Windstorm-Felled Trees Could Invite Invasives in Parks

by kespeland on September 24, 2008

Listen to the story here.

The visible impacts of the storm are not hard to miss here in Iroquois park and other parks across the county. Officials say it will likely take months to clean up. In park woodlands, the debris can also pose dangers—overhead and under foot.

“Straight ahead you can see one of the things we’re having to deal with. That tree was snapped off, tremendous hazard tree right there, and it’s very tenuously balanced on the trunk,” Knox says.

That’s Bennett Knox, a natural resources manager for city parks. In Iroquois park, winds snapped giant, hundred-year-old trees in half and scattered branches across trails. Beyond the obvious danger from precarious branches, another, less visible danger could be lurking in the soil. Where the wind knocked down trees, it created openings in the tree canopy. Knox says plants and trees that love sunlight –some welcome, some not so welcome–could sprout up in those openings before replanting can begin.

“The longer term issue from an ecology standpoint is what that opening means and what we need to do to help it establish in the way we want it to establish, reestablish,” says Knox.

Knox says it could mean a fast growing but native tree called the tulip poplar could move in. But it could also mean invasive species like the bush honeysuckle will take advantage of the new clearing. And if that happens, the parks could face yet another long battle. Parks director Mike Heitz was with the department in 1974, when a tornado tore through town and practically balded Cherokee park.

“And with the winds that came through with the tornado, we think that’s when all the invasives were blown into the area. And because of the sunlight, they were able to take root and grow. So now we’re fighting with the invasives that are trying to choke out the plants that we planted in 1974 following the tornado,” Heitz says.

Heitz says they replanted following original designer Frederick Law Olmsted’s specifications.
“Basically now, we’re coming back to a point that the scar that was once there is pretty much gone, except for one thing and that’s the invasive species,” Heitz says.

More than 30 years later, full time park crews are still waging war against bush honeysuckle. Olmsted Parks Conservancy’s project manager Major Waltman says part of the reason is that this plant is very hardy.

”It is an absolutely great competitor for sunlight, for nutrients. It produces an abundant number of seeds,” says Waltman.

Birds happen to love it, and spread its seeds. And Waltman says that while bush honeysuckle seeds need sunlight to germinate, the full grown plant can thrive in shade. Now, it’s doing just that in Cherokee park, where the tree canopy has grown back. The problem is not just an aesthetic one. Bush honeysuckle may change the look of a landscape. But Waltman says it could also upset the unique bonds of biodiversity that have evolved in an ecosystem.

“You have insects, you have mammals, reptiles, amphibians, that evolved with local plants in their area. And when those plants are removed or no longer there because they’re out-competed by some plant that hasn’t been there very long…”says Waltman.

…It upsets their balance. And that’s true of any invasive species that decides to settle in. For now, parks employees haven’t even begun to assess all the damage. They’re still busy helping power company and public works officials disentangle branches and power lines. Meanwhile, invasive species won’t be waiting for permission to move in.

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