A Call for a Biodiversity Conservation Plan for Oak Mountain State Park, Alabama

 

 

 

Prepared for

 

Alabama State Parks

and the

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

 

 

 

 

Prepared by

 

Friends of Oak Mountain

 

Authored by Dr. R. Scot Duncan1, Henry Hughes2 and Gregory J. Harber3

Edited by and Ann Batum and James Lowery

 

 

 

June  2004

 

 


Contact Information

 

President, Friends of Oak Mountain:

Mr. Scott Stone

Work:

President and Chief Operating Officer

Nelbran Glass

2924 3rd Avenue South

Birmingham, AL 35233

O: 205-328-2172

C: 205-616-4903

Fax: 205-322.3790

Home:   

89 Hawthorn Street

Birmingham, AL 35242

 

Report Authors

 

Primary Author:

Dr. R. Scot Duncan

Assistant Professor of Biology

Birmingham-Southern College

900 Arkadelphia Rd.

Birmingham, AL 35254

email: sduncan@bsc.edu

phone (W): 205-226-4777

 

Secondary Authors:

Mr. Greg Harber

2906 Highland Avenue South #5

Birmingham, AL 35205-1911

(205) 251-2133

email: gharber@mindspring.com

Group affiliation: Birmingham Audubon Society, Past President

 

Mr. Henry Hughes

357 Lucerne Blvd

Homewood, AL 35209

(205) 871-6473

email: henrysvf@earthlink.net

Group affiliation: Friends of Shades Creek, Executive Director

 

Chief Editor

Ann Batum

231 Star Trek Drive

Pelham, AL 35124

(205) 991-7729

email: abatum@earthlink.net

Group affiliation: Oak Mountain Neighbors


 

A Call for a Biodiversity Conservation Plan for Oak Mountain State Park, Alabama

 

Executive Summary

 

Alabama is a state that is rich with biodiversity.  We rank 5th among states in the Union for total number of species, and 1st among states east of the Mississippi River.  Unfortunately, we are at risk of losing much of this natural heritage.  We rank 2nd in the nation for the number of extinct species, and 15% of our species are at risk of extinction.  To arrest this trend of biodiversity loss, we must be active in the protection of our ecosystems and native species.  Friends of Oak Mountain (FOM) believes the Alabama State Parks system can play a critical role in this endeavor.

 

Oak Mountain State Park (OMSP) is one of Alabama’s most important natural treasures. The park contains several natural ecosystems and hundreds of plant and animal species, many of which have been eradicated throughout much of the region.  Thus, OMSP has become an important refuge for biodiversity conservation in Alabama.  However, the park is located in the fastest growing county in Alabama.  Two outcomes of the rapid population growth in Shelby County are affecting biodiversity in the park.  First, the number of park visitors and the diversity of recreation in the park is increasing.  Second, the largely forested landscape surrounding the park is becoming urbanized.  The growing use of the park and the increased pressures from the park’s surroundings will have many impacts on the park’s ecosystems and species. 

 

Friends of Oak Mountain wants to ensure that the park take determined measures to ensure that the needs of  the park’s biodiversity are met.  To achieve this, FOM is calling for the creation of a Biodiversity Conservation Plan (BCP) for Oak Mountain State Park.  As envisioned by FOM, the plan would specifically address how to manage park resources to ensure the long-term survival of its natural ecosystems and native species. This plan should clearly articulate the needs of biodiversity and recreation in the park.  It should also outline ways in which plans for biodiversity conservation and recreational development can be flexible and compatible.  In this document, we explain how such a BCP would function and how it might be developed.  In addition, details are provided of FOM’s position on specific biodiversity management concerns facing Oak Mountain State Park.

 

Friends of Oak Mountain requests that Alabama State Parks and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) commit to and initiate the development of a Biodiversity Conservation Plan for the park.  We believe the careful planning that will result from this process is necessary to ensure the long-term preservation of the park’s natural beauty and rich biodiversity.  If successful, such a venture may serve as a model for other state parks in Alabama, and, potentially, for other state park systems in the United States.  Such a commitment could help Alabama become a leader in biodiversity stewardship, a status that would be well-deserved for a state so rich in natural heritage.


Table of Contents:

 

Contact Information............................................................................................................................. 2

Executive Summary.............................................................................................................................. 3

Table of Contents................................................................................................................................ 4

1.  Introduction.................................................................................................................................... 5

2.  Structure and Development of a Successful Biodiversity Conservation Plan...................................... 6

2.a.  A Mission Statement Prioritizing Biodiversity Conservation........................................................ 6

2.b.  Characteristics of a Successful Biodiversity Conservation Plan.................................................. 7

2.c.  Commitment to Principles of Conservation................................................................................ 8

2.c.i.      Biodiversity Conservation as a High Priority.................................................................... 8

2.c.ii.     Favoring Native Species of Conservation Concern.......................................................... 8

2.c.iii.    Need for Active Management......................................................................................... 9

2.c.iv.    Management Across Varying Time Scales....................................................................... 9

2.c.v.     Site-specific Management............................................................................................... 9

2.c.vi.    Reduce Fragmentation of Natural Ecosystems............................................................... 10

2.c.vii.   Minimizing External Threats........................................................................................... 10

2.c.viii.  Maximizing External Benefits......................................................................................... 10

3.  Proposed Process for Developing a Biodiversity Conservation Plan............................................... 10

3.a.  Inception................................................................................................................................ 11

3.b.  Authorship............................................................................................................................. 11

3.c.  Timeframe.............................................................................................................................. 11

3.d.  Review, Comment, Revision, and Final Approval.................................................................... 11

4.  FOM’s Position on Specific Management Activities in Oak Mountain State Park........................... 12

4.a.  Deer Management and Deer Habitat Management.................................................................. 12

4.b.  Prescribed Burns................................................................................................................... 12

4.c.  Mechanical Removal and Felling of Vegetation........................................................................ 12

4.c.i.      Clearcut Logging.......................................................................................................... 13

4.c.ii.     Removal of Exotic Invasive Plants................................................................................. 14

4.c.iii.    Fuel Reduction.............................................................................................................. 14

4.c.iv.    Forest Restoration Efforts............................................................................................. 15

4.c.v.     Creating Wildlife Viewing Areas................................................................................... 15

4.c.vi.    Safety Concerns........................................................................................................... 16

4.c.vii.   Pest or Disease Outbreak............................................................................................. 16

4.c.viii.  Salvage Logging after Windstorm.................................................................................. 17

4.d.  Survey of Park Boundary....................................................................................................... 17

4.e.  Creation of a Forest Demonstration Area................................................................................ 17

5.  Biographical Information about the Authors................................................................................... 18

6.  References.................................................................................................................................... 18

Figure 1.  Information Flow In a Functioning Biodiversity Conservation Plan........................................ 19

 

 


1.  Introduction:

 

Alabama is a state that is rich with biodiversity.  In terms of the total number of native species within our borders, we rank 5th among all states in the Union, and 1st among states east of the Mississippi River (Stein 2002).  Our biodiversity is a cornerstone of our state's rich natural heritage, a fact increasingly appreciated by Alabama's citizens.  Many of the guests to Alabama's state parks visit specifically to enjoy the biodiversity protected by the parks.  Unfortunately, we are at risk of losing our state's natural heritage.  Within the United States, Alabama ranks 2nd for the number of extinct species, and 15% of all native species in the state are at risk of extinction (Stein 2002).  To protect our natural heritage and arrest the trend of species loss, we need to provide the natural resources needed for our ecosystems and their species.  The Alabama State Parks system can play a critical role in this endeavor.

 

Friends of Oak Mountain (FOM) believes that Oak Mountain State Park (OMSP) is a key player in protecting the state's natural heritage.  Rich with biodiversity, the park contains many natural ecosystems and hundreds of plant and animal species.  Thus, the park is, and increasingly will be, a vitally important refuge for species that once were widespread in north-central Alabama but have been eradicated throughout most of their former extent in the region.  For example, OMSP contains expanses of mountain longleaf pine forests, an endangered ecosystem that has become the focus of regional conservation efforts (e.g., the new Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge near Anniston).  By providing refuge for biodiversity, OMSP could become a critically important participant in conservation in Alabama.  In addition, due to its central location, OMSP provides an important link between two other important refuges for biodiversity in the state - the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge to the west, and the Talladega National Forest to the east.  However, for the park to continue to provide refuge for native ecosystems and their species, it is important that park managers actively address two key issues: a) how biodiversity protection interacts with other management priorities in the park, and b) how the welfare of the park's ecosystems and native species are being affected by the urbanization of the landscape surrounding the park.

 

Providing outdoor recreational opportunities is one of the most important management priorities for the park. Thousands of visitors enjoy the park's vast network of hiking, biking, and horse-back riding trails; fishing and swimming in the lakes; camping; golfing; and picnic facilities.  The revenue generated from these visitors is critically important to supporting OMSP and other components of Alabama State Parks.  Clearly, recreational use of the park needs to remain a top priority for park management and development in the coming century.  Current levels and types of recreational activities in the park appear to be compatible with maintaining the park's biodiversity.  However, as recreational use of the park grows and matures, it is critical that the needs of recreation are carefully balanced with the needs of the park's native species and their ecosystems. 

 

In addition, both the needs of biodiversity and recreation in the park need to be managed in light of the rapid degree of urbanization in the areas immediately surrounding the park.  OMSP is within one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the south.  Shelby County, within which OMSP is situated, was the fastest growing county in Alabama during the 1990s.  Lands adjacent to the park are rapidly being converted from forest into suburban and urban sprawl.  These developments threaten the quality of the recreational enjoyment of the park (e.g., increased air, noise, and water pollution) and the health of the park's ecosystems and native species.  This rapid population growth will also lead to more park visitors and recreational demands on the park.

 

In light of these changes, we need to carefully consider and plan for the long-term survival of the park's ecosystems and native species.  To protect the park's biodiversity, it will be increasingly important to coordinate the management of the park's biodiversity with the various other management priorities within the park, and to plan how management should respond to changes in the landscape surrounding the park. FOM believes that this is a crucial time to address these diverse issues. FOM believes that an important starting point in this process would be for DCNR and State Parks to adopt a mission statement for OMSP that includes biodiversity conservation and recreation as equally important priorities for park management.  In a separate, but related, proposal FOM strongly urges the development of a Biodiversity Conservation Plan (BCP) for the park that specifically addresses how to manage park resources to ensure the survival of the park's natural ecosystems and native species.  In this document, we explain our vision of how such a mission statement might read, how a BCP would be structured and how it would function, how a BCP might be developed, and FOM’s position on specific management activities in Oak Mountain State Park.

 

2.  Structure and Development of a Successful Biodiversity Conservation Plan

 

2.a.  A Mission Statement Prioritizing Biodiversity Conservation:

 

To clarify the role biodiversity conservation should play in park stewardship, a mission statement is needed to define the management goals for the park.  FOM believes that it is critical to the preservation of biodiversity in the park for this mission statement to place equally important priority on biodiversity and recreation in the park. This will provide guidance for balancing between different and occasionally competing demands on the park’s natural and financial resources.  FOM believes that a strong commitment to biodiversity conservation will not interfere significantly with current recreational uses of the park (camping, trail biking, hiking, fishing, horseback riding, etc.).  However, such a mission statement would help ensure that the needs of biodiversity are represented and protected when future recreational developments are considered.  Fortunately, by virtue of OMSP’s large size, biodiversity conservation and most forms of current and foreseeable recreational activities in the park should be very compatible.  However, any form of off-road recreational vehicle activity (e.g., ATVs, jet skis) would not be compatible with biodiversity conservation and many other forms of recreation in the park.

 

Friends of Oak Mountain presents the following proposed mission statement for consideration:

 

"Oak Mountain State Park is one of Alabama's greatest natural resources.  Its stewardship is to be guided by the equally important goals of a) conserving the park's native biodiversity, including the park's native plants and animals; their habitats and ecosystems; and the features and landscapes that are a natural part of the park, and b) providing park visitors with high-quality, carefully-planned outdoor recreational opportunities within the context of a diverse forest ecosystem."

 


2.b.  Characteristics of a Successful Biodiversity Conservation Plan

The goal of the Biodiversity Conservation Plan (BCP) as envisioned by FOM should be to enable park managers to protect and maintain for the foreseeable future sustainable populations of the native species that permanently or periodically reside in the park, and the ecosystems on which these species rely.  There are five major features that would characterize a successful BCP. Firstly, the BCP should describe the major ecosystems that exist in the park, species of particular importance in these ecosystems, and the major threats to these species and ecosystems.  While a thorough map of the park and its ecosystems needs to be produced soon, it would not be practical to wait for such a comprehensive survey.  Instead, the major ecosystems and habitats should be listed and described, and used as a basis for constructing the BCP.

Secondly, the BCP should commit the park to a set of flexible conservation principles to help guide management of species and ecosystems in the park, other park management decisions, and any proposed revisions to the BCP.  In essence, these conservation principles would be used to develop flexible guidelines for activities in the park so that long-term biodiversity preservation is not compromised.  In the section below we outline several conservation principles that FOM believes should be included in the BCP. 

Thirdly, the BCP should be developed according to an adaptive management model, that of making informed management decisions, monitoring their effectiveness, and revising future management approaches based on lessons learned.  Ideally, we would wait for science to provide the answers before proceeding with certain management methods. However, due to limited resources and the careful but slow pace of scientific investigation, waiting is not always possible.  Instead, managers should monitor the results of biodiversity management in the park.  Using this new information, management practices can be refined to better promote biodiversity conservation. 

Fourthly, a successful BCP must be flexible (see Figure 1).  New scientific knowledge is continuously being generated about the park’s ecosystems and their inhabitants, and the landscape surrounding the park.  A successful BCP would incorporate such new knowledge to better guide biodiversity management in the park.  In addition, information from monitoring biodiversity management in the park will periodically need to be incorporated into the BCP to better refine park management guidelines. The BCP also needs to be available for periodic internal and public review, comment, and revision to incorporate new knowledge and increased understanding of the park's ecosystems.  Public review also provides citizens the opportunity to discuss with park officials how well the intentions of the BCP are being met through park management, and provide park officials with feedback on how adherence to the BCP is affecting recreational enjoyment of the park.  Public review will help facilitate trust, understanding, and communication between the park and Alabama's citizens, and will give park managers opportunities to explain and engender support for the intentions of park management practices that may not be well-understood by the public (e.g., the use of prescribed fire).  FOM also strongly advocates that public review be initiated with any major change in park policy that might significantly affect park biodiversity, or any proposed major development in the park that might significantly affect park biodiversity.

Fifthly, the plan should be fiscally practical, recognizing the park’s ever-present budgetary limitations, and fiscally creative, incorporating cost-savings (for example, working with volunteer groups, other state agencies, and other sections within DCNR) with management that enhances biodiversity.

 

2.c.  Commitment to Principles of Conservation: 

A successful BCP should outline a set of conservation principles to which park management should be committed.  These general principles should be used to help managers develop specific guidelines for achieving biodiversity conservation.  The principles described below are those that FOM believes should be included in the development of a BCP.  The principles are far-reaching to provide the greater context for understanding the complexity of biodiversity conservation.  While commitment to such principles is important for the success of biodiversity conservation, we acknowledge that DCNR and State Parks does not have sufficient resources to meet all the needs outlined here.  However, by committing to such principles, DCNR and State Parks would chart a course for both current and future efforts to protect biodiversity in the park.

 

2.c.i.  Biodiversity Conservation as a High Priority: 

The conservation of biodiversity in the park should be of high priority. It should be considered just as important as other management priorities in the park.  Why should biodiversity conservation be prioritized so highly?  The native species inhabiting the park must live there far into the foreseeable future. If populations of those species disappear, then those species may be lost from the park forever. While we humans have the ability to be flexible in the location and intensity of our activities, plants and animals are much less flexible in the way they can respond to our activities in the park. Thus, the planning of management and development activities in the park needs to take into account how such activities may impact the park's populations of native species and their ecosystems.  It is important to realize that FOM is not advocating the curtailing of current recreational use in the park, nor are we advocating that recreation in the park should not be expanded.  Instead, we are encouraging that the growth of recreation in the park be developed together with policies to sustain biodiversity.

 

2.c.ii. Favoring Native Species of Conservation Concern: 

Any human activity in the park is likely to negatively affect populations of some native species or the ecosystems on which they depend.  However, it would be impossible to manage the park such that no species or ecosystems were negatively affected by human activities.  Instead,  FOM believes that management and development activities in the park should be guided by the BCP to favor native species of conservation concern over those native species that are of less concern to conservation and whose regional populations are stable or are increasing in size.  These “species of conservation concern” are species whose populations are declining at the local, state, or national levels.  Illustrating this point with a simplistic example, resource management that led to a decline in Indigo Bunting habitat in the park would be of little concern, but loss of Wood Thrush habitat in the park would be of much concern.  FOM advocates that DCNR consider species to be of conservation concern if those species are included in the following categories:

 

a.       As delineated by the Endangered Species Act and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, any species that are federally endangered, federally threatened, proposed federally endangered, proposed federally threatened, or are candidate species.

b.      As delineated by The Nature Conservancy of Alabama’s Alabama Natural Heritage Program, any species classified as Globally Critically Imperiled (G1 species), Globally Imperiled (G2), or Globally Rare (G3), Critically Imperiled in Alabama (S1), Imperiled in Alabama (S2), Rare or Uncommon in Alabama (S3), of Historical Occurrence by not having been seen in 20 years (SH), Possibly Imperiled in Alabama (SU), and Extirpated in Alabama (SX).  See the Alabama Natural Heritage Program’s Alabama Inventory List: Rare, Threatened, and Endangered Plants, Animals, and Natural Communities of Alabama at http://www.alnhp.org/track_2003.pdf.

c.       As delineated by the National Audubon Society’s Watchlist located at the following address:  http://www.audubon.org/bird/watchlist/index.html.

 

It is important to note that FOM is not requesting that DCNR take active measures to re-introduce native species that have been extirpated from the park.  However, FOM advocates that DCNR support the re-introduction of such species as resources and/or opportunities arise for their re-introduction.

 

2.c.iii.  Need for Active Management:

Active management of the park's natural areas may be necessary to promote biodiversity conservation in the park.  Many of the normal processes that once kept biodiversity levels high in the park are now absent or diminished. Intervention to mimic these processes will be necessary in many cases to preserve native biodiversity.  Adaptive management principles should be applied.  For example, large carnivores in the park are absent.  Thus, the BCP would likely call for the controlling of herbivore populations, especially deer, by periodic culling of such herds (a position FOM supports).

 

2.c.iv.  Management Across Varying Time Scales:

Because the populations of native species living in the park need to survive indefinitely, biodiversity conservation planning in the park needs to incorporate both near-term and long-term management goals for multiple time periods (for example, 5, 50, and 100-year scales).  Many important management goals may take many decades to achieve but may require incremental actions in the near term.  For example, a long-term goal may be to restore herbaceous plant species diversity in the understory of the mountain longleaf pine forests.  To achieve this, near-term goals would include periodic prescribe burns. Mid-term goals may include distributing seeds of herbaceous plants in areas where prescribed burns have created favorable conditions for establishment.  Long-term goals may be to reconnect currently isolated patches of longleaf pine forest within the park via restoration of longleaf forest in areas between these patches.

 

2.c.v.  Site-specific Management:

Management strategies promoting native biodiversity need to be tailored to the particular ecosystem, community, or habitat being affected by that management.  On the broad scale, there are three major types of natural ecosystems to consider in the park: upland forest (mountain longleaf forest), lowland deciduous forest, and the park’s streams.  Management plans promoting native biodiversity need to be developed for each of these ecosystems.  Within each one, different management strategies may be needed.  For example, fire is an appropriate management tool promoting biodiversity in upland forests that historically have been exposed to natural fires, but it is not an appropriate management tool for promoting biodiversity in lowland deciduous forest.  Thus, the BCP would likely call for continued use of prescribed fire as a management tool in upland forests throughout the park (a position FOM advocates).

 

2.c.vi.  Reduce Fragmentation of Natural Ecosystems: 

Terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems function best when connectivity between them is maximized.  Similarly, populations of most native species are more secure when connectivity in their landscape is maintained.  Connectivity allows species and ecosystem processes to move naturally throughout the park.  Thus, management and development activities in the park should minimize fragmentation of the park's natural ecosystems.  For example, the land within the park was once an intact forest ecosystem with only a very few natural clearings.  Through time, the park's forests became fragmented as developments were added.  Thus, the Biodiversity Conservation Plan might emphasize that forest fragmentation in the park should not be increased any more than is absolutely necessary (a position FOM advocates).  When locations for new development in the park are sought, such development could be placed in areas already developed (e.g., under-used facilities) rather than clearing additional forest. In addition, when resources and opportunities arise, connections between separated sections of forest should be established via forest restoration. 

 

2.c.vii.  Minimizing External Threats:

Biodiversity conservation planning needs to recognize threats that are now and will be, coming from the changing landscape beyond the park's borders.  As land outside the park is developed, it will be increasingly difficult for many of the park's native species to survive, especially those with large ranges extending beyond the park and those in the park that need periodic recruitment from populations outside the park.  Other external threats that will result from continued development outside the park include increased chance of wildfire, and more air, water, and noise pollution.  Increased development near the border will also lead to increased invasions into the park of exotic plant and animal species.  For many of these threats, there is little that can be done to mitigate them.  But for other threats, much can be done to minimize them.  For example, the Biodiversity Conservation Plan might call for periodic surveys along the park border by park personnel or volunteers to locate and remove invasive exotic species. 

 

2.c.viii.  Maximizing External Benefits: 

A Biodiversity Conservation Plan should also look to the landscape and entities beyond the park’s border as potential resources to help preserve park biodiversity.  For example, if OMSP can be connected to (or maintain connection to) protected natural areas surrounding the park, there will be more habitat available for the park's migratory species or species that travel large distances for obtaining food.  Such landscape connectivity could be achieved through cooperative agreements with public agencies and private entities owning land in the area. Another external benefit are the many citizens of the area who would help with efforts to implement the BCP (e.g., invasive species removal, biodiversity surveys). Such creative endeavors should be explored in the development and implementation of the BCP. 

 

3.  Proposed Process for Developing a Biodiversity Conservation Plan

The following are suggested guidelines for the development of a BCP.  Clearly, DCNR and State Parks has ultimate authority in designing the process of BCP development.  However, FOM believes that following the principles discussed below will help ensure that a thorough and successful plan for the park is constructed.

 

3.a.  Inception:

The process of developing a Biodiversity Conservation Plan (BCP) should begin with the commitment of DCNR and State Parks to adopting a mission statement for the park and a commitment to developing a BCP. 

 

3.b.  Authorship: 

FOM advocates that DCNR forms a committee of authors to develop the BCP for the park.  These authors should represent a diversity of institutions and expertise related to biodiversity conservation.  Especially important would be including experts on park management and recreation, forest ecology, invasive species control, stream ecology, prescribed fire, and the ecology of the wildland-urban interface.  Each author should bring to the committee considerable knowledge about biodiversity conservation and/or park management.  FOM proposes that representatives from five categories be included to create a well-balanced committee representing diverse viewpoints: (1) the State of Alabama, (2) academic institutions, (3) non-profit conservation organizations, (4) citizen environmental groups, and (5) experts from federal agencies. We suggest that membership be comprised of twenty percent from each of these five categories with 2-5 members from each group.  State representation could include experts in biodiversity conservation from DCNR  (e.g., State Parks, State Lands, Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries) and experts from state agencies from outside of DCNR.  Authors from public and private academic institutions would help to ensure that up-to-date scientific information is considered.  Members from non-profit conservation organizations (e.g., The Nature Conservancy, Longleaf Alliance) and citizens from environmental organizations (e.g., Alabama Environmental Council, Birmingham Audubon Society) with strong backgrounds in biodiversity conservation could add valuable insight to the plan.  Finally, several federal agencies (e.g., United States Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and United States Geological Survey) have experts in biodiversity conservation whose knowledge would be valuable in the formation of a Biodiversity Conservation Plan.  It would be up to the committee of authors to determine how best to organize their efforts. 

 

3.c.  Timeframe:

FOM proposes that the committee of authors have one year to develop a final document.  Ideally, this process, including public review and comment, would be completed by December 31, 2005.

 

3.d.  Review, Comment, Revision, and Final Approval: 

Public involvement in the process of developing a BCP will be crucial for engendering public support for the plan.  Including diverse feedback during plan development is critical for its success. It will engender among the stakeholders trust, commitment, and community pride that will help ensure broad support for the BCP.  Feedback will be necessary from the recreational representatives, local government officials, local business owners, and local property owners. It may be wise for the authors to solicit public opinion from these entities about the development of the plan prior to writing of the draft.  Once the BCP is drafted, it should be made readily available for review and comment by the public and all stakeholders. Sufficient time should be given to allow the public to review and comment on the plan (the draft should be made available as hard copy by request and posted online as a PDF file).  At that stage in the process it would be wise to solicit review from experts on relevant issues who did not participate in authoring the draft.  After gathering feedback from the public and solicited reviewers, the authors would then revise the BCP as needed, and then submit the draft to DCNR and State Parks for review and comment.  After receiving and incorporating comments from DCNR and State Parks administrations, a 'final' draft would be completed and given to DCNR and State Parks for final approval. The word "final" is in quotes here to emphasize that the BCP will still be an evolving document with continual future revisions as explained above.

 

4.  FOM’s Position on Specific Management Activities in Oak Mountain State Park

 

FOM believes that development of a Biodiversity Conservation Plan is necessary for the long-term survival of the native species and ecosystems of Oak Mountain State Park.  Developing such a plan to benefit species of conservation concern while continuing to offer high-quality recreational experiences in the park will take time and careful consideration. Until such a plan is established, Friends of Oak Mountain will advocate the management guidelines below.  These guidelines address some of the current and near-future management issues that the park faces or potentially faces.  This is also an opportunity for FOM to explain our position on these issues.

 

4.a.  Deer Management and Deer Habitat Management: 

FOM agrees with DCNR that the deer herd should be reduced and maintained at a size such that plant and animal populations are not threatened by over-grazing.  As evidence of an overpopulation of deer, we have observed that many wildflower species are disappearing in the park due to overgrazing, and there is a browse-line throughout much of the park.  An additional result of overgrazing is that nesting habitats for many breeding birds are disappearing (e.g., Wood Thrush, Hooded Warbler).  FOM believes that scientific monitoring should be used to collect data on herd size and the effects of grazing by deer.  These data need to be collected on a regular, seasonal basis to determine the success of attempts to restore plant diversity by culling the deer herd (e.g., regular, standardized spot-lighting surveys).  Trained volunteers could be recruited to assist with surveys.  FOM does not support providing feeding stations for deer, or creating more habitat for deer by clearing forest or modifying existing clearings.  Such measures may temporarily concentrate deer activity in these locations, but the availability of more food and/or habitat will only stimulate growth of the herd and perpetuate the problem. 

 

4.b.  Prescribed Burns:

Prescribed burns should be used to promote biodiversity and reduce fuel levels in the upland forests of the park, especially the mountain longleaf pine forests. Fire plays a natural, vital role in the perpetuation of these forests. These burns should be designed to encourage the existence of sustainable populations of those species characteristic of these upland forests.

 

4.c.  Mechanical Removal and Felling of Vegetation

Would mechanical removal or felling of vegetation be acceptable in Oak Mountain State Park according to a Biodiversity Conservation Plan?  Friends of Oak Mountain believes an answer to this question should be founded on principles of the science of forest ecology and is more complex than it may seem.  Mechanical removal or felling of vegetation in some situations could benefit biodiversity conservation in the park, but in other situations, clearing of forest or felling of trees may threaten biodiversity conservation in the park.  Before these considerations are discussed, we need first to discuss the role of natural disturbances in the forest ecosystems of the park.

The natural ecosystem of Oak Mountain State Park is a mosaic of different forest types.  In any forest, disturbances that lead to the death of trees are natural occurrences.  Windstorms, wildfires, and pest outbreaks are natural processes that historically caused disturbances in the forests of OMSP.  Forests respond to such natural disturbances through the process of forest succession whereby early-successional or pioneer trees become established in the openings or gaps in the forest created by downed trees.  Later, mature forest tree species replace the early-successional species in this cyclic process.  When the region around the park was predominantly forested, early-successional habitats provided important resources for species of plants and animals that need such habitats.  Now that much of the region has been logged or cleared, these early-successional habitats and the species that prefer them are very abundant in the region, whereas mature forests are disappearing.  Thus, in the context of biodiversity conservation in the region, providing early-successional habitats is unwarranted.  Most, perhaps all, species of conservation concern that reside in the park are species requiring mature forests. 

With this understanding, we now present several scenarios in which mechanical removal or felling of vegetation could be considered for the park and discuss the compatibility of these management techniques with a biodiversity conservation plan that would be supported by FOM.  The guiding principle in each of these scenarios is that mechanical removal or felling of vegetation should only be used to promote biodiversity conservation (that is, promoting sustainable populations of species of conservation concern).  Within the context of this discussion, the term ‘logging’ shall be defined as any timber cut for profit or salvage.

 

4.c.i.  Clearcut Logging: 

Clearcutting of forest (for commercial logging or any other purpose) has no role in biodiversity conservation in the park.  Such logging practices, or their kin (e.g., shelterwood system or seed-tree system) would reduce the habitat needed by most species of conservation concern in the park and would negatively affect streams and large areas of forest beyond the areas logged.  As we understand it, the motivation for logging could come from two persuasions or a combination of both:  (1) to generate revenue for OMSP or all State Parks or (2) to promote biodiversity conservation in the park.  FOM believes either of these motivations would be misguided and would certainly jeopardize biodiversity conservation in the park.  While FOM sympathizes that State Parks and DCNR as a whole are under-funded, harvesting trees in the park for revenue would erode the integrity of biodiversity in the park and the aesthetic appeal of the park.  As for promoting biodiversity, large-scale logging will not create the habitat that is needed most by species of conservation concern.  While the absence, or near absence, of a canopy in a logged area may seem to mimic large-scale natural disturbances such as windstorms, the ecological differences between natural disturbances and large-scale clearance of forest are vast and severe.  Logging of forest can lead to the following negative ecological consequences for biodiversity conservation:

 

1.      Increased fragmentation of the forest ecosystem

2.      Increased amount of forest edge, and negative effects on adjacent un-logged forest

3.      Increased soil compaction and erosion

4.      Increased sedimentation in streams

5.      Reduced current or future habitat for species requiring old-growth forest

6.      Loss of nutrients and interruption of natural nutrient cycling

7.      Reduced soil development

8.      Interference with natural hydrology

9.      Reduced structural complexity of the logged areas, thus reducing species diversity

10.  Increased habitat for early-successional invasive exotic plants

 

In light of these effects, FOM cannot support the large-scale clearance of forest or similar forest management techniques in Oak Mountain State Park. 

 

4.c.ii.  Removal of Exotic Invasive Plants: 

Exotics are those species not native to the region.  Invasives are those species that have rapid population growth, can significantly negatively affect the populations of native species, and sometimes alter natural ecosystem processes.  Invasive exotic plant species are of particular concern to biodiversity conservation; they follow habitat loss as the second greatest threat to biodiversity.  Alabama's generous amounts of rain and long growing season make our state highly vulnerable to invasive exotic plants.  Several species such as kudzu, mimosa, Chinese privet, and English ivy, are of particular concern as they can invade forests.  FOM would support mechanical or chemical removal of invasive exotic species.  Like cancer, it is best to remove invasive exotics as soon as they are detected.  Indeed, FOM strongly suggests that a policy calling for the removal of exotic invasive plants in the park be established as soon as possible so that further ground is not lost to them.  One species needing immediate focused removal efforts in the park is Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense).

 

4.c.iii.  Fuel Reduction: 

Wildfires are an inescapable threat to the park.  They can be started by lightning, park users (accidentally or intentionally), or when prescribed burns escape containment.  Wildfires also can spread from areas adjacent to the park (e.g., brush or leaf fires on adjacent lands).  At this point in the park's history, wildfires are potentially catastrophic to biodiversity in the park.  This is true even for those ecosystems in the park that historically have had wildfire as a frequent disturbance.  The reason for this is that after many decades of fire suppression, fuel levels ('fuel' meaning dead organic debris that can combust during fire) have accumulated to a point that a wildfire in hot dry weather would burn so intensely that it could kill too much existing vegetation. 

One goal of prescribed burning in the park is the reduction of fuels.  Fuel reduction via prescribed burns or other methods decreases the severity and threat of wildfires to humans and biodiversity and makes efforts to control wildfires easier.  While prescribed burns are usually the preferred method of reducing fuels (they are cost-effective and in some ecosystems promote biodiversity), fuels in the forest also can be reduced via mechanical removal or a combination of mechanical manipulation and burning.  An example would be raking fuel into piles and burning these piles under appropriate conditions. Fuel reduction is mostly a concern in the drier forests of the park where wildfires are more likely to be catastrophic and difficult to control.  Fuel reduction is less of a concern in deciduous forests that are less likely to burn as wildfire spreads and, when they do burn, are likely to be easier to control.  In addition, fuel quickly decays and becomes incombustible in these moist deciduous forests.

In some areas of the park prescribed burns may not be a preferred method of fuel reduction due to proximity to infrastructure or houses immediately adjacent to the park.  In these areas FOM may support using mechanical means of fuel reduction.  In areas near the park's border, this could serve to promote biodiversity conservation for two reasons.  First, it would reduce the chance of wildfire spreading into the park from outside the park, and thus threatening the park's forests.  And second, it would reduce the chance that a wildfire escaping from a prescribed burn would spread onto private land and threaten property.  This latter "worse case scenario" would severely reduce public support for prescribed burns in the park.  For these reasons, mechanical fuel reduction can be part of a strong BCP.  To garner FOM's support, it would be essential that methods of mechanical fuel reduction used would minimize negative impacts on biodiversity.  For example, the techniques used should minimize erosion and fragmentation when accessing the sites and creating fire lanes.  One method of fuel reduction that reduces the need for heavy machinery is one in which fuel is raked or carried into small piles and then burned under supervision.  These methods have the added benefit of returning nutrients to the soil.  Volunteers might be willing to help with such activities.

            Any plans to reduce fuels should include a long-term plan for managed sites.  This planning should describe how the site will be managed during and after the fuel removal.  For example, the plan should describe how erosion will be controlled in the cases in which heavy machinery is used.  The plan should also describe what types of vegetation will be allowed to re-grow in the treated areas, and how that vegetation and new accumulations of fuels will be treated in the future.  Whenever possible, planning for these sites should be used to promote biodiversity conservation in the park in addition to fuel reduction.  For example, areas where brush has been cleared could be seeded with native wildflower species. 

 

4.c.iv.  Forest Restoration Efforts: 

Friends of Oak Mountain recognizes that it may be necessary to fell undesirable trees in areas undergoing active management to restore natural forest types in the park.  This would only be a preferred strategy in upland forests invaded by fire-intolerant hardwood species that do not have a natural role in those forests.  While prescribed burns in these areas will eliminate the seedlings and saplings of the undesired species, the low-intensity fires of prescribed burns will not kill larger undesired trees.  Removal or felling of those undesired trees will be important for opening up the canopy to allow regeneration of longleaf pine trees, other tree species characteristic of longleaf forests, and the shrubs and herbaceous plants that thrive in longleaf forests.  Such efforts would help biodiversity conservation in the park and would be supported by FOM.

            A variety of techniques could be used to accomplish this, including felling or girdling of those trees, or piling fuels around their bases prior to a prescribed burn.  The approach that would be best would depend on the idiosyncrasies of the site.  Careful consideration of the needs of biodiversity and the local conditions in each situation would be necessary.

 

4.c.v.  Creating Wildlife Viewing Areas: 

Wildlife observation is one of the important recreational activities the park provides its users.  Many of the areas where mid-sized and large wildlife is most readily viewed are the unnatural forest clearings near developed areas in the park. Often these are located near roads.  Friends of Oak Mountain does not support the creation of additional forest clearings.  The reasons are much the same as those explained in the above section concerning the negative aspects of large-scale forest clearance.  It is often a common misperception by the public that such areas are necessary to provide the resources needed to sustain species' populations in the park.  This is misguided for several reasons.  First, small clearings rarely provide sufficient habitat for sustainably maintaining populations of wildlife (for example, the home ranges of those species encompass areas larger than these clearings).  Second, the species that benefit from such clearings are not the species of conservation concern.  Populations of deer, rabbit, and turkey in the park are not in need of more resources.  Sustainable populations of these species can be maintained in the park without the need for increasing the amount of clearings.

Thus FOM cannot support the clearing of forest to create more wildlife viewing areas.  Sufficient opportunities for wildlife viewing in clearings are afforded along the roadside, golf course, lake margins, trails, and other areas.

 

4.c.vi.  Safety Concerns: 

It may be necessary on occasion to remove trees to promote safety.  In areas where people frequent, it would be wise to remove trees that are dead, are dying, or are leaning precariously if their fall could injure people or their property.  FOM is not opposed to removal of these trees as long as removal is minimized to only those trees that truly threaten life or property.  FOM cannot support the removal of trees that are upright and healthy simply because they may fall during a windstorm. 

 

4.c.vii.  Pest or Disease Outbreak: 

Various diseases and pests are plaguing forests throughout the United States by causing tree mortality.  The southern pine beetle (Dendroctonus frontalis) in particular has killed many stands of loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) throughout the southeastern United States and within OMSP.  Other threats may loom on the horizon including Sudden Oak Death and the Asian long-horned beetle (Anoplophora glabripennis) that attacks species of maple (Acer sp.).  How to prevent infection or treat infected areas in the park will depend on the dynamics of the species causing the outbreak.  FOM recognizes that mechanical removal or felling of trees may be necessary as part of a response to future outbreaks.  However, with some outbreaks, mechanical removal or felling may not be advisable.  FOM would advocate that park managers to seek the advice of experts in forestry science and forest ecology in order to make a decision.

The Southern Pine Beetle (SPB) Outbreak: It must be decided whether biodiversity conservation in OMSP is positively or negatively affected by salvage logging of trees infected by the southern pine beetle.  During salvage logging, dead trees are felled, and infected trees are cut and removed for lumber production.  The sale of the timber helps offset the cost of hiring the logging company.  Salvage logging has been effective in some forests in slowing the spread of SPB outbreaks.  Southern pine beetle preferentially attacks loblolly and Virginia pine (P. virginiana).  Both are early-successional species that are normally replaced by late-successional species typical of the old-growth forests that need to be nurtured in the park.  Because these two pine species will be naturally dying in the forest over the next several decades, their "early demise" may only speed along the development of late-successional older-growth forests.  Indeed, the current high densities and widespread distributions of loblolly and Virginia pine in the park seem to be artifacts of the large-scale logging in the park during the first half of the twentieth century.  Historically, it is very likely that loblolly and Virginia pine both were present in the park in densities much lower than today.

In the past, the park has used salvage logging in some of these areas.  If OMSP were managed for timber production, salvage logging would be a logical response.  However, FOM believes the park should be managed for biodiversity conservation and recreation, not timber production.  Thus, whether salvage logging is appropriate for the park depends on whether there is a net gain or loss for biodiversity conservation in the park, not monetary gain.  There are several clear negative consequences of salvage logging to consider.  First, there is the increased soil compaction and erosion created by operating heavy machinery in these areas.  Second, there is damage by machinery to existing trees not vulnerable to the beetle.  Third, removal of the timber from the site also removes nutrients that would otherwise be incorporated into soil development.  Fourth, forest regeneration in these gaps may be slowed due to the damage to soil and existing vegetation during the logging.  All of these problems would be avoided if the trees were allowed to die and fall naturally. 

Creative solutions to this dilemma can be imagined and may be supported by FOM.  For instance, if it is determined that slowing the outbreak would benefit biodiversity conservation but that the negative consequences of logging should be avoided, then infected trees could be felled and left on-site (southern pine bark beetles only infect upright trees; felled trees do not facilitate the spread of the outbreak).  Another solution might be to conduct salvage logging only in areas where loblolly pines have invaded uplands where longleaf pine forests once dominated.  These logged areas would then become plots for active longleaf pine restoration involving the planting of longleaf seedlings and followed-up with periodic prescribed burns.

Any salvage logging or felling of trees to reduce disease outbreaks should include the development of a management plan for the sites in order to restore biodiversity.  Such prescriptions should follow from the guidelines set forth in the BCP. 

Deciding how to respond to the future outbreaks of beetle infestation is a complicated issue.  FOM would like to hear the opinions of the authors of the BCP before deciding on whether FOM would support salvage logging of infected loblolly and Virginia pine trees in the park. 

 

4.c.viii.  Salvage Logging after Windstorm: 

For the reasons described above, FOM does not support salvage logging in the forest where strong winds have blown trees down (blowdowns).  Blowdowns are a natural disturbance to the forest and downed trees should be left in place and allowed to decay so that their nutrients are returned to the soil.  Trees in the forest that have been blown down wholly or partially should only be removed if they hinder use of park infrastructure (e.g., road or trail), or if they threaten people or property.  Trees blown down in developed (non-forested) areas of the park could be salvaged with no great impact on biodiversity conservation.

 

4.d.  Survey of Park Boundary:

The boundary lines for Oak Mountain State Park vary from one map to another and cause confusion for citizens and the park employees.  Friends of Oak Mountain strongly suggests that the park boundaries be resurveyed and a new map be published.  This would greatly help the gathering of information needed to produce detailed management guidelines and goals. For example, such a map could be used in a survey to determine which areas of the park adjacent to development have high fuel loads that need to be reduced.

 

4.e.  Creation of a Forest Demonstration Area

FOM supports the creation of a large demonstration plot that would serve as (1) a display site for various forest management techniques, (2) a training area for park employees and volunteers learning forest management techniques, and (3) an education area for demonstrating to the public aspects of forest ecology and management.  Such an area could encompass a range of natural and unnatural forest conditions to represent the variety of forest conditions in the park.  These may include the following:  upland longleaf pine forest and bottomland deciduous forest; permanent and ephemeral streams, and forest edge (preferably with exotic invasive species) and forest interior. 

 The demonstration area should be large enough to include a wide array of management techniques, and new areas could be added as resources and opportunities become available.  Sections of the demonstration forest could be managed with prescribed burns, and it could include control sections that are not burned.  Fire lines could be created by different methods, their effectiveness tested, and subsequent erosion monitored.  Mechanical fuel reduction techniques could be developed, tested, and practiced.  Plots with invasive exotic plants could be monitored with plots where these invasives were removed via different techniques.  Users could also practice tree identification.  A demonstration forest area could become a focal point for school field trips for K-12 and college classes, thus benefiting biodiversity conservation through education.  FOM could help DCNR seek funding for these projects. 

 

5.  Biographical Information about the Authors:

 

1 Dr. R. Scot Duncan, Assistant Professor of Biology, Birmingham-Southern College B.S. (1993), Eckerd College; M.S. (1997), Ph.D. (2001), University of Florida.  Research Specialties: Plant Ecology, Forest Ecology, Conservation Biology.  Dr. Duncan is currently conducting research on restoring the Bibb County Cedar Glades and the Mountain Longleaf Forests of Oak Mountain State Park.

 

2 Henry Hughes. Henry established Shades Valley Forestry in 1995, a firm advocating for the  protection and preservation of urban trees and forests. He has served on the boards of numerous non-profit environmental organizations and currently serves as vice-president of the board of the Alabama Rivers Alliance and as executive director of the Friends of Shades Creek.  He is an instructor of forestry at Jefferson State Community College in Birmingham. He is a Registered Forester with the state of Alabama and a Certified Forester with the Society of American Foresters.  He is a graduate of the University of the South (B.S.), the University of Kentucky (B.S.), Texas A&M University (M.S.), and the Auburn University-based Leadership Program for Agriculture and Forestry, a two-year program of national and international travel and study.

 

3 Gregory J. Harber.  Greg is a Research Assistant in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.  He serves on the boards of the Birmingham Audubon Society and the Wildlife Center and is president of the Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuaries, Inc.  He is the director of the Audubon Mountain Workshop, a 4-day ecology camp held each May in Mentone, AL.  He is also the Region 4 coordinator of the Alabama Breeding Bird Atlas Project. He is a graduate of Auburn University (B.S. – 1982, Secondary Science Education; M.S. – 1986, Cell Biology)

 

6.  References:

 

Stein, B.A. 2002.  States of the Union: Ranking America’s Biodiversity. NatureServe, Arlington, VA; http://www.natureserve.org/library/stateofunions.pdf

 

For further information on Biodiversity Conservation we recommend the following textbook:

 

Meffe, G.K., and C.R. Carroll. 1997. Principles of Conservation Biology, 2nd ed.  Sinauer Associates, Inc, Sunderland, Massachusetts.


 

Figure 1.  Information Flow In a Functioning Biodiversity Conservation Plan

Arrows indicate the direction of information flow. The BCP serves to guide park managers through decisions that must be made about the park as well as educate the public. The BCP is an adaptable document that incorporates new knowledge as it arises.  Numbers in boxes correspond to text above.  Boxes 6 and 7 are not discussed in this document but warrant attention by stakeholders.