It was almost hard to hear forestry expert Hank Stelzer over the sound of crunching leaves. Strolling through a sea of fallen foliage in Clyde Wilson Memorial Park on Monday morning, introducing trees like old friends, Stelzer was in his element.
But that element has seen better days.
Woodlands make up more than 15 million acres of Missouri’s landscape, or about a third of the overall land in the state. About 83% of the state’s woodlands are on private property. That means, in most cases, it’s up to Missouri landowners to reverse a history of poor land management that has resulted in widespread woodland decline.
MU Extension’s Woodland Steward program, which Stelzer is a part of, aims to educate landowners on how to take proper care of the woodlands within their property.
The program announced a new position, called a landowner engagement specialist, Tuesday. Funded by industry partners that rely on Missouri’s forest resources, the new hire will work to connect Missouri landowners, upon whom the responsibility of maintaining Missouri’s woodlands falls, with land management experts like Stelzer.
“At the turn of this century, we lost about a million acres in Missouri alone to what they call the red oak decline,” Stelzer said. Along with his position as the State Forestry Extension specialist, Stelzer teaches as an associate professor in MU’s School of Natural Resources.
A similar crisis faces Missouri’s white oaks, known as rapid white oak mortality. The smoking gun of the phenomenon still eludes experts, Stelzer said, but it points to the need for better caretaking.
“We’re seeing this mass decline because, again, we haven’t managed the forest,” he said.
How can landowners manage woodlands on their property?
Just like a potted plant on a window sill, trees need the right amount of water and light to thrive. In an unmanaged woodland, there are plenty of factors that can throw the balance askew.
Too many trees makes for a dense canopy that blocks light from reaching the little guys at the woodland floor, as well as a fight for water. As a remedy, foresters can remove some of the trees that are competing for light and resources and create a healthier canopy density.
“Woodland management is weeding the garden,” Stelzer said.
Thinning the forest also benefits wildlife.
“When you do that, you’re increasing the food factory of the tree itself,” said Stelzer. “You’re also producing wood and making that tree, again, healthy and resilient for the life of the forest.”
The acorns produced by oaks and hickories, for example, provide a strong protein and fat source for animals. A properly managed forest will produce more food for animals as winter approaches.
Invasive species also pose a threat to forests, and woodlands like Clyde Wilson Memorial Park are packed with them. Standing at a trail entrance, Stelzer pointed to several invasive species, including wintercreeper vines, bush honeysuckle and tree-of-heaven, all in sight from the entrance.
The burning bush stands out among the rest, with a stunning coat of red leaves. But don’t let it fool you — it’s another unwelcome guest in the woodland.
These invasive species take up resources, leaving few for the trees important to the woodland. And, with their dominance of the ground, budding trees don’t stand a fighting chance.
“We have plenty of large trees,” Stelzer said. “The problem is we don’t have small trees.”
A dense canopy from tall and mid-story trees combined with the competition from invasive species gives smaller trees a hard time getting started, and without them, the health, diversity and longevity of the woodland is put at risk.
Through the Woodland Steward program, landowners can work with forestry experts to decide on a management plan that best suits their vision for the land.
“It’s not only what we want,” said Stelzer. “What we want can be from a whole mix of things, dependent upon that landowner, and that makes it beautiful in that respect.”
Why should Missourians care?
Missouri’s natural woodlands have been around far longer than we have. Stelzer points out that the land’s previous caretakers — Missouri’s Indigenous residents — did a better job at woodland management.
“Obviously our Native American brethren, they were more in tune with the land,” said Stelzer. “They didn’t put the pressure on the land, as far as forest products. … They didn’t require structural lumber and things of that nature.”
Given the sheer age of Missouri’s woodlands, it can be difficult to fully understand what’s at stake.
So, why should Missourians take action?
“I’d say, ‘Do you have kids? Do you have grandkids?’” Stelzer said, orange and yellow leaves fluttering to the ground around him. “You’re doing it for the future, really. You have to have that long-term vision.”
When Stelzer attended MU in the ‘70s, Clyde Wilson Memorial Park looked very different than it does today. Many of the smaller trees and bushes that dotted the lower woodland are missing now.
“We are getting some things to come back in, but I tell you … this is almost like spitting in the ocean against this.”
But environmentalists aren’t the only ones rooting for Missouri’s woodlands, and there’s a reason the Woodland Steward program is receiving funding from the private sector.
Oaks aren’t only easy on the eyes. They’re also a pillar of the economy. Missouri’s forestry product industry represents about $10 billion of the state’s overall $88 billion agriculture industry.
During Tuesday’s announcement, Rob Kallenbach, associate dean within the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources Extension, gave his audience an anecdote of Missouri’s forestry prominence.
Touring a California winery years ago, Kallenbach noticed that each wine barrel was stamped with the state its wood originated in. Wine barrels are commonly made of oak, one of Missouri’s most common trees. Kallenbach quickly noticed a trend.
“I can assure you that Missouri had more barrels in that winery than any other state,” he said. “People know Missouri’s forests across the world.”
Keeping it that way will be the trick. The partnership behind the Woodland Steward program, which CAFNR Vice Chancellor and Dean Christopher Daubert called “a renaissance for our Missouri forests,” seeks to make the change.
“If you want your children or grandchildren to experience what you’re experiencing,” Stelzer said, proper woodland management is the answer.