Arkansas Upland Oak Experience: The Effectiveness of Partnerships

Fossil pollen records depict the forests of the Ozark Highland as being dominated by oaks (Quercus spp.) for the last 4,000 years. Early explorers and naturalists from Desoto to Schoolcraft left written records of forest conditions and the impact of anthropogenic influences such as fire and the use of forest products on the upland landscapes. Fire scar studies from Missouri and Arkansas confirm these influences and report average historical fire intervals of <15 years from the mid 1600s through the early 1800s. The turn of the 20th century spawned drastic changes in disturbance regimes including fire suppression. Oak dominated forests in the Ozarks and Boston Mountains by the 1970s had become three times as dense as a century before. Then in 1997, with insect populations at record levels and the occurrence of a minor drought, an oak decline event had devastating effects on an estimated 261,000 ha of the Ozark National Forest. Up to 75% of the oaks in affected areas were dead or dying. This event, bringing national attention to the sustainability of oak forests, was a catalyst for the formation of an Arkansas Conservation Coalition, eventually named the Oak Ecosystem Restoration Team (OERT). This group, composed of state, federal, and private interests, developed a strategy that focused on increasing professional knowledge and public awareness along with ways of influencing policy decisions regarding the ecology and sustainability of the Interior Highlands oak ecosystem. The initial step was to hold a symposium of experts in oak ecology, management, and research and glean ideas and recommendations for how to proceed. The conference ended with the collection of recommendations from the more than 350 participating professionals. This allowed OERT to develop a plan that included landscape demonstrations of oak ecosystem restoration, monitoring and sharing information on progress, and development of policies and funding mechanisms to support education and restoration efforts. Still on target, OERT has accomplished many of the initial recommendations, including over 122,000 ha of sites; elevating public interest and awareness through articles, television and tours; and training and educating hundreds of professional managers in oak ecology. The next step is to enlarge the focus of oak management and restoration beyond state borders and to partner with similar efforts in Oklahoma and Missouri.

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