Of Fire Scars and Arkansas Oaks
by Kim MacQueen
Arkansas oaks have been under attack for years, on several fronts. Thanks to a 3-year drought from 1998 to 2000 that incited a widespread oak decline event, a lack of periodic fire that has encouraged lesser quality competitors—as well as myriad other causes such as armillaria root fungi, hypoxylon canker (a killing fungus that enters oaks through injuries to the trunk), and a brief but sizeable increase in the native oak borer population—researchers in the areas surrounding the Ozark National Forest have documented years of oak distress.
Answers about why that’s happening and how to reverse the trend have begun to come in over the past several years. Martin Spetich, SRS upland hardwoods research forester based in Hot Springs, AR, is at work tying together a network of 16 studies centering on upland oak forest dynamics in Arkansas. However, some of the best information comes from two centuries in the past, when Native American populations were prevalent and periodic low-intensity forest fires were a regular occurrence.
There are oaks still standing along the Arkansas River that started growing there between 1719 and 1857, during the time the area was inhabited by the Quapaw Indians. Centuries old, the trees sport scars that show they lived through multiple fires, while their competitors burned away. The lack of fire over the last century of fire suppression may help to explain the decline of oaks in the Ozarks and other areas of Arkansas.
Understanding the role of historic fires in these forests is key to understanding how they developed. To learn more, Spetich teamed up with Richard Guyette at the University of Missouri to document fire history in the Boston Mountains of Arkansas. Together, they have examined fire history back to the early 1600s, and have been able to identify trends in historic fire frequencies associated with such things as human population fluctuations and long-term climate variability.
An Over-Arching View
Part of the problem with studying Arkansas oak forests is that, like most if not all forests, they’re constantly evolving, complex systems. The same can be said, though, of Spetich’s method of studying them. When he first began working with the Hot Springs unit in 1998, he inherited a number of forest research studies. Spetich calls these studies his orphans.
“They were excellent research studies, but there was really no way to comprehensively tie them together. Without someone to care for them, they could have gone by the wayside like so many other orphaned studies,” Spetich said.
Spetich took the orphans under his wing, then started interviewing land managers and others to see what they needed from existing and future studies. The end result was an overarching keystone study that ties together data from 16 integrated projects that span millions of acres and hundreds of years.
“One of the first things I did, back in 1998, was talk to researchers and resource managers around the State, as well as others involved with management of forests, to find out what their real needs were in terms of research information,” Spetich says. “There were areas where there was a significant amount of research as well as areas where the data didn’t really exist. So I used that information to address their needs by filling in research gaps.”
The resulting keystone study examines the effect of fire on species dynamics in the Ozark-Ouachita Highlands, analyzing both burned and unburned areas in combination with a number of treatments. When combined with his other, smaller studies, the keystone study will provide both the bug’s-eye view (the opportunity to pinpoint specific stand dynamics and understand interactions with other species) and the bird’s-eye view (insight into creating sustainability in Arkansas oaks not only now but across time). It encompasses everything from spatial modeling of large forested landscapes hundreds of years into the future to looking at the ability of a single seedling to survive.
“I wanted to look at the whole Ozark-Ouachita Highlands area across both space and time. There are a number of study sites, and we can work on a portion of them each year. The first part is getting initial measurements; the second part is getting the treatments done. And then there are all of the followup measurements. So each year we get to do something new,” Spetich says. “I expect to have preliminary information out in the next 4 years, and then about every 5 years for the next 15 years, when all of this will come together in a comprehensive, integrated way.”
SRS technicians Richard Chaney and Jim Whiteside work throughout northern Arkansas forests, with their home base at the Koen Experimental Forest established in 1948. “They both grew up here and they really have a thorough understanding of the area. They can describe the oak projects in a way that relates to local culture,” Spetich said.
While final results from the keystone study will take, in Spetich’s words, “as long as it takes the trees to grow,” one thing he’s got up and running now is the Oak Understory Success Program, or OAKUS. The interactive, online tool helps foresters better evaluate alternative silvicultural treatments before shelterwood creation and underplanting.
“I kept running into people who were asking for something like this,” Spetich said. “It goes back to when I was in school, looking at publications that were coming out, nearly all of them designed for other researchers. There really weren’t many publications or tools out there that were written by scientists specifically for land managers.”
He said the original idea for all of this goes back much further than 1998 to the early 1960s when he was a kid fishing in Amish country—and to the gratitude he felt for the experiences he had there.
“We would rent a rowboat, and after several hours of fishing out on the lake I would hike through the surrounding forest, finally stopping to sit and just watch the activity of the forest around me. Recognizing the interconnectedness of that activity led to a need to do something with my life that benefited society in an equally meaningful way,” he said. “I really wanted to develop this idea of doing research that would benefit both people and the environment in an integrated way. Now I can do that.”