by Shelly Morris, Western Kentucky Project Director
Earlier this month, The Nature Conservancy and our partner, the Natural Conservation Resources Service (NRCS), convened a meeting to discuss the management of forests that have been protected through the USDA Wetland Reserve Easement Program. Since 1996, the program has been used with great success in Kentucky to safeguard more than 35,000 acres through voluntary conservation easement agreements with landowners.
It works like this. When the NRCS secures a conservation easement through this program, the landowner retains ownership of the land but NRCS retains a majority of the management rights, including the right to convert crop fields back to the native bottomland hardwood forest that once characterized this landscape.
While the main objective of this program has long been to enroll as many acres as possible—a very justifiable goal—few resources have been devoted to actively managing these lands. As a result, there are now thousands of acres of mature forest and young reforested acres enrolled in the program. This meeting served as a way of taking a hard look at how these areas could be managed for the highest benefit to wildlife.
There are a couple schools of thought when it comes to properties enrolled in the program—most reforested with native oak, hickory and pecan at a quantity of 436 to the acre. These hard mast species are very important food sources for a variety of wildlife species. (Soft mast species such as maple, cottonwood and sycamore are not planted because we know they will come in as volunteers.)
One approach is to plant the trees and walk away and allow an area to naturally become a diverse, fully functioning bottomland hardwood forest a hundred years from now. Another line of thinking suggests helping nature along with active management in order to reach a desirable end point sooner rather than later. For example, actions such as thinning trees can prevent volunteers and non-native vegetation from out competing planted hard mast species preferred by wildlife and key to a healthy forest.
While we have focused more on enrolling acres in Kentucky, our counterparts in Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas have engaged in active forest management on easements for a while now. It was helpful to have representatives from these states at this meeting to talk about success stories that might be replicated in Kentucky. We also had participants from Kentucky’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and Division of Forestry, University of Tennessee Extension, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and colleagues from Tennessee, who have shown interest in collaborating on a joint wetland restoration and management project.
Not only was this meeting a success, it was energizing. In addition to fostering valuable discussion about forest management, it served as a great opportunity for strengthening partnerships. And, since then, we have hit the ground running with a database that highlights management needs on existing easements. That helps us to prioritize limited human and financial resources so that we can start to take action very soon!
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