SELIGMAN, Mo. — Sharon and Dale Becker sit at a picnic table overlooking the Mark Twain National Forest, pouring over two large maps that show the location of a proposed and controversial U.S. Forest Service project — one they are adamantly against.

Late last year, the couple learned that the Forest Service has proposed returning 18,000 acres in the forest's Cassville unit to pre-settlement conditions, a time when the forest was much more open and trees were spaced much farther apart, thinned by occasional fires, compared with the denser stands of timber in the area today.

To that end, the federal agency responsible for the 1.5 million-acre Mark Twain National Forest is proposing thinning the number of trees in an area known as Butler Hollow, removing invasive cedars and restoring glades and savannahs. The plan includes riparian plantings, prescribed burns, some for-profit timber sales as well as a technique called cut and leave.

The area is bounded on the north by Roaring River State Park and on the south by the Missouri-Arkansas state line, to the west by Seligman, and to the east by Missouri Highway 86 near Eagle Rock.

For nearly four decades, the Beckers have lived on 40 acres that abut the western edge of the proposed project.

“How do you improve the health of a forest by destroying 73 percent of it?” Dale Becker asks. “It needs no management, no manipulation. It just needs to be left alone.”

To that end, Sharon, 79, and Dale, 67, have helped spearhead a campaign against the project.

“We call ourselves the voice of the forest,” Sharon said. “The forest can't speak for itself.”

'Save the Mark Twain'

Signs, with a Pileated woodpecker as a mascot, dot roadsides and yards in the area. They say "Save the Mark Twain." Residents wear T-shirts with that slogan and a Facebook page provides updates.

“This has consumed us,” said Sharon Becker. “From the moment we get up to the moment we go to bed.”

Her husband, a retired biologist with the state of Wisconsin, worked with his father, George Becker — a biologist and member of the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame — on the “Fishes of Wisconsin,” considered a seminal reference of the state's fish species and the environmental challenges they face. She has for decades read field guides, familiarized herself with ecosystems and advocated for environmental causes.

“We have spent our 37 years here studying and living in this forest,” Sharon Becker said. “We are both conservationists, and we believe in letting Mother Nature take her course.”

Cedars, she said, prevent erosion, reduce flooding, “and in wintertime are the only thing capturing carbon emissions and giving back oxygen when all the deciduous trees are dormant.”

They also worry that smoke from prescribed burns will negatively impact air quality and thus area residents with health conditions who might live downwind and tourists camping or canoeing in the area. Some of the critics of the plan also have argued that the proposal to thin the forest by cutting timber is nothing more than a scheme to generate revenue for the federal agency.

“For me, it's like the death of a family member. I can't believe that they will spend money and time to take trees away,” Sharon Becker said. “Every day I drive this road, I look at it as if it's the last time I'll see it.”

Residents of the area joined with the Beckers in such opposition that the Forest Service announced in May it was postponing the project.

“It's not a democracy if one man can decide the fate of thousands of animals and plants, and all of the people who call this area home,” Dale Becker said.

Endorsing the project

But this is not a controversy that pits conservationists and environmentalists against public land managers. In fact, the project has the backing of several national groups including the Nature Conservancy, the American Bird Conservancy and the National Wild Turkey Federation.

Those three groups issued a joint position statement endorsing the project, which said the plan “employs science and sound conservation practices to provide direct benefits to people and nature.” Benefits, according to the advocates, would be a healthier forest ecosystem as well as timber to help support the local economy, and improved recreational opportunities.

“We are concerned that some recent criticism of the project is based on an assumption that the area was dense forest. Data show that the area was originally a far more diverse complex of woodlands and glades,” the statement reads.

Doug Ladd, director of conservation for the Nature Conservancy's Missouri program, has 30 years experience in the field “trying to figure out what makes our natural systems tick and how to sustain them,” he said.

A 1993 Nature Conservancy study of Butler Hollow's ecological significance found it was biologically rich with “a very interesting glade community and a very interesting woodland environment,” he said.

“But it also found, as is true throughout most of Missouri, that it was once a much more open woodland and impacts since European settlement have caused it to be overgrown,” he said.

Ladd cited cedars, a native tree originally rare and confined to rocky areas and bluffs, as a threat.

“They've proliferated because we've create opportunities for conditions they flourish under,” he said. “But when they spread, there is sharply decreased diversity.”

He described the proposal as “very ecologically appropriate and will benefit the resources, the wildlife habitat and eventually the scenery.”

“The first few years, it won't look great, but it ultimately will, and we will get back several hundred species of native plants that will provide food for wildlife, and so on,” he said.

Jane Fitzgerald, a professional bird ecologist for 20 years who represents the American Bird Conservancy, also endorses the Butler Hollow plan.

“I think it's really good and healthy for the ecosystem,” she said. “These glade and woodland systems evolved with fire. There's a body of evidence with good science that shows this. The idea that fire is bad is a result of the Smokey Bear campaign, but in these glade systems especially, if you don't have fire, there is a big encroachment of cedar trees.

“Thickets crowd out the biodiversity. From a wildlife perspective, they're not any good,” she said.

She also said there are bird species of continental, rangewide concern that show “pretty steep and dramatic decline for many years, primarily because of a loss of appropriate habitat,” that would benefit from opening up the forest — in particular, the prairie warbler and the blue-winged warbler.

Planning

District Ranger Joe Koloski, the project's point person for the U.S. Forest Service, said planning for the project has been in motion for several years. During that time, he and his staff have taken an inventory of the vegetation and other resources in the forest.

Their plan for management would return the forest to its pre-settlement roots, he said — a time when trees weren't so dense and sunlight could reach the ground. Such an environment would allow a richer tapestry of flowers, grasses and forbs.

Koloski also disputes claims from the opposition that he hasn't ever been in that part of the forest.

“I've been on the ground there, my staff has been on the ground there, in an effort to inventory, and based on that inventory, one of my staff members developed prescriptions for those stands and what they needed,” he said.

Oak woodland restorations have been occurring for many years in Missouri and Arkansas, he noted, including in the Houston District of the Mark Twain that he said was “very successful.”

In the Ava Unit, he cited McClurg Glade, restored more than 20 years ago and actively managed since, and the recently completed restoration along Glade Top Trail near Ava, as two success stories.

Disagreement

But JoNell Corn says to return the forest to pre-settlement conditions is “not a proven science." Corn has lived in Butler Hollow for 38 years, following in the footsteps of her ancestors, who put down roots here in the 1850s.

“I have visited areas with my grandparents where their grandparents walked, worked, lived, died,” she said. “I wanted to pass this on to my grandchildren.”

Her reaction to the plan is that it is destroying her family heritage and legacy.

“I can take my grandchildren to other forest areas, but it will not be the same. They need to be able to walk the same areas, hunt the same fields, and enjoy the beauty and peace of Butler Hollow,” she said.

She does agree with harvesting mature trees for use as timber, but said cutting and leaving trees, and prescribed burns, would destroy the potential for timber sales and result in the loss of tourism dollars.

Corn organized a public meeting earlier this year to encourage comments. Opponents faulted the U.S. Forest Service for only allowing 30 days to comment on a 15- to 20-year project, and for publishing a legal notice in the Springfield News-Leader, but not the local papers.

Should the new project begin, she hopes no chemicals will be used, no timber will be wasted, no prescribed burns will take place in the hardwood areas, and that cedars be only thinned.

“I have spent hours visiting other project areas and have had people express to me that they are not concerned with what it looked like before settlers came, they just wish it would look like it did before the USFS started cutting and burning,” she said.

Missouri's U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt is another skeptic. During an Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies hearing this spring, he questioned U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell about plans for the Mark Twain National Forest.

“I don't want to spend our time and effort here in doing things that won't work,” said Blunt in the hearing, which was documented by video and can be seen online. “In theory with some of these burns, you're trying to restore a landscape from a couple hundred years ago. Surely it's worth a little time to see the science to whether that's even possible or not and I'm just asking you to work harder with us.”

Koloski said he has received “considerable public comment,” and as a result is “still a ways away from making a decision.”

Based on public concerns, he said he is working to develop additional alternatives. He anticipates next month meeting with residents to outline the alternatives. In general, those alternatives will include looking at not using herbicides, a reduction of the scope and scale of the project, and the visual impact on scenery and landscape.

National forest

The Mark Twain National Forest was created in 1976 from both the earlier Clark National Forest and the Mark Twain National Forest — both being proclaimed on Sept. 11, 1939. Those two forests were authorized during the Great Depression after decades of logging and poor land management practices.

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©2015 The Joplin Globe (Joplin, Mo.)

Visit The Joplin Globe (Joplin, Mo.) at www.joplinglobe.com

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