Here are some actual questions (some more frequent than others) concerning the Skaneateles Conservation Area, along with some attempted answers:
Q. Why ya doin’ all this … cuttin’ down?
A. As on most former agricultural land that has been abandoned without careful ecological management, the trees and shrubs that survive the high browsing pressure of white tail deer and other herbivores are the trees and shrubs that the herbivores won’t normally eat. Since the native herbivores (including insects) evolved with native plants, they often turn up their noses at exotic plants such as Eurasian buckthorn, bush honeysuckle, privet, and multiflora rose. The result is that in much of the area, exotic and invasive trees, shrubs, and other invasive plants become some of the primary vegetation, to the exclusion of many desirable native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers.
After land is first released from agricultural use, the diversity of both plant and animal populations initially increases as both native and exotic plants and animals move in. But diversity soon starts to decline as a relatively small set of exotic invasive vegetation becomes predominant. In some cases this can lead to the extirpation of native plant and animal species from our region. Aside from any philosophical or aesthetic problems with this species loss, there are numerous practical issues, not the least of which is the loss of the pollinators that are needed to produce agricultural crops. Also, many native timber trees never get a chance to even start growing under the dense shade of invasive plants, and those seedlings that do manage to get some kind of start are trimmed away by the herbivores.
For these reasons, we have the responsibility to try to reduce the proportion of invasive trees and plants in our area, and to replace them with plants (or protect existing native plants) that will provide a better habitat for wildlife in general.
The most obvious of the trees being removed is probably common buckthorn (Rhamnus catharica). This, usually-small, fast-growing, tree provides dense shade that excludes most native plants once established. Often the vast majority plants that survive beneath buckthorn consist of other invasives. The result of removing all the known invasive plants from an area often gives the impression that the area has been clear-cut, even though extreme care is taken to remove only vegetation that is known to be invasive in our region. This cutting has many valid problems however.
Q. Won’t the invasive trees just grow back after you cut them down?
A. Yes. Besides the increased germination of seeds exposed to additional sunlight, the invasive trees and shrubs that we remove usually result in multiple re-sprouts from the roots or stumps, so complete removal by mechanical means takes several years of re-cutting. Failure to diligently re-cut these shoots can lead to a situation worse than the original one.
In fact it might be better to not even start removing invasive plants unless there is a plan to monitor the area and to provide needed followup procedures. Using herbicides is often the most effective way to prevent resprouts of such plants, but we don’t currently use that method at the Conservation Area.
Q. Are you cutting down the choke cherries?
A. No. “Choke cherry” usually refers to Prunus virginiana, which is closely related to the larger “black cherry” (Prunus serotina), a valuable timber tree. Both cherries are native to this region and not considered invasive here. The tree you see being removed is probably the European buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica). Though there are many obvious differences between choke cherries and buckthorns, the confusion may be justified by the taste of the buckthorn’s fruit, which might conceivably provide a choking sensation, but eating the fruit is more commonly considered a cause for the body process that gave rise to the buckthorn’s specific epithet, cathartica.
Q. How can you call this a Conservation Area if you allow hunting?
Q. Why do you want to help out at the Conservation Area if you don’t hunt or fish?
A. These two opposing questions may reflect cultural differences as much or more than ethical or moral views of the subject of hunting and may be best addressed together.
As apparent from the second question, some believe that hunting is synonymous with conservation. In fact, much of what governments do to protect our public lands and improve wildlife habitats is done at the behest of politically influential hunting organizations and individual hunters who are known to vote. And hunters end up paying for much this conservation work by purchasing hunting licenses. They also provide an important service by controlling the population of herbivores, particularly whitetail deer. It was hunters who were largely responsible for bringing whitetail deer back to the Northeast when there were none, and now hunting seems to be the most effective means of keeping the deer population in check.
The overpopulation of deer is a concern to those who make a living from the land, including farmers who lose crops, and foresters whose woodlots will not regenerate after harvesting. It’s a concern for drivers and their insurance companies. It’s a concern of gardeners and ecologists, and those of us who just like to take a walk in woods and would like to see more of the kinds of native plants that we grew up seeing.
On the other hand, it is hard to argue against the belief that the taking of any animal life is wrong. Some might argue that we should do more to bring back the historic predators of whitetail deer, including the gray wolf and maybe even cougars. Those of us who like to see our pets and little children run free in our yards usually have second thoughts about that option. And wouldn’t this just be allowing the animal predators to do our dirty work for us anyway?
Just allowing the deer population to increase with no check would clearly be disastrous for the ecosystem, including the deer themselves. (Obviously this is also true for other animal populations, including us, but that’s beyond the scope of these FAQs.)