[permaculture] The Loss of Our Trees

Mark mpludwig at facstaff.wisc.edu
Thu Aug 1 13:41:14 EDT 2002

At the risk of being drawn into repeating our previous thread on this 
subject, I find this post, while interesting, peripheral to the current 
tension between those who would manage for grass and those who would manage 
for trees.  Obviously they both have value, but a strong case can be made 
in grazing situations to keep trees very limited.  Trees tend to attract 
animals into the shade in the hot parts of the day, limiting their grazing 
time and concentrating manure, often killing the trees.  The are also a 
pain for mowing and haying operations.  Ever have to extract green sticks 
from the throat of a round baler?   There certainly is a place for some 
trees in some grazing situations, but a real mosaic is a pretty hard 
sell.  I can see the value of certain kinds of brush and herbs, elderberry, 
bramble fruit, monarda etc to allow self medicating by animals, but for the 
most part this is best kept to edges of fields to allow machine 
operations.  Your observation of some grasses thriving in a wooded mosaic 
makes sense to me.  Species like Elamys virginicus and even common orchard 
grass can tolerate significant shade, and in fact most species can only use 
60%-80% or so of the sunlight that hits them on a given day.  I would guess 
that total grass bio mass production will be lower under the competition of 
trees, though I suppose there may be better total productivity if the tree 
yields a good crop or build soil also.  I'll only add one more thing here, 
the vast majority of land in the US we are most likely to have an impact on 
are in private hands.  Half of that has to pay it's way agriculturally or 
in forestry.  When we try to influence the way this land is treated the 
economics have to work.  There isn't that strong a competitor these days; 
the mainstream farm economy sucks.  But the flip side of this is that most 
farms cannot afford to make radical changes without a significant chance of 
improving their economic yield.  This is a conservative culture in general; 
we need to keep this in mind when we propose changes in practices.   This 
post is a little ramblly, hope I'm being clear.
At 08:04 AM 8/1/02 -0500, you wrote:
>Truly a sad scene.  I believe our collective memory fails us when it comes
>to remembering the scope of deforestation which we have perpetrated on this
>In Texas I am working with progressive "environmentalists" who would remove
>trees in order to replace them with grasslands.  Mainly, because they claim
>that much of Texas was a treeless prairie and should be preserved as such,
>but also because the "death of the prairies" has gone out like a war cry to
>grassland ecologists, and the restoration movement ends up somewhat
>over-eagerly working with many private land owners who would like to see the
>"encroaching" trees removed from their pastures.
>Here's an excerpt for the group from Texas historian, Del Winager, in his
>book, "The Explorer's Texas."  This excerpt addresses the myth that has
>grown up supporting the argument that trees are taking over areas where they
>didn't previously exist and that their removal is essential in restoration
>It's quite long, but a gem of a piece of literature that all restoration
>ecologists should have on hand.
>* * * * *
>The Explorer's Texas
>by Del Winager,
>Eaken Press, San Antonio, TX
>After having gathered all of the eyewitness, immediately-written reports
>generally known to exist and having presented what we believe to be a fair
>cross section of them for the reader's examination, we are unhappily forced
>to make note of what seems to us a modern mythology which has grown up about
>what this region was originally like. This is the idea that juniper and
>other trees have invaded and grown up to obstruct what was originally an
>open, practically treeless Hill Country.
>      We call this a modern myth even though it apparently got started quite
>a while ago. It probably grew naturally out of the shortness of memories and
>the well-documented decline of trees under the assault of the field
>clearers, the fence and cabin builders, the cedar choppers, the charcoal
>burners, shingle makers, etc., which very effectively cleared the bulk of
>the Hill Country in the latter half of the 19th century. Although we have
>not been able to trace the actual originator of this obvious fiction, we
>will see that it was expressed in a forestry publication as early as 1917.
>It got the big boost toward respectability which it needed when none other
>than Benjamin Tharp, the renowned student of Texas flora,wrote passages
>concerning the Hill Country such as the following 1952 example: "Cedars have
>also spread with great rapidity, covering former grasslands with dense
>impenetrable thickets within a matter of thirty to forty years."44
>       Now Tharp's statement may have been perfectly valid concerning 1952
>and the half century or so previous to that, during which cedars did claim
>former open areas, but it was the man-cleared hills of the late 19th century
>which the cedars were reclaiming around the turn of the century. Tharp
>failed to look back beyond that time of the great cutting and burning to the
>original cedar-rich, thickety Hill Country our explorers consistently
>described, therefore failed to comprehend that the cedars were only
>reclaiming what had been theirs from time immemorial, and contributed to the
>unfortunate modern myth that the Hill Country had originally been open
>grassland and the junipers unnatural invaders.
>     With this sort of a start the idea's place in the modem mythology was
>secure, and it began to appear in almost every statement. Not liking to
>single out any one modern account, but finding it necessary to quote one in
>order to present the reader an actual statement the same way we do the
>explorers' so he can choose himself between the two versions, we quote a
>1977 passage. We have chosen this particular statement from many, just as we
>do the explorers' accounts we use, because it is most detailed and graphic,
>and also because it is typical in giving as evidence for its statements
>nothing but a reference to reminiscences - which we have found to be
>      The typical modem myth is well stated as follows: "Standing atop any
>rise west of Austin, one can see an expanse of landscape which is familiar
>to most Central Texans: dark green juniper contrasting with the lighter
>shades of Spanish red oaks, cedar elms and sumacs. These Hill Country
>vistas, especially in late dusty afternoons, seem ancient and unchanging.
>But the dominant plant community is a relatively recent development. Before
>this area was transformed by the effects of man, its original composition
>was grassland or savannah. Large tree species were originally confined to
>canyon draws, river bottoms and other silty areas. The rest of the uplands,
>hillsides and plateaus were covered with annual and dense, lush grasses
>which grew, according to early pioneer reports, 'up to the stirrups on a
>man's horse.' Cedar brakes and brush thickets no one but a goat would
>consider appealing were uncommon until nearly the turn of the century . . .
>J.H. Foster commented in a 1917 forestry bulletin that the old-timers and
>few remaining Indians of his time remembered the Hill Country as an unending
>ocean of grass . . . The complete wooded covering on most hills today in the
>Edwards Plateau is testimony to the very rapid effect man can have on the
>      Read again here, if necessary, the explorers' accounts of the Hill
>Country already set out. Look in them for the "unending ocean of grass"
>without trees and for cedar brakes and brush thickets stated to have been
>uncommon. If you find few trees and thickets in these accounts, then believe
>in what I call the modern myth of the original Hill County without trees. On
>the other hand, if the reports of those who were actually here do not agree
>with the modem party line of few trees originally in the area, then has the
>myth misled us? And why would usually objective minds fall so easily for
>something so contradictory to the actual eyewitness accounts of the original
>       The answer has to be for grass. Everyone wants more grass, and handy
>scapegoats on which to place the blame for the present dearth of grass in
>the Hill Country are the junipers and other bushes - when nobody wants to
>blame the real goats and sheep  which most ranches overstock in such numbers
>that they eat out all the forbs and tall plants, keeping the area "clean."
>      Can we look at the problem objectively and get any idea, from the
>explorers' accounts and our own observations, of the real situation
>concerning grass and trees in the Hill Country?
>      Attempting this, we find that, first, the Hill Country when found was
>truly a sea of grass. We have seen this grass described as 3 or 4 feet tall
>and that it brushed the stirrups of the explorers must have been very true.
>But we also see that, second, the Hill Country was at the same time mostly
>tree covered, with often "miles of brush country" and the slopes mostly
>covered with "stunted live-oaks and cedar"-if the pre-1860 reports are true
>at all. It follows, therefore, that, third, the trees and the grass
>originally grew together and the one did not rule out the other. Remember
>that Olmsted stated unequivocally that "wherever it [soil] exists, grass
>grows, even over the summits of the mountains if they be not bare rocks." He
>did not say, unless there were trees present. The testimony of the explorers
>is that originally the trees and the tall, thin grass which
>  covered all the soil coexisted.
>      This is a heretical idea today, and not surprisingly so when it does
>not seem borne out by present observation. But let us observe carefully and
>we may find still more facts bearing on the discrepancy. And our fourth
>point is that the tall, coarse grass which was once here is, except in a
>very few protected situations, gone from the Hill Country anyway. It was the
>big and little bluestems, the switch grasses and Indiangrass, the wild ryes,
>etc. Can the trees be blamed for this?
>      Fortunately we have an early settler's letter, written in 1860, in
>which the writer mourned the passing of the grasses even then, and gave us a
>clear statement of the cause of their disappearance. The writer was Jack
>Burrowes, an early settler on Onion
>Creek, and he wrote: "I am getting a little afraid the sheep will take the
>mountains in four or five years more, for there is h[e]rds from 500 head to
>5000 passing every five or six weeks going up a little higher than I am, and
>once in a w[h]ile a h[e]rd will stop within three or four miles of us. Sheep
>is mighty hard on the range. You can tell a sheep ranch before you get in
>two or three miles of the house, for they keep the grass eat oflf] plum in
>the ground, and cattle or horses cant get hold of it. And after they are on
>a place six months thair haint no grass within a quarter of the pens. And
>that keeps of[f] other stock."46
>      We propose here as a fifth element in the situation our own conclusion
>that, rather than antagonists opposing the original grasses of the Hill
>Country, the trees were and are still the best promoters and even the
>conservators of the grasses. The only plants of big bluestem I have ever
>been able to my self find in the present Hill Country were all growing in
>the midst of such dense thickets or thorn bushes that even the goats
>couldn't get to them or else in such protected places as old, fenced, but
>long overgrown cemeteries.
>      Even more significant to me are such facts as the following. After much
>searching I finally found a plot of many acres which has apparently never
>been cut over and which, being cut off from the rest of a ranch by a large
>creek and its bluffs, has, in the knowledge of the long-time owners, never
>been grazed by domestic animals for at least 60 years. This plot is mostly
>covered with large juniper trees over 12 inches in trunk diameter and easily
>200 or more years old, with here and there an oak or other tree included.
>These trees are mostly spaced 30 to 50 feet apart, and shade the majority of
>the plot. The soil is good and tall bunch grasses cover almost all of it.
>But what is most important is that by the actual count of my ecology
>classes, which have used this for
>some of their field studies, there are more living grass plants per unit
>area growing under these trees than in any of the open, unshaded spots
>between them. We believe certain grasses actually grow better in the deep
>leaf mould of these trees and in the
>protection they give from the intense southern sun and strong, drying winds
>of this region. If this is true, then cutting these trees would actually
>reduce the grasses and leave only the smaller, more tough ones which can
>take the unprotected situations. And
>introducing domestic animals into the plot would also clear out these
>grasses, leaving the spaces under the trees bare of all but the unpalatable
>forbs and briars, as they usually are in today's grazed Hill Country. We
>cannot tell how well trees and grass can coexist except by looking where no
>domestic animals have been allowed to graze for at least half a century,
>which means our observation of most of the present Hill Country can have no
>relevance to the question.
>     But what about those extremely dense cedar breaks where admittedly
>little if any grass grows under the interlocking boughs? Surely these should
>be cleared so the grass can grow. Ranchers are doing this all the time.
>     We have sought out and studied these too, and all true cedar breaks we
>have gotten into were growing on such steep, rocky slopes or in situations
>where the soil was so shallow that little else could grow there anyway. The
>only soil in these places is the accumulation of the junipers' leaf mould,
>and if these thickets are removed, only for a few short years can any useful
>grasses grow and fool the ranchers. After this the small amounts of soil the
>junipers had painfully cached there over centuries is dried out by the sun
>and wind and eroded away to leave only another bare, rocky ledge with a few
>especially tough and useless ledge dwellers, such as beargrass and sotol,
>upon it. We think that the junipers are not the causes of such barren spots,
>but nature's best agents to clothe such open sores where rocks stick out,
>when nothing else can. If we imagine
>that grass can do it, we are kidding ourselves, and if the party line that
>these hills were oceans of grass with no trees continues to be acted upon by
>clearing, then the hills are truly in trouble.
>      Since those advancing this idea are using reminiscences for their
>evidence, we must deal with that a little more. These memories cited come
>mostly from around the turn of the century. We have seen that vast areas
>must have been practically denuded then, and this may be what is most
>remembered in-stead of the earlier, original growth. We therefore wish to
>end this section by pitting an earlier reminiscence against those.
>      We present a passage which we would not ordinarily use because it is a
>reminiscence and comes from a time slightly after our cut-off date. It is a
>statement written about 1875, and it speaks about the Hill Country not only
>at the close of the exploratory period but in the interval between 1860 and
>the time of the usual reminiscences.
>      If any choose to cite reminiscences to prove what the Hill Country was
>originally like, they must deal with the statement of C. Hugo Claus, which
>is as follows: "It was in 1855 when I first came to the Cibolo Valley.
>Boerne, which at that time consisted only of a few huts, had just been
>surveyed . . .At that distant time, the country surrounding Boerne retained
>the natural beauty of its virgin wilderness, civilization had scarcely
>touched its forests and the red sons of the prairies roamed the valley at
>will . . . The valley is bordered on the north by a chain of hills, whose
>highest peaks bear the well known storied names of Malakoff and Redan.
>Ichristened these mountains by their names while I and other hunting
>companions traversed the hills and marveled at the spendor of the valley. On
>the opposite side of the mountain chain towards the north flows the
>Guadalupe River, a beautiful river, fish laden, shaded with giant cypresses
>which now [remember, this was about 1875] unfortunately have mostly
>disappeared. Eastward and southward the valley is enclosed by lesser hills
>whose side valleys are utilized for cattle and sheep raising. Toward the
>west the steep belt of hills continues in which clefts the Cibolo Creek
>springs and other creeks which empty into the Cibolo . . . The mountains are
>cedar bedeckt, the valleys contain delightful prairies with occasional
>groves of trees of ten or twelve varieties of oaks. The whole valley
>resembles a park, whose diversity and variety cannot be easily duplicated
>elsewhere. Cactus, yucca, and Mimosa give the valley a subtropical
>appearance especially notable during the spring when the snow white blossoms
>of the Yucca lighten the valley. The banks of the streams or bottoms contain
>poplars, mulberries, walnuts and pecans, also acorns. Boeme twenty years ago
>and today [1875] are frankly vastly different. . ."47
>permaculture mailing list
>permaculture at lists.ibiblio.org

Mark P. Ludwig
Poultry Research Lab
University of Wisconsin -Madison
608-262-1730 WK
608-846-7125 HM

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