Saturday, April 3, 2010

Fernwood: a forest out of balance

The previous post featured the West Virginia White butterfly, a charming and altogether unexpected find at Fernwood State Forest. Unfortunately, an isolated rock dome named Little Round Top may be a last outpost in this "forest". Unlike the Ravens we sought, West Virginia Whites are weak fliers, doomed by habitat disturbance. Forest fragmentation and invasive plants are the primary causes for their decline.

Marginal Woodfern, Dryopteris marginalis was one of the few native species hanging on for dear life. If this was once a "Fernwood," the name has long outlived the reputation.

Many non-native species have taken hold, like Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara, shown here eking out a living along a creek.

The creek color, tinged with Yellow Boy, tells the whole story: coal mining was here. If you are ever told the tale of "clean coal" you need look no further. Much of southern Ohio bleeds the orange of acid mine runoff. While student teaching in Athens' elementary schools, my daughter noted the children color the creeks orange in their artwork; the only color of water they have ever known.

Fernwood was strip-mined before the days of Federal standards for reclamation (i.e. The Wilds). Left to recover by its own devices, invasive species rule. The Armageddon of nature, Ailantus altissima or Tree-of-heaven, must come straight from hell, as it can endure anything. Honeysuckle, buckthorn, garlic mustard- looking for a noxious weed? Look no further. Once stripped of native soil, the non-natives move in.

And if it wasn't bad enough, the Forestry service helped them along with Russian Olive, another noxious and invasive weed. Too often these invasive plants provide attractive but non-nurturing fruit to birds but do not provide host material for our native insects, including lepidoptera. Caterpillars, the bio-mass most preferred by nesting birds, are a vitally important link in the food chain.
So, we Weedpickers go on-and-on about invasive species and non-natives... it is not just a preference for our natural world. It is actually the life-line that holds our natural world together. Botany drives the wildlife, and geology drives botany. And strip-mined areas, become biological deserts filled with invasives. Coal has a long-term cost we haven't begun to measure.

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