A group of researchers led by a man who helped identify the largest tract of old-growth forest in mid-America has helped establish a consortium to study and preserve the trees and their ecosystems.
David Stahle, professor of geosciences, has established the Ancient Cross Timbers Consortium for Research, Education and Conservation, a group of universities, non-profit conservation organizations, zoos and government agencies that have an interest in one of America’s largest and least-studied tracts of forest.
“Natural ecological processes are still ongoing in the Cross Timbers,” Stahle said.
“These forests include trees over 400 years old and have not been logged. Fire still occasionally burns the undergrowth. Tornadoes and ice storms topple trees.”
The region has several large streams running through the ecosystem and several small watersheds completely covered with undisturbed old-growth woodlands, which is extremely rare in the eastern United States. Researchers could study water quality in these relatively undisturbed areas and make comparisons to watersheds in ecosystems modified by humans.
When UA graduate student Krista Clements Peppers began examining the Cross Timbers in Texas, she heard people say that there was no old growth to be found. She has used satellite imagery to predict where old growth may still exist, and field studies have shown that tracts of old-growth forest still dot the landscape of north Texas.
“We have an important part of the historical forest still remaining in the south-central United States,” she said. “It’s a gold mine for people researching just about any kind of ecological question.”
“The Cross Timbers are grossly undervalued in the conservation community,” said Michael Palmer, a botanist at Oklahoma State University. “Many forest ecologists nationwide have never even heard of the Cross Timbers.”
The Cross Timbers cut across eastern Oklahoma from north to south, extending into Kansas and Texas. Scraggly looking post oaks and blackjack oaks populate the hilly landscape, most never reaching heights of more than 40 feet.
“Despite the fact that most of Oklahoma’s population and a significant part of the population of Texas reside in the Cross Timbers, there has been very little research to characterize its structure and functions,” said Oklahoma State University forest ecologist Stephen Hallgren.
Stahle knew nothing about the trees until the early 1980s, when he drove through the area on a road trip and wondered about the age of the gnarled trees he was passing by. So he brought out a small, pencil-thin instrument that can take a sample for dating without damaging the tree and brought a few samples back to his tree ring lab at the University of Arkansas.
He discovered trees that dated back more than 300 years.
Since then, Stahle, Peppers, Matthew Therrell of Iowa State University and Alynne Bayard of the U.S. Forest Service have dated and mapped areas of the Cross Timbers and discovered vast tracts of forest containing trees that date back 400 to 500 years. These represent some of the oldest specimens in the country, and they also hold a highly sensitive record of rainfall in their rings.
Stahle and his colleagues estimate that up to 500 square miles of old growthold-growth forest exist in the Oklahoma Cross Timbers alone. In addition to its value as an old growthold-growth forest, it serves as a model for the natural processes of undisturbed watersheds, another important research tool used to inform water quality issues.
The Cross Timbers have survived, largely unmolested and unexamined, due to their unremarkable appearance: The short, gnarled trees never lent themselves to logging and the steep, rocky slopes they prefer deterred developers who might have cleared the land for grazing or building.
However, in recent years technology has developed that allows chip mill companies to chop up misshapen trees for use in paper pulp. Such activity may threaten the Cross Timbers, which has yet to gain the notoriety it deserves.
The consortium can counter such potential destruction by working with conservation organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and with private individuals to educate them on the valuable resource these trees represent when preserved. Indeed, the consortium has been offered 1,400 acres, most of it covered in old-growth forest, by a private donor in Oklahoma.
Other tracts of land slated for consortium use include the Cross Timbers State Park in Kansas, the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands in Texas, the Keystone Ancient Forest Preserve outside of Tulsa, Okla., and the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve northwest of Tulsa, owned by the Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy is currently developing an ecological plan for the Cross Timbers and southern tallgrass prairie, a plan that will be informed by research done by members of the consortium.
The consortium formalizes research relationships between universities, non-profit conservation groups and government agencies that have worked together for years. As an entity with a non-profit status, the consortium will be able to hold conservation easements, own property and receive public and private financial support.
Stahle hopes that the group will be able to create “research natural areas” that will remain preserved so researchers in different fields can take advantage of this rare opportunity to study a mostly intact and ancient ecosystem.
The consortium is supported by the Oklahoma Academy of Science, the Oklahoma Biological Survey, the Nature Conservancy, the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, the Oklahoma City Zoological and Botanical Gardens, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Tulsa Zoo, Austin College, the University of Central Oklahoma, University of Oklahoma, University of Tulsa, Oklahoma State University, University of Arkansas, the Texas Forest Service, the LBJ National Grasslands, and other agencies and individuals.
Please see http://www.uark.edu/misc/xtimber/ to learn more.
Materials provided by University Of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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