By Kaci Woodrome
A doe jumping through tall grass, a baby armadillo fumbling through fallen leaves, an assassin bug on the hunt for a meal on an American basketflower. These are just a few examples of the diverse life that can be found at Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center.
For Jones Park’s Forester David Jamar and Assistant Director Matthew Abernathy, a diverse ecosystem of plants and wildlife at the 312-acre greenspace starts with proper forest management.
“What most people don’t know is what the forest is supposed to look like,” said Abernathy.
Using aerial images of the greater Houston region from the 1940s and other historical accounts, Jamar and Abernathy know the area that is now Jones Park was not always densely forested like it is today. In fact, much of the area was primarily open prairie with a variety of wildflowers, grasses, and large, mature trees.
Today, the dense vegetation seen throughout Jones Park and most of the region is a stark contrast to the natural landscape of the past.
“You would have the bottomlands, like an open forest, and anywhere seasonal streams drained into larger bodies of water, you would have a greater abundance of trees and shrubs. Everything else was prairies,” Jamar explained.
Why is the Landscape Different Now?
The devastation caused by forest fires, flooding, or freezing temperatures seems contradictory to the idea of preserving plants and wildlife. For Mother Nature though, the destruction can restore the natural balance of an ecosystem and spur new growth.
Wildfires are one of the few types of natural disasters people have been able to combat or prevent, thanks to better firefighting capabilities and precautionary measures. As a result, one of nature’s most important ways of maintaining itself has been neutralized to some extent.
Jones Park staff partnered with the Texas Forest Service in 2013 to create fire breaks—forested areas that have been intentionally cleared of vegetation—to prevent the spread of fire into the residential areas along the park’s boundary.
The fire breaks were implemented to help protect the subdivision’s residents, but they also helped restore the plant species in those areas along the fence line.
Aside from nature, early settlers also played a role in disturbing the region’s ecosystem with farming. Later, the timber industry boomed as pines and other trees were heavily harvested, even as recently as the 1990s.
Without a significant presence of wildfire, farmers, and lumberjacks, prolific underbrush and invasive species have grown unchecked.
Science and Elbow Grease
Precinct 4’s Parks Department is determined to restore the forests at Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center using science and plenty of elbow grease.
Cutting through forest underbrush with a machete is an on-the-job perk for Jamar and Abernathy. They’re passionate about ridding the park of unwanted undergrowth, but more importantly the reasons why.
“Probably 90% of what we’re removing is native yaupon,” said Jamar. “But even native plants can be invasive if they’re not properly managed. Other examples include cattails, grapevines, and peppervine.”
Many of the forests in southeast Texas, including those in Jones Park, are overrun by invasive vegetation, including yaupon. As a result, species like sparkleberry, American holly, sassafras, sumac, fringetree, grasses, and wildflowers are pushed to the forest edge, which reduces the diversity in plants.
“Everything in the forest is in a competition for resources: light, water, nutrients,” Jamar said.
Because yaupon is so aggressive and thrives in a variety of conditions, it can quickly become a dense layer that prevents light from reaching the soil.
Jamar and Abernathy begin by reviewing the documented images from around 80 years ago to see where the landscape was more of an open forest with thinner canopies and more grassland. They next select a small area—perhaps a quarter-acre site—and conduct a survey of the vegetation.
“There’s a purpose and science behind it,” said Abernathy. “We’re not just arbitrarily cutting. We’ll walk through to identify the key species that need to stay—the big trees, the canopy trees, the unique species.”
The next step is removing the dense stands of yaupon and invasive species by hand to see what comes back up in a year or so. If there isn’t variety in what returns, they know it was probably historically just those species in the cleared section.
“If we have amazing regeneration, then we know we did the right thing,” Abernathy said.
For example, devil’s walking stick is a unique tree that hasn’t been seen in abundance in Jones Park for many years. When Jamar and Abernathy found a small stand of the species, they cleared the nearby yaupon. Now, just six months later, dozens of new devil’s walking sticks are sprouting, indicating the seeds have been there waiting—perhaps for decades—for the right conditions.
“In the past two years that we’ve really dived into forest management, we’re documenting species that haven’t been seen within 150 miles of this area because of appropriate management,” said Abernathy.
“A healthy ecosystem is a diverse ecosystem,” explained Jamar. “Everything out here that we look at is connected.”
From the smallest insects in the forest to the top-level predators, each animal depends on specific conditions for its survival, whether it’s a certain plant on which it lays its eggs or the prey it hunts. If the yaupon continues to grow and overtake the forest, it will create a monoculture of the plant that will only support a few different wildlife species.
“When we clear an area and it is largely yaupon, we might go back and see 30 different species that have replaced the yaupon we removed. And each one of those provides additional food, additional shelter, and additional resources for the wildlife,” said Abernathy.
When the insect population is affected, smaller carnivores like lizards and snakes don’t have anything to eat, which then takes away food sources from larger animals such as bobcats, foxes, and coyotes.
“If you have 50 to 100 species of plants, you have probably hundreds of different insects flying around,” said Jamar.
Jamar and Abernathy recognize the benefit to having some dense areas along the forest’s edge because there’s enormous diversity there with insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals feeding on the grasses and seeds. These areas offer the wildlife a way to quickly evade predators by retreating into the thick vegetation.
According to Abernathy, there are a lot of things people can do in their own yards and communities to create pocket prairies and micro-ecosystems that provide islands of habitat for migratory birds, butterflies, grasshoppers, and more.
“Every little bit helps—using native plants and vegetation, which require a lot less maintenance and management around your yard,” said Abernathy.
Jones Park staff welcomes volunteers interested in helping manage the underbrush in the forest.
Participants with the Adopt-A-Trail program at Jones Park take an active role in clearing specified areas within the park, particularly along their adopted trail routes. The JJP Eradicators work to identify and remove invasive species from the park once a month.
Those interested in helping with forest management at Jones Park may send an email to the Jones Park Volunteer Coordinator at email@example.com or call 281-446-8588 to get connected with the park.
For more information about Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center, visit www.hcp4.net/jones.
David Jamar, B.S. in Urban Forest Management from Stephen F. Austin State University
Matthew Abernathy, M.S. in Marine Resource Management with a focus on Coastal Ecology from Texas A&M University – Galveston