Assault on maples to save oaks in Marion

Front-yard barberries now invading woods near Indian Creek need to go, too

Jim Slosiarek photos/The Gazette

Rich Patterson sizes up a young maple tree before cutting it down in Faulkes Heritage
Jim Slosiarek photos/The Gazette Rich Patterson sizes up a young maple tree before cutting it down in Faulkes Heritage Woods along Indian Creek in Marion on Sept. 10. Patterson removed the trees behind his house to help restore the native ecosystem, which includes oak trees.

MARION — Go figure.

Certified tree-hugger Rich Patterson, the longtime director of the Indian Creek Nature Center who is now retired and the center’s director emeritus, is joining forces with the Trees Forever organization and others to cut down trees.

Some of the maples in the 110-acre Faulkes Heritage Woods along Indian Creek on the border between Marion and Cedar Rapids have got to go to make way for new oaks and hickories, said Patterson and Carole Teator, program director for Marion-based Trees Forever.

Patterson and Trees Forever, along with the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and the Marion Parks and Recreation Department, will be in the woods on Saturday, from 9 a.m. to noon, to go after maples and, at the same time, to cut out invasive barberry bushes that have marched through the timber via seeds from barberry bushes in people’s yards.

Last week in a walk in the woods, Patterson and Teator showed firsthand how shade-tolerant maples had come to predominate and how the shade they create has prevented oaks as well as hickories in what historically had been an oak-hickory woodland from taking hold.

Bare ground under the maple shade, they said, makes for plenty of erosion. The tangle of barberry bushes, which push out native flowers and plants, was readily apparent in other spots, too.

The goal for the tree project, they said, is to remove some maples to open up the woods so abundant sunlight can reach the forest floor. That will allow young oaks and hickories to get a start that they’ve not been able to get for years.

“So here we have what would appear to be an irony,” said Patterson, who now operates a web-based business, Winding Pathways, with his wife, Marion. “You have a group like Trees Forever that is removing trees. But it is based on good science.

“There are places where it is totally appropriate to plant trees and places where is appropriate to remove them.”

Teator said Trees Forever often gets calls from citizens in and outside the Cedar Rapids metro area who are concerned about trees that are coming down for street projects or commercial and residential developments.

“Certainly that’s something we care about. But we also care about woodlands,” she said.

Shooting skyward

For the unschooled, all seemed well in the walk with Patterson and Teator in the Faulkes Heritage Woods.

However, then they pointed out that the biggest of the trees are mostly oaks, while the majority of the trees are more slender maples shooting skyward, nearly blocking out the sun. A few of the towering oaks are standing dead — some have died of old age — not to be replaced unless oaks get some help.

Teator said letting nature take care of itself and allowing maples to take over the timber is not the way to go.

“We’ve heard people say, ‘Green is good,’ and that’s what people see and think is good,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s healthy and it doesn’t mean it’s in balance with the way it’s supposed to be so future generations can see the oaks that we enjoy.

“So it does take some management.”

Opening up the forest floor to sunlight as well as getting rid of the invasive barberry bushes will allow native wildflowers to emerge as well, she said.

Teator and Patterson said maples, such as sugar and silver maples, are native to Iowa, too. But historically they grew in cool, moist places such as north slopes and hollows bypassed by fire, Patterson said.

Most of Iowa’s woodlands were savanna-like oak timber with plenty of sunlight, they noted.

Patterson said the settlement of Iowa in the 19th Century began a change that ultimately has tiled the balance in favor of maples and against oaks.

Reaching back into history, fire from lightning strikes and from the management of the prairie by native Americans favored oaks and hickories, which Patterson called fire-resistant tree species.

He said a last heyday for the big oaks in a timber area such as Faulkes Heritage Woods came in the 15 years after the Civil War, when an assortment of factors converged to favor oaks and hickories.

Among those may have been the grazing of cattle, favorable weather and the way farmers of that time used the land. Deer, which love to eat young oaks, almost had disappeared after the Civil War as farmers regularly shot them for food or to get rid of them as pests, he said.

‘Out of place’

Today, Faulkes Heritage Woods has too many deer, Patterson said, a phenomenon that he said will make it challenging to see young oaks grow once the floor of the woods is opened to sunlight.

Even so, managing the woods in favor of oaks can work. Indian Creek Nature Center has had success over some 30 years of trying, Patterson said.

He said a light study conducted at the Nature Center in summer 2013 found that 12 percent of sunlight in a healthy oak woods got to the ground, but only two percent in a maple-dominated one did.

Twelve percent is sufficient for oak reproduction and ground plants, but two percent isn’t, he said.

“Maples are good trees, but they are out of place,” Patterson said. “They are out of place culturally maybe more than ecologically even.

“I say culturally because our tradition, our heritage, our fidelity of land is oak-hickory going back thousands of years. In order to attempt to protect and preserve Faulkes Woods as an oak woods, which it has been for millennia, it’s necessary to remove the shade-tolerant maples.”

At Saturday morning’s event, Patterson and Teator said they expected volunteers might be able to remove maples on an acre of land and barberry from another acre. It’s a start, they said.

Some of the trees will come down with chain saws, while some will be girdled, removing a strip of bark around the tree trunk that results in the tree’s death within a few years.

Teator said no oaks or hickories will be planted. The forest will take care of itself once there is sunlight to help it along, she said.

“We are helping provide conditions that will better allow young oak and hickory trees and native wildflowers to grow and thrive to restore health to this forest treasure we all share,” she said.

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