We spent a long day at our Rulo Bluffs property last week. The site is at the very southeast corner of Nebraska, and includes about 450 acres of mostly oak/hickory woodland with prairie and savanna habitat on steep ridge tops. I’ve written before about our work to burn and thin the woodlands to open up the understory layer as a way to encourage higher plant diversity and better wildlife habitat. Last week, Nelson, our land manager, spent the entire day in a rubber-tracked skidsteer, shredding brush along ridges because we didn’t manage to get a fire done last fall or this spring. I got a few overhead photos of his work with our drone.
The second image above, taken with our drone, was interesting because it and others from the day showed a surprising number of large dead trees scattered across the property. We knew we were reducing the number of smaller diameter trees with our thinning and fire work, and that a few bigger trees were also dying, but couldn’t see the real scope of that without being in the air. (Couldn’t see the forest for the trees…) While we’re not trying to kill off a large number of big trees, losing some provides space for new oak trees to get started, and provides a number of other benefits – including habitat for the many species that live in standing dead timber. So, it wasn’t a shock or disappointment to see all the dead trees, it was just an interesting observation we couldn’t have gotten without the ability to get eyes up in the air.
My main job last week was to be on site in case Nelson ran into trouble with the skidsteer. (That makes it sound like I was there to help fix the skidsteer – nothing could be further from the truth. Nelson has more mechanical ability in his little finger than I could dream of. I was just there to go for help in case he rolled the thing down the hill or something.) While he was doing the real work, I tried to stay productive by pulling garlic mustard, scouting for invasive honeysuckle, and killing small trees with herbicide. I also managed to find a little time for some photography. Here are a few of the photos I took.
Because of its long distance from our shop and field headquarters, we never feel like we spend enough time working at Rulo Bluffs. It’s a beautiful site, and one of the best examples of oak woodland remaining in Nebraska. As with other oak/hickory woodlands, however, it requires active management in order to survive and regenerate. Without frequent fire, or substitutes such as thinning and shredding, the understory at Rulo Bluffs would become choked with small trees and shrubs, such as ironwood, dogwood, paw paw, and others. Those woody understory species block light from hitting the ground, prevent the establishment of new oaks, and choke out most grasses, sedges, and wildflowers. Eventually, if older oaks die without being replaced, these woodlands change into new communities, dominated by trees such as ash, hackberry, and others that don’t create leaf litter that can carry fire. At that point, restoring the oak/hickory woodland community, which supports a much larger diversity of plant and animal life, is nearly impossible.
…and that is why we keep trying to find time to head down to Rulo Bluffs. That, and it’s such a beautiful place.