- Associated Press - Monday, June 16, 2014

CROSS RANCH PRESERVE, N.D. (AP) - Along a secluded historic flood plain on the west bank of Missouri River, humans are trying to do something Mother Nature has not been able to do for the past 60 years.

Since the Garrison Dam was built, holding back the waters of the Missouri, cottonwood forests which once dominated the shores have been in decline.

A cooperative effort among several agencies is hoping to restore the cottonwoods and other native tree and shrub species along what is the only free-flowing stretch of the river in North Dakota.

Eric Rosenquist of The Nature Conservancy said the genesis of the project to plant more than 3,000 trees and shrubs began a few years ago.

President Barack Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative was implemented to advance local conservation priorities, expand access to lands and waters for recreation, restore critical landscape, and create urban parks and water trails in America.

Rosenquist said The Nature Conservancy, which purchased the area in 1982, has partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the North Dakota Forest Service, the North Dakota Natural Resource Trust, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the National Wild Turkey Federation and the Dakota Chapter of Pheasants Forever on the plantings, The Bismarck Tribune reported (https://bit.ly/1jfARIK ).

A nine-member AmeriCorps crew has been on site this spring to help plant the trees and install protective tubes and nettings on the saplings.

Rosenquist said cottonwoods rely on historic spring flooding which took place before the time of dams to distributed their seeds and reproduce naturally.

“Every survey we’ve done on the understory has shown zero cottonwood regrowth,” Rosenquist said.

The understory, or plant life that grows beneath the forest canopy, instead has been dominated by green ash trees.

Rosenquist said that is a concern primarily because of the potential for emerald ash borers, an exotic beetle that has killed millions of trees in the U.S.

With the help of funding through the various groups, more than 32,000 linear feet of plantings have taken place this spring.

Tree species include cottonwood, ash burr oak and box elder and shrub species include false indigo, chokecherry, buffalo berry, American plum and dogwood.

Chad Maier, a private lands biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said it’s hoped the lessons learned in the reforestation program will benefit other landowners seeking to re-establish forested areas on their lands.

“There has been very little forest restoration on this 80-mile stretch of the river,” he said. Maier said roughly 2 percent of all riparian areas in North Dakota are forested.

Scott McLeod, state coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife partners for fish and wildlife program, said it may take up to five years before the success - or lack of success - is ultimately known.

He said working with other agencies like the NRCS, the goal is understand which species of trees and shrubs will do well in a reforestation project like this one.

McLeod said the NRCS has been working on test plots in the area for the past few years to determine which species are best suited.

One of the primary obstacles in the success of the plants will be the ability to keep deer from browsing the new plantings down to nothing.

That, and the sandy nature of the soil. The AmeriCorps crew has been involved in the plantings as well as laying down fabric around the roots and installing tubes and netting to keep the deer at bay.

Julia Valdivia, crew leader, said her team also is trained as a fire crew to help with prescribed burns.

But the Missouri River project is a first. “It’s really cool and unique,” she said. “I don’t think it is something you will see again on this scale.”

Rosenquist said the test plots have utilized a variety of planting techniques with the various species interspersed and fixed intervals.

“We know we’re not going to get a pure stand of cottonwoods,” he said.

“It is our hope that we can learn from this work to export techniques and other lessons learned so other private landowners can re-forest areas of their property,” he said.

Rosenquist said a probable loss of 10 percent of the planting in the first year is likely. But if successful, it will help maintain the diversity that is crucial to the animals and plants that now inhabit the area.

Rosenquist said along with partners like Pheasants Forever and the Wild Turkey Federation, that diversity will benefit not only wildlife, but the public which uses the area for hunting, hiking, birding and other uses.

“It’s a good example of a great partnership,” Maier said.

Rosenquist said in addition to the other agencies, there is a core group of local people who hunt the area that are lending a hand with the project.

“We have a lot of different people taking ownership of this,” he said.


Information from: Bismarck Tribune, https://www.bismarcktribune.com

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