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Long-term project examines effectiveness of conservation department’s best management practices

Shannon and Reynolds counties, deep in the Missouri’s Ozarks, are home to some of the most ruggedly beautiful landscapes in the state, if not the country.

Spring-fed, the Current and Jack’s Fork Rivers snake clear and cold at the feet of the area’s densely wooded dolomite and limestone hills and bluffs. Designated as the Ozark National Scenic Riverways by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1964, these state treasures draw 1.5 million visitors annually. People of all ages come to canoe, camp, hunt, fish, hike, go horseback riding and just soak up the area’s beauty.

The two counties are also leaders in this state’s vigorous logging and wood product industries.

Missouri is third in the nation in forestry economic impact, according to a Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC) brief. Forest product industries constitute about two percent of Missouri’s Gross State Product, or $4.32 billion.

While some believe that recreation and timber harvest are at cross purposes, the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) believes that the two can coexist if logging is conducted using a series of best management practices (BMPs). The agency’s guidelines were developed in response to the Federal Government’s Water Pollution Control Act and the subsequent Clean Water Act.

Most states with harvestable timber have BMPs in place, but few studies have been conducted to quantitatively evaluate their effectiveness–until now.

A seven-year research collaboration between the Missouri Department of Conservation and John Bowders, a University of Missouri civil and environmental engineering professor, will do just that. The project is evaluating the impact of MDC-managed clear-cut timber harvests on water quality in the Angeline and Current River Conservation Area. Bowders’ team is putting Missouri’s BMPs to the test in Shannon and Reynolds counties.

The project represents intensive work between dozens of collaborators and research assistants. Countless hours have been spent in the field—often in less than hospitable conditions—installing equipment and returning repeatedly to replace it and collect samples. Back in the lab, hundreds of samples are being processed, for the payoff: a growing body of data.

“It’s looking better and better,” Bowders said of projected results as the project nears the end of its sixth year.

Bowders explained that best management practices call for the preservation of trees and vegetative growth along waterways, known as streamside zones, according to a strict formula: 25 feet on either side of the streambed, plus twice the slope percentage. These green buffers maintain the bank’s natural function of absorbing non-point source pollution before it enters the river’s flow.

Additional BMP components regulate stream crossings, access roads, timber harvesting, site preparation, reforestation, forest protection, and chemical and fertilizer use.

“MDC manages forests by dividing conservation areas into timber sites of five to 50 acres, and each is visited every 15 years to make management decisions, for example, to clear cut, do nothing, or something in-between,” said Bowders.

“We are most concerned with sustainable forest management,” said David Gwaze, a silviculturist in MDC’s resource science division, and a collaborator on the timber harvest and water quality project. “We want the same services and goods that we enjoy today, or even better ones, to be there for our kids.”

Fifteen sites within a 500 square mile segment of the two MDC Conservation Areas that had been scheduled for regeneration oak clear-cut were chosen for the study. Most exhibited oak decline and were in need of the rejuvenating effect that clear-cutting the forests’ end-of-life growth provides.

People think of clear-cutting as very destructive, but each site is closely scrutinized in terms of the environment and the regeneration requirements of different species, Bowders explained. A great number of factors are weighed when making these decisions.

Water and sediment collection instruments were placed in ephemeral streambeds—those that only flow after measurable precipitation has fallen—located on slopes draining into the waterways below, and in the streambeds themselves.

Control-data samples were collected for three years before any of the sites were logged. The first was clear-cut in December 2006, and the most recent in early 2008. All harvests strictly adhered to BMPs. To date, the lumber from 10 sites has been cut, though data—temperature, precipitation, water quantities in the ephemeral streams, water quality samples from the streams, and sediment loads from hillside sediment traps and in-stream samplers—has been collected continuously from all 15 sites each time there has been measurable rain.

“It is very physical work and I’m happy that we have been able to collect samples in such a challenging environment, especially right after harvesting because some samples are hidden,” said Amod Koirala, a doctoral student working with Bowders who has made the project the topic of his dissertation.

“We refrigerate them to American Health Standards when we travel. Back at the lab we check them for total suspended solids, total volatile standard solids, dissolved solids, pH, and conductivity.”

Koirala explained that pure water is not conductive and that high conductivity points to more nutrients/pollutants in the samples.

“I’ve been working on the project for two and a half years,” said Koirala. “We’ve gotten good samples, I am working with good students, and I’ve gotten good advice from Dr. Bowders and Dr. Inniss. It’s a good team.”

Enos Inniss, an assistant professor in environmental engineering, and water quality specialist, is co-leading the project with Bowders.

“More than 20 undergraduates have worked on this project, in the field or on the data,” said Bowders, voicing his support for one of the greatest benefits of faculty real-world research projects. At least two have gone on to jobs—one in hydrology, and one in urban conservation—benefiting from the capacity of real research to guide career paths, and from the favorable light the experience casts on graduates in the eyes of potential employers.

The “timber team” meets weekly to share information, illumination and advice. Tyler McKee, a junior in civil and environmental engineering, joined the project a year ago. In addition to aiding with sample gathering, he has started to work with the collected data, impressing team members with his mathematical talents.

“It’s been a fantastic experience,” said McKee of his work on the study. “I get to be outdoors and work on a real-world engineering project that incorporates a little bit of everything: lab work, spreadsheet set-up, associated statistical work and data analysis, and some field work.”

“Working on this project helped to verify that this is the field that I would like to go into. And it ties back into the environment,” he added. “That’s really a passion for me.”

“We will still monitor the sites, but we are already doing some statistical analysis,” said Koirala. “We have a decent amount of data, and I’m feeling good about it.”

The team expects to present its findings at the Missouri Natural Resources Conference in February. Plans are being made to submit papers to forest hydrology journals and an MDC report is expected within a year. Gwaze anticipates that Missourians everywhere will be learning about it in MDC’s magazine “The Conservationist.”

“We are excited about this project. It’s been six years working on the project and we can’t wait,” said Gwaze.  “Our best management practices will be backed by science.”

“All you can do is encourage people to do the right thing. BMPs are voluntary. That’s why this project is so important,” Gwaze said.

“And we are demonstrating that they do work,” said Bowder