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Missouri’s glades are trapped under trees. Botanists are freeing them by logging

 Neal Humke, the Land Stewardship Coordinator at the L-A-D Foundation, which manages the land of the Pioneer Forest.
Terra Fondriest
Neal Humke, the land stewardship coordinator at the L-A-D Foundation, which manages the land of the Pioneer Forest.

In a corner of the Missouri Ozarks known as Pioneer Forest, the sunlight warms an incredible array of biodiversity. These animals and plants — ranging from songbirds to scorpions — are thriving today in large part because of what’s not there: trees.

A glade is a type of a dry, rocky grassland whose animals and plants require sunlight to thrive. For some 60 years, the glade in Pioneer Forest has been steadily covered by red cedar trees. In the last five years, conservationists have rolled through 19 acres of the forest, cutting back on decades of tree growth.

“Picture 100% shade, something you can't really even walk through, it's just really dense,” said botanist Neal Humpke, describing the condition of the glade before he and Robert Langellier worked to cut down every tree in a 19-acre area of the forest in 2018. Humke is the land stewardship coordinator at the L-A-D Foundation, which manages the land of the Pioneer Forest.

Langellier, a freelance journalist and amateur botanist, wrote about his experience clearing the trees in the Pioneer Forest in a New York Times op-ed published in June, titled, “When Chopping Down Trees Is a Gift to the Environment.”

The trees in Pioneer Forest are burned in carefully planned fires every two to three years. Combined with cutting and harvesting, the prescribed burns ensure the glade’s flowers and grasses have enough space and light to grow.

“It's a bit counterintuitive to be … doing forestry or logging, and then also ecology,” Langellier said Friday on St. Louis on the Air. “A lot of people see those things as very different, almost opposite.”

But clearing trees has led to a resurgence in the plants and animals that make glades unique ecosystems — and worth restoring.

“You don't typically run into a glade every time you walk into the woods,” Langellier said. “It's one of our rarest ecosystem types in Missouri, these small, patchy grasslands, but they harbor an immense amount of our biodiversity.”

To hear more from botanist Neal Humke and writer Robert Langellier, including their insights into fire management and ecological restoration, listen to the full St. Louis on the Air conversation on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast or by clicking the play button below.

Listen to Neal Humke and Robert Langellier on "St. Louis on the Air"

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."