By Charlie Rahm
Walking along the forest trail on Steve Shaw’s Ozark County, Mo., property, it’s not easy to spot the gentle, broad-based dips constructed to protect the trail from stormwater rushing down the hill. But Shaw and the conservationists who were instrumental in installing the dips say it would be obvious if the erosion-control measures were not there.
Bob Cunningham, a certified forester who wrote a forest management plan for Shaw, recommended the broad-based dips instead of more commonly used water bars. The reason, Cunningham says, is because the narrower and higher water bars constructed across trails break down as landowners drive trucks or ATVs over them. The dips hold up better. They resemble small, broad-based terraces and are seeded with a mixture of plants such as orchardgrass, timothy, clover and peas.
What Shaw, Cunningham and April Wilson, a resource conservationist with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, didn’t know was how well the 14 dips constructed last fall on about 1,600 feet of trail would hold up to a storm like the one that dumped 17 inches of rain during one weekend in May.
“When I came up here [after the rain], I was expecting the worst,” Shaw says. “What typically would have happened was there would have been big ruts up and down the hill. I was shocked at how well these held up.”
Cunningham agrees. “With that amount of rain on this kind of soil, water bars would have [washed away] immediately,” he says.
Wilson says many of the trails in the Ozark forests were used as logging roads. With little or no vegetation, they are highly erosive. That’s why NRCS has a “forest trails and landings” practice that provides technical and financial assistance to landowners to correct the resource concern.
Shaw says he was hesitant at first to apply for assistance.
“Every landowner is always concerned about getting the government involved,” he says. “April assured me that [NRCS] was there to help, and that people wouldn’t be walking around on my land without me knowing about it. A long-range plan for my property was what I needed, but I needed to have confidence that it would still be my land. It has been a good experience. We’ve got good, local people helping us.”
Finding forest acreage
Wilson says that in addition to the 14 broad-based dips, Shaw has completed forest stand improvement on 8.4 acres, with another 15.2 acres of improvement planned over the next few years. Forest stand improvement involves removing unwanted trees from an area to improve the growing conditions for the remaining trees by reducing competition for sunlight, water and nutrients.
“We have far more successful contracts if we start with small stands,” Wilson says. “That allows landowners to understand how we work with them, and it makes them more comfortable.”
The completed work and future work is all part of the forest management plan developed by Cunningham, who works as a private technical service provider funded by NRCS.
Technical service providers and NRCS staff work with landowners to help them solve natural resource problems on their property in ways that fit the landowners’ land-use goals. In Shaw’s case, he wanted to prevent erosion on his trails and to be able to drive through the woods.
Something that held up to a 17-inch rain was an unexpected benefit.
Rahm is a public affairs officer for USDA NRCS in Columbia, Mo.