Before the early settlers arrived in the Missouri Ozarks fire naturally moved through the area every few years or so creating more open space.
But over time, fire prevention at all cost slowly began to take hold creating more dense Ozark forests.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources says for the past 30 years controlled burns and cutting smaller trees have been part of its overall plan in the Ozark forests it controls. It's designed to create more open space for wildlife and in theory will make a forest look more like it did hundreds of years ago when fire did the work on its own.
Late last fall at Lake of the Ozarks State Park, DNR Natural Resource Steward Allison Vaughan was hiking up a hill through some thick brush and undergrowth with a half dozen members of the Columbia Audubon Society. "This unit has probably been burned about three times every 10 years. In the early stages you want to burn more often to knock back some of that brush and things like that," Vaughan said. "Anything here that was small diameter like black hickories and maples, and that have grown up in a fire free environment, they were cut and stump treated."
DNR is working with Columbia Audubon Society volunteers on the first phase of a project at the park. Its goal is to determine the impact of a controlled burn in a specific area and see if over time it will help increase the number of woodland birds in the park. The area in question is 252 acres that DNR thins and burns every few years and will probably do so again this spring. Vaughan talked with the volunteers about long-term goals for the land and what it would be like at some point after the next burn. "When you look back there you are going to see a warm season grass component start to come up, wildflowers coming up, and you are going to see a different suite of birds," Vaughan said. "A lot of these birds that are declining like the Eastern Wood-Peewe and Summer Tanager depend on widely spaced open grown trees so they can nest out in the far branches."
Some of the areas are further along in the restoration process than others. Vaughan said, "Look out there and you can see a whole suite of grasses and foods and blueberries and things like that. That is a lot of what these woodland birds need." One of the volunteers wanted to know if DNR would be cutting down any big trees as part of the process. Vaughan was emphatic when she answered the question. "No, no big trees at all. No, absolutely not." She said nothing is cut that is more than six inches in diameter and that fire helps out oak trees in the park they want to see more of. "A lot of these post oaks and blackjack oaks are relics. They sit here kind of in bondage being surrounded by all these small brushy things and they need to be released."
Vaughan and the volunteers eventually reached their destination at some upland flatwoods. Everyone fanned out to listen, watch and count birds. Bill Mees was one of the volunteers. He is president of the Columbia Audubon Society and had notebook and pen in hand keeping track of it all. He said, "So after we have been out here we can make an accounting of what we saw so we can compare it when we do this on subsequent occasions. Particularly doing something before and after the controlled burns so you can see what difference does it make."
It's a long-term process with cutting and burning continuing for as long as there is money to do it. DNR hopes over time it will attract more target species, like the Indigo Bunting, to return to the park.