Of time and wounds


Willows are pioneers of raw, moist habitats (“Have returning wolves really saved Yellowstone?” HCN, 12/8/14). Except for the few, but often common, species capable of vegetative reproduction, dense grasses are anathema to willow spread, and young plants grow fastest.

The story of moisture-loving riparian species, such as willows and sedges, catching sediments is writ large in the soils. At the same time, creek down-cutting is normal. As the site dries, willow roots follow the receding water table, while short-rooted sedges are replaced with drier-site grasses. Eventually, the hydrologic regime becomes tenuous for established willows and completely lacking for seedlings that are not attached to a parent.

The recovery process, as far as willows goes, can be initiated on the exposed sediments of abandoned beaver dams but equally on fresh flood-deposited sediments. I doubt any ecologist would ever say “might never be repaired.” That’s just the human time perspective. Renewal can play out on a timescale inconvenient to researchers.

In my own field of re-vegetation, the role of the natural recovery of riparian strips is often blocked by establishing herbaceous plants — often with good reason, weeds being the alternative. Woody plants then are transplanted at enormous cost. The best re-vegetation programs assist the natural recovery process rather than assuming nature can do nothing.

Richard Prodgers
Dillon, Montana

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