Sunday, December 31, 2023

Our Woodlands Need Our Help

a finished section 

I am embarking on the fifth year of my woodland restoration project. My house sits on a bit over 10 acres, about three of them lawn and ornamental gardens. The remaining seven acres is woodland, and much of the woodland is part of the “resource protected area,” RPA, of the Chesapeake Bay. 

When we first moved here we did not worry about dead trees, as it was all part of the natural process of renewal. A healthy forest has living trees functioning as part of a balanced and self replacing ecosystem that is a complex mix of trees, understory shrubs and groundcover. In a healthy woodland the process of natural succession occurs over time. Small saplings develop and will become the next generation of trees as the older ones die out. Benign neglect had been my rule for managing the RPA that protects the stream.  

However, about a decade ago, I noticed that something had gone seriously wrong with the forest. The woodland was being destroyed by invasive insects, invasive vines and an explosion of deer and wildlife consuming the native understory. Though I have seen them munch the kibble we put out for the cats dumped in our woods, deer prefer to eat native plants. They devour the saplings of the native  trees, but pretty much leave the autumn olive and other invasives alone. When a gap appears in the canopy, there aren’t young trees in the understory waiting for their chance to grow in the sun, but rather, invasive vines and shrubs waiting to take over the landscape.

The woodlands are necessary for a functioning ecology. RPA’s in the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act are vegetated areas along water bodies, such as lakes, streams, rivers, marshes or shoreline. RPAs are the last line of defense for the protection of water quality. These buffers stabilize shorelines and stream banks, filter pollutants, reduce the volume of stormwater runoff and provide critical habitat for aquatic species and wildlife. Trees and shrubs in riparian buffers reduce erosion, improve air quality, and provide shade in the summer, windbreaks in the winter and even store carbon.

About a decade ago the number of dead and dying trees had increased dramatically due to the emerald ash borer and it became obvious that the invasive vines, autumn olive and Japanese honeysuckle were choking out the natural renewal process. So, with guidance from the Forest Service and the Chesapeake Bay Act guidelines I began a project to restore my woodlands.   

First I called the  Virginia Department of Forestry to ask for advice. I did not know at the time that Prince William County had its very own forester. An Urban and Community Forestry Specialist from the Virginia Department of Forestry came out and inspected the woodland and made some recommendations.  He felt that with removal of the invasive vines and the hanging dead trees the wood might begin to renew itself. He put his recommendations in a report for me to submit to Clay Morris, Natural Resources Section Chief, Environmental Services Division of Prince William County Public Works to approve the work in the the RPA. Though the RPA covers just 2/3 of the woodland, I am treating all the wooded area in the same way. My proposal to Prince William County was strictly by the book in what is allowed in an RPA.   

It is slow work and expensive. Every winter a small crew hand cuts the invasive vines and then comes back in the spring to paint the cut stems of the invasive vines with herbicide. We are now in the fifth winter of my RPA and forest restoration process and are really beginning to see progress. I use "we" very loosely, Wetland Studies and Solutions is doing all of the actual labor, my husband and I are simply paying them and directing the sections to be done.  Here are a few pictures of the progress. 

This first picture is a section of the woodland before work began to remove invasive vines and plants in this area two years ago. It shows the trees covered in invasive vines. The vines were killing what life remained. We began by cutting the largest sections down with a chainsaw.


 2 years ago before work to remove invasives

In this second picture two years later it shows almost the same view after two years of work cutting out sections of invasive vines, extinguishing them with herbicide so they will not reattach to the base, removing some sections and letting vines dies and fall from the trees. Much of the cut wood was moved to make a pathway a section of which is seen above. 

This picture gives you a view of a section where the vines were cut and left to wither and die. Excessive amounts of cut vines and old barbed wire were removed. 

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