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From the Field—Winter Stewardship Returns Savanna

The Aldo Leopold Foundation stewardship crew has been busy this winter of 2020-21. Every winter our goal is to tackle the land management activities that are larger in scope. The advantages of winter stewardship work are numerous; the ground is frozen so there is less ground disturbance, lack of bugs, less foliage to interfere with work. And then there are benefits that might get my lumberjack membership revoked: I don’t sweat as much, poison ivy is less of a concern, and the inevitable burn piles we start are just a wee bit more enjoyable. Oak wilt can be a concern in this Sand County, so harvesting trees and working in some of ourmore wooded areas is also safest for tree health in the winter time.

From a distance, you can see the choking woody material in the before shot (top), and the more open, heritage savanna that we created.

The pictures capture before and after shots of the 14-acre unit we call Turner Ridge (a glacial sand ridge), our work for a large part of the winter. This project is important to better connect the numerous grasslands, marshes, and savannas that surround Turner Ridge. The main hindrance in allowing the connectivity is the woody plant encroachment. Therefore, our focus was to convert it to a savanna ecosystem and as the pictures show, it contained too much woody material for it to be classified as such.

So, our primary goal was to cut down unhealthy and/or non-fire-tolerant tree species, use chainsaws to process trees into manageable-length logs, and remove them from the unit. The forestry mower was used to mulch tree tops and any brush or shrubs to improve initial access. In the unit, we found a fair number of bur and white oak (more fire-tolerant) which we gave plenty of space to thrive. Our long-term goal for the unit is to use prescribed fire to halt future woody encroachment. Removing the woody material helps grasses and forbes become more established. With more grasses and forbes, prescribed fire carries through the unit better, securing the savanna ecosystem over time. Grasses and forbes tolerate fire, while woody plants do not. And so, the savanna cycle we want is established.

From atop Turner Ridge, the before shot (top) of overgrown woody plants was opened up, creating wildlife-friendly, people-friendly savanna, as is the natural heritage of this land.

One of my favorite parts of the project is all of the different partners it brings to the table. We are doing the work to fulfill the management goals that were written for the Leopold-Pine Island Important Bird Area (IBA) on the Jim Pines family—a property that is contiguous to the Aldo Leopold Foundation. A percentage of the project is being funded through USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services EQIP program. Plus, I get to work with our Fellows, watching them grow their on-the-ground stewardship skills.