.

"The islands once held stands of hard mast-producing oaks and pecans," said Swenson. Hard mast trees - including oak, hickory, walnut, and other species - produce nuts generally useful to wildlife. According to Swenson, diverse forests were cleared for farming and early settlers cut hardwoods for slae as steamboat fuel, finding pecan and oak fetched a higher price than cottonwood or silver maple.

After the Corps of Engineers bought thousands of acres of land in the 1930s to construct navigation dams, farms were abandoned. "There was no seed source remaining from many mast trees, but silver maple seeds washed in with every flood and established pure stands," said Potreck.

Swenson and Porteck found a few remaining stands of mast-bearing trees on high mounds surrounded by maples. …

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