Forestry plan unveiled for Pikes Peak State Park

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A natural resources management plan has been developed for Pikes Peak State Park, in an effort to guide how the park’s forest is maintained. Two notable management efforts detailed in the plan include tree plantings in areas heavily damaged by the July 19 tornado, as well as re-establishment of some of the open savanna-like forest conditions present in the area prior to European settlement. (NIT file photo)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times 

A natural resources management plan has been developed for Pikes Peak State Park, in an effort to guide how the park’s forest is maintained.

“I’m excited about it,” said park manager Matt Tschirgi, who led a March 20 public meeting about the plan with Bruce Blair, area Iowa DNR forester, and Scot Michelson, Northeast Iowa District Parks Supervisor for the Iowa DNR. “In the past, management has been kind of willy-nilly and piecemeal, where we hope we’re doing the right thing.” 

Necessitating the need for a plan, said Blair, is forest succession, a process described as the orderly changes in a plant community over time due to a relative lack of major disturbances. In Iowa, that’s meant a slow, decades-long transition from species like eastern red cedar, aspen, oak, walnut and many shrubs to hard maple, basswood, white ash, bitternut hickory and ironwood. This latter stage lessens vegetation in the understory and also affects wildlife.

A chief concern is the loss of oak trees, Blair said. Iowa’s state tree, oaks are often considered a “keystone” species, playing a unique and critical role in the forest ecosystem.

Iowa currently boasts 933,000 acres of oak forest. However, according to Blair, 5,800 acres have been lost each year since 1954.

“At the current rate of loss, we’re not going to have any oak forests in 150 years,” he said.

Largely to blame for this loss, as well as the forest succession noted above, is a lack of major disturbances from elements like fire, which keep slow-growing species like oak competitive. 

Blair said fire was a favorite of the area’s Native Americans, who actively tended the natural resources for thousands of years prior to European settlement.

Fire creates and maintains habitat, he explained, while also encouraging desirable hard mast species, especially oak, hickory and walnut. Settlers who developed the park land south of McGregor did not continue the practice, though.

The seedlings that have survived have been susceptible to a growing white tail deer population. Oak wilt disease has also been an issue. A host of exotic invasive species, such as garlic mustard, honeysuckle, multiflora rose and black locust, has threatened to disrupt the balance of the natural ecosystem.

“We need to try to reverse this,” Blair said. “We have to actively manage to do that.”

To begin developing the natural resources management plan, Blair said he and Tschirgi did some “timber cruising,” traversing nearly all the forest and taking notes.

Pikes Peak encompasses roughly 841 contiguous acres. The Munn family owned large chunks of park property, dating back to the early- to mid-1800s. In 1928, James Buell Munn donated 488 acres to the U.S. government for establishment of a national park. That land was later ceded to the state. In the 1960s, other portions of the park were added.

In the management plan, the park’s land has been divided into 29 different stands. Mound groups, or areas that contain burial or effigy mounds, as well as park development areas, have also been noted.

A description of each stand is provided, along with its management objectives and recommendations on how to achieve those objectives.

Blair said several management systems will be employed in the park. 

One is old-growth management, the primary objective of which is to have many mature, stately trees. Blair said 231 acres, approximately 27 percent of the park’s acres, are designated for this type of management.

Also utilized will be open-woodland management, which is used to restore and/or create forest habitat with 50 to 70 percent overstory canopy cover. It’s used to form savanna-like forest cover, a type of habitat in steep decline in the Midwest. Eleven percent of the park, or 96 acres, is designated for this management system.

The most-utilized system, accounting for 467 acres, or 56 percent of Pikes Peak’s acreage, will be viewshed management. As the name implies, this focuses on the resources that are in the direct line-of-sight of someone’s view. Some low-maintenance activities—prescribed burns, invasive species control, trail maintenance—will be allowed as long as they don’t hamper the view.

Blair said most of the areas will be passively managed, with little to no work activities prescribed, rather than actively managed.

Two of the stands targeted for old-growth management were severely impacted by the July 19 tornado, as nearly 100 percent of the overstory trees were destroyed. Some salvageable trees in the 11.6-acre area were sold last fall.

“We have to go back in and do some post-harvest work and do some tree planting,” Blair said, noting that several hundred red and white oak seedlings will be planted this spring. “Because the deer are abundant, we’re going to have to protect them using shelters.”

Tschirgi said this planting can hopefully be aided by volunteer efforts.

Last fall, volunteers helped harvest acorns in the area. Those acorns aren’t yet ready to plant, added Tschirgi, but they will be tended in a nursery and should be ready to go next year.

“That’s what’s neat about this,” Tschirgi said. “It’s the same genetics that’s grown there year to year.”

DNR officials will also allow the forest to heal itself.

“The best slate we have is the storm damage,” Michelson explained. “Mother Nature went in and opened it up in 10 seconds. It will be interesting to see what happens.” 

Another notable project detailed in the plan calls for re-establishing some of the open savanna-like forest conditions present in the area prior to European settlement.

“We’ll use fire and chainsaws to create oak savanna,” Blair said.

Prescribed burns will be done every two to five years, while other trees will be thinned to support oak regeneration. Results won’t be immediate.

“When you’re using fire, it’s a long-term process,” Blair stated.

Michelson said this work will take place west of the park’s shelter. 

“It’s a very visible part of the park, and one of those areas where you might get people stirred up,” he said.

“It’s a change,” Blair conceded, “but it’s why we’re having this meeting. We’re not being greedy, cutting all the trees down. It’s all part of a plan to manage the forest.”

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