Trees or Scrub, Forest or Damaged Grassland?

What happened to the grass? That’s an odd question, or perhaps Odd*, to ask while driving on the Edwards Plateau. Most people ask about “missing” trees on the Great Plains and High Plains, but grass in the Hill Country? Hasn’t it always had trees, even if many of them are a little short and twisty? Mesquite, lots of shinnery oak and other oaks, some cedar, elm, cottonwood, and a few other trees cover the land. The shade is nice, but not the stands so thick they block the wind and mosquitoes wait to gang up on you. This year, there were also a lot of broken trees and deadfalls laying around thanks to the ice and snow from Snowvid 21. I kept muttering “My kingdom for a chainsaw. And bulldozer. And burn permit. And firewood sale stand. And . . .” You get the picture.

If you don’t know the history of the region, it looks a bit overgrown but not bad. Trees are good, right? The National Arbor Day Foundation and others are strong encouragers of tree-planting. Trees soak CO2 out of the atmosphere, they produce shade (most of the time, mesquite and some oaks aside), some produce things people can eat, birds like them . . . More trees are good, right? Especially native species, because those fit the landscape and climate better than do exotics, and don’t harm the ecosystem.

Um, well, sort of. The problem for me is that I’ve read about the pre-Anglo environment of Texas, and . . . Grass. Grass covered large swaths of what is now Texas, far more so than today. Much of the brushy land was grassy land because of pyro-management by the Indians, and by lightning, and intensive grazing by bison. Trees tended to be confined to stream and river courses, where they were protected from fire and heavy grazing until they grew big enough to tolerate creeping fires and the occasional nibble. When the German settlers moved into the area, they found more grass than trees, although trees certainly existed, enough for a sawmill or two.

The problem was thin soil and drought. And no one understood the need for fire management. European forests are 1) very different from North American, and 2) have not been fire managed since, um, well, I have yet to find anything in the archaeology records about controlled or otherwise burns. The grasslands were steppe or wetland, or both (Hungary), and trees tended to be managed, either by property owners or the state. So the new arrivals plowed, planted, grazed heavily, didn’t burn, and farmed as they best knew how. Some techniques worked, others didn’t. In wet years, all was well.

Then there’s the rest of the time. Overgrazing of the grass allowed brush to move in. Drought favors brush, as does fire suppression. As early as the 1890s, extension agents reported problems with good pasture land becoming brush choked and weedy. Toss in the dry years of the 1917-18, then the 1930s, and especially the 1950s, and grass retreats ahead of brush and then scrub forest. Deer, wild hogs, and some other game species do well to OK in brush, so ranchers shifted to farming game as well as cattle and horses. Even so, you can have too much of a brushy thing.

Given my personal preferences, if I won the lottery and could buy property, I’d do what I could to bring back the native grasses. But that’s just me, and I’d have to buy lottery tickets first. It takes a LOT of work and on-the-ground knowledge to do a good job of clearing out enough trees and brush for grass to return, and then manage things properly after that. Large infusions of cash are also required in the beginning. The benefits can be great, including increased stream flow and ground water, greater species diversity, fewer weeds and noxious plants, and healthier livestock and crops. All it takes is cash, sweat equity, knowledge, and labor.

For a few academic generations, we thought that ecosystems had a “climax state,” an end-goal that once reached, was the ideal final equilibrium point for any given ecosystem. Turns out that’s not true. Land use, climate fluctuations, geologic and weather events (think back to the enormous storm that leveled huge swaths of trees in England) . . . They all cause changes. Fire as a land management tool goes way back in human history, and is partly responsible for the savanah’s in Africa and is very responsible for the grasslands of North America, as well as for some of the forests of North America. The brushy Hill Country is just one possibility, brought about by climate shifts (end of the Little Ice Age) and human land management. A grassy Hill Country is another possibility, with large meadows and pastures ringed by fringes of trees, and tree-lined watercourses.

*Over at AtH, it has become common to use Odd to describe those of us who are eccentric in eccentric ways, inclined toward individualism (“just leave me alone to do my thing, please,”) often bookish, and frequently very knowledgable about unusual and fascinating fields, even if they are not our every-day vocation.

15 thoughts on “Trees or Scrub, Forest or Damaged Grassland?

  1. “More trees are good, right? Especially native species, because those fit the landscape and climate better than do exotics, and don’t harm the ecosystem.”

    They who think that need to watch a wildfire roar over some of our native juniper, juniperus occidentalis.

    It’d be funny if it weren’t so serious:
    Greenies: plant native trees!
    Insurance: not within two-hundred feet of your house or you lose coverage!
    Fish and Wildlife: Non-historical range, damaging other habitats! Bad!

    (I did a duck search to make sure I was spelling the scientific name correctly, 2nd result for Western Juniper was that report.)

    • Indeed. I get twitchy when I see houses, often on the edges of arroyos or canyons, with lovely native juniper or mesquite snuggling up against the building. Between the location and the greenery, that property is history if a fire comes through.

    • Anybody down-stream for you:
      “do you have ANY IDEA how much those things drink?!?!”

      My dad made a LOT of friends by spending a summer clearing out the junipers around a “creek” that was at best seasonal when he started– although even he remembered that it use to be quite a river, at least for the high desert, and the stuff below was designed to deal with spring floods.

      Next year, the “river” was back…..and we had firewood for a looooooong time.

  2. I recall a few cowboys who didn’t smoke, but carried around a pack of cigarettes.
    Areas where the sagebrush had grown to the height of a horse sometimes spontaneously ignited shortly after the final sweep of the roundup.
    Such a tragedy.

  3. For a few academic generations, we thought that ecosystems had a “climax state,” an end-goal that once reached, was the ideal final equilibrium point for any given ecosystem.

    Ah, the beautiful, mathemagically elegant Theory Of Everything strikes again. /wry

  4. Academics: Ecosystems had a “climax state”.

    Mother Nature: Just watch this. 😈

  5. You caught my attention on the mention that European forests are different. Would that be because of longer settled habitation and many more controlled uses combined with different varieties of tree? You’ve discussed European management of forests in the context of coppicing and other ways of using trees without cutting them down.
    I’ve never realized before that I have not heard ever of European forest fires.

    • Akshully, it is just that the Euros are evil, and should be exterminated to restore the natural environment of parking lot.

      (In all seriousness, I’ve recently gone zealous on the idea that there is no natural environment, ecosystems do not really exist, and what does exist is not a system. I do profoundly disagree with European land use choices. But, I’m pretty sure that to the extent that I know about them, I disagree with the land use choices of every continent. I mean, I /like/ the idea of using nuclear weapons on the ocean floor, and in Antarctica.)

    • You’re correct on all counts, Elaine, plus climate factors. Southern Europe – Greece and Iberia – does have forest fires, although they tend not to be as dramatic as those in the US and Canada. Usually not as dramatic. Usually . . .

      Since I’m up to my elbows in European history at the moment, I’ll do a post on that in a few days.

    • I believe Italy and Spain (?) did wildfires a few years back, chalked up to climate change or hey, that looks like California scrub, depending on who was looking at it.

      I’d have to search for details. 18? 19?

      • They did – just like California. The native scrub in Greece and Spain does look very like the native California chaparral, which is designed by nature to burn over about every twenty-five to thirty years, for the best health. (Dad was a research biologist and lectured us about this, incessantly.) Honestly, the Greek and Spanish hills looked just like California to me. They also have the same general weather patterns, with dry hot summers and cool, rainy winters.

        As for Texas, one of the main plagues is the cedar scrub, basically weed trees that soak up any available water and choke out other growth. Texas’ original ecology, at least in the lowland parts and the Hill Country was rolling meadows and occasional stands of live oaks. When we went to Kingsland last month, we could see where landowners had gone energetically about clearing out cedar scrub, and trying to restore the more natural grassland and oaks.

  6. IIRC, in the late 19th century, some European governments decided to put their forests under scientific management, at about the same time that Teddy R decided to keep vast parts of the US wild. The European forests were geometrically planted for maximum productivity, but with the rest of the ecosystem amputated, they couldn’t meet expectations.

    Fun fact: two cousins of TR, Hillbourne and Elliot, developed the predecessor of the ‘automatic’ registration system for organs that became standard in the first part of the 20th century. Binary memory, too. (Mechanical.)

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