This story also appears in our University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Agricultural Research Center Magazine. Stop by your local Research Center to pick up a copy! You can view the magazine online by clicking here: Road to Discovery.
For the past 50 years, the Baskett Research Center has worked to see how its forests have changed through a large-scale forest inventory study. The first data collection took place in 1968 and included 75 plots.
Four more data collections have taken place since the project began.
“The study was started to see how different environmental conditions affect the forest,” said Superintendent Ben Knapp. “There are a number of things that we have tracked through the years. These long-term monitoring studies inform us of what happens in forests through time to improve management decisions and better understand trends of forest succession.”
The original study took a standard approach to measuring forests using a fixed-area plot. Basically, a large circle was drawn around 75 different locations in the Baskett Research Center forest. Every tree within each of the circles has been measured and studied. That means there could be a variety of timber species in a plot or possibly just one species.
The plots haven’t had any management, either.
“Each plot contains what it contains,” Knapp said. “The goal was to have the study be indicative of what a forest goes through in its natural state. We can then look at management decisions that could benefit the forest.”
After the initial sampling took place, four more followed, in 1982, 1992, 2004 and 2016. Knapp led the charge for the most recent sampling.
“We were able to precisely re-locate 53 of the 75 original plots, which is pretty impressive considering how big and diverse the Baskett Research Center is,” Knapp said.
Monitoring the physical conditions, environmental conditions and history of the forest are three of the biggest objectives of the project.
“The forest is always changing – it’s something that you can’t avoid,” Knapp said. “Understanding the changes that occur without forest management gives you a better idea of how our management practices can improve the health of the forest. So, from a management standpoint, how can we influence the way that the forest changes? That’s one reason why this study is so important.”
Measurements within the study include leaf decomposition, species composition, growth, productivity and nutrient cycling, among many others. Knapp added a new wrinkle during the sampling in 2016 – he tagged each individual tree in each plot.
“In 1992, a few of the individual trees were tracked,” Knapp said. “We thought that by tagging each tree we would be able to get the best picture of what’s happening.”
Knapp said the plots could be broken into four forest types – upland oak, mixed mesic hardwood, bottomland and glade.
“These four are really prevalent within the study,” Knapp said. “We continued to use those classifications as the project has progressed.”
There have been a number of papers published about the study. Knapp even has a couple more in the works.
“Through time, people have published on stand dynamics and forest changes, as well as the trends that happen in the forest,” Knapp said.
The study has shown some interesting trends for the oaks and sugar maples in the area. The soil and climate of Missouri tend to favor oaks, Knapp said. Mid-Missouri is the western edge of the sugar maple range, part of the mesic hardwood forest type. The original study in 1968 mentioned that sugar maples were becoming more prevalent in the Baskett Research Center. They projected that some of the stand could become sugar maple stands in the future.
“We still see sugar maples that come in,” Knapp said. “They do pretty well on certain sites at the Center. While they don’t all reach massive heights, we are certainly seeing more sugar maple in the stands.”
Oak trees are an important economic driver for Missouri. In much of the state, oak tree regeneration is common, but areas that have more sugar maples have difficulty regenerating oaks. The Baskett Research Center has both conditions, so it is a good place to study.
“Understanding oak regeneration is a common forest management challenge,” Knapp said. “That’s important, as oaks are used for a lot of products, such as whiskey and wine barrels. The timber value is high. Oaks also serve as wildlife habitat. Their acorns are an important food source. There is cultural value to oaks as well. It’s an important tree for Missouri.”
Knapp said the data points have shown stable tree numbers and larger trees.
“We’re moving forward and the trees are getting bigger,” Knapp said. “Both are great signs.”
Knapp said the Baskett Research Center is continuing to branch out its research efforts with the original study as a guide. They are looking at how wildlife can affect the forest, as well as how the different timber species interact.
“We plan to keep this study going,” Knapp said. “We’re using the same rules and letting it run. This work serves as a nice contrast to the areas of the forest that we have managed.”