This past work trip we returned to the Winn District of Kisatchie National Forest for ten long days. Our project was again prairie restoration, working for project partner David Moore – a botanist with the US Forestry Service – to remove nuisance plants from imperiled calcareous prairies. The primary target of this work project was Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styraciflua), a fast-growing woody tree encroaching on the prairies. While Sweet Gum is native to the region, usually restricted to seasonal wetlands and woodland edges; it is considered a nuisance species in this particular habitat, as an historic lack of wildfires due to human fire suppression allow Sweet Gum and other woody vegetation to grow unchecked – and this is where we come in. Armed with an arsenal of tools including loppers, handsaws and hatches (with Shawnee and myself busting out the chainsaws when necessary) we got to work bright and early each morning working in a circle around the perimeter of a nine-acre meadow, cutting down the small trees and saplings and spraying their trunks with herbicide. Ever-present were the various forms of “green briar”, several thorny vine and shrub species of the genera Rubus and Smilax growing across the ground at knee height or wrapped around our target trees tangling branches and scraping skin.
Early in the week the weather acted against us, bringing windspeeds over 13mph which impeded our spray time and a major storm front moving in Wednesday which forced us to take a half-day and sleep beneath a downpour and heavy winds. However, once the rain cleared up the remaining five days bore beautiful sunshine, fair temperatures and a gentle breeze.
My personal highlight of the week was encountering a beautiful Southern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortix contortix) with brilliant white edges to the dark mahogany bands crossing its back. The highlight for the rest of the crew, of course, was probably watching me sprint across a nine-acre prairie in full chainsaw protective equipment like a madman leaping over fallen limbs and briar patches to reach the other side when people began shouting “snake” upon its discovery. Despite being a venomous species, the copperhead posed no danger to us as we all kept our distance and left the animal alone, allowing it to slither off into the woods without incident.
On Tuesday afternoon we ended the workweek with David taking us on a nature hike. Starting with an area that previous Louisiana Conservation Corps and Texas Conservation Corps had completed and leading us through a patchwork landscape of hardwood lowlands and with pine forest uplands and more open prairie ridges. The climax of the journey was a clear stream running the bottom of two ridges. Hidden amongst the clay mud and pebbles were a variety of fossil artifacts, including seashells, petrified wood and coral – a few crew members even found remnants of fossilized crabs preserved in the clay. After a long trip in the field (literally), it was a perfect combination of fun and informative to close out the hitch before our departure for Baton Rouge the following morning.
Alec Jarboe – Conservation & Disaster Crew Leader