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Logging helps wildlife on WMAs

by Bryan Hendricks | September 12, 2019 at 2:18 a.m.

For years, one of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's most persistent critics has shown me photos of big hardwoods that were harvested from wildlife management areas.

The sights were indeed jarring, big open areas where majestic hardwoods once stood. The critic, a non-public figure, bemoans the loss of duck habitat that he said the logging entails. He insists the Game and Fish Commission sacrifices habitat for timber revenues.

I have occasionally heard Trey Reid, the Game and Fish Commission spokesman, skirmishing with callers over this very subject on his weekly cameo on a local morning radio program.

If one keeps his ears open long enough, he'll hear the answers to unasked questions delivered honestly and without spin. Timber harvest on WMAs is frequently discussed in Arkansas Game and Fish Commission committee meetings.

Timber harvest is an essential component of habitat management. A forest of old-age hardwoods is certainly magnificent to behold, but its value as wildlife habitat is limited. The tall, thick canopy of mature oaks shades the ground below. Without sunlight hitting the forest floor, other plants don't grow, which means there is little on the forest floor for deer, squirrels, wild turkeys, bobwhite quail and songbirds to eat.

By opening the canopy through timber harvest, sunlight drenches the forest floor and allows grasses, forbs, legumes and succulent plants to grow. Their seedbanks had lain dormant in the soil for years waiting for an opportunity to grow. If you spend time in the woods, you see it over and over whenever a storm blows trees down or when a portion of a forest burns. Those areas later are awash in weeds and other plants.

Of course, blown down and burned down trees are wasted. They also form an impenetrable tangle that provides refuge cover for wildlife, but it is inaccessible to people.

A timber sale creates the same wildlife benefits, but it also rejuvenates productive hunting areas while generating revenue that is directed back to the WMA where the trees were harvested.

On green tree reservoir areas, timbered areas will become more attractive to waterfowl over time as brush and young trees grow.

This is the same principal that drives the Pine-Bluestem Restoration Project in the western part of the Ouachita National Forest. Initiated in the mid 1990s, it also involves selective timber cutting and generous, widespread use of controlled burning. Those are some of the prettiest, most game-rich forests in Arkansas.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, forest management in the national forests was mostly hands off except for clearcutting. Much of the Ouachita National Forest was a jungle of uneven age pine thickets, greenbriar and saw briar. It was ugly. Wildlife densities were very sparse, and recreational value was marginal.

The clearcuts were vast, and they looked hideous, but they were rich with game. Bobwhite quail were plentiful in the clearcuts, but they vanished when clearcutting was banned in the Ouachita National Forest in the early 1990s. I supported the ban as the outdoors editor of the Morning News in Springdale, and I regret it. The outdoors editor that succeeded me at the Southwest Times-Record in Fort Smith opposed the Pine Bluestem Restoration Project, and I regret that, too.

The Pine-Bluestem Restoration Project is a template for progressive forest management, and it created a multi-win situation for forest users, wildlife and timber resources. That area has a lot of bobwhite quail. It also provides vital habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered species that precipitated the project. Deer populations are good, and turkey habitat is excellent.

There's a lot of muscadines in those woods right about now, as well as huckleberries in the early summer. In the spring, there are a lot of edible mushrooms in certain places, as well as wild onions and other wild herbs.

When hunters complain about their woods being altered, it reminds me of a line from "At the Zoo," a Simon and Garfunkel song -- "Orangutans are skeptical of changes in their cages ..."

After we get over the dismay of our favorite familiar places being rendered unfamiliar, we eventually come to appreciate the benefits that follow.

Sports on 09/12/2019

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