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Moro Creek Bottoms Natural Area, AR

Nts,

Moro Creek Bottoms is most widely known as the birthplace of Bear Bryant, the Alabama football coach, but the forests have also garnered substantial attention. The Arkansas Natural Heritage program established an 81 acre state natural area in the Moro Creek floodplain, and The Nature Conservancy helps manage an additional 92 acres. The unusually maturity of the tract’s hardwood forest served as the impetus for creating those reserves, and the site appears in Mary Byrd Davis’ compendium of eastern old-growth sites. The site has also received academic interest for its old-growth potential, but a study by Lockhart and others (2010) concluded that the site was not old-growth based on the dominance of early successional tree species. Though, they did still identify the site as significant and unusually old forest for the region.

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Moro Creek is one of the larger drainages in the Arkansas section of the West Gulf Coastal Plain, and much of the watershed is managed for timber. In fact, only a narrow strip separates the natural area from higher ground and pine plantations to the east. However, on the other sides, private landowners have maintained stands of mature bottomland hardwoods similar enough in structure and composition to the preserve that the boundaries are unidentifiable from a distance.

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Lockhart et al’s sampling, conducted in 1989 before a storm flattened parts of the stand, indicated sweetgum is by far the most dominant species and forms the overstory with a mixture of oak species while hornbeam dominates the understory. Twenty-five years later, the stand looked much the same to me, though the relative dominance of different oak species may have changed. A few green ash grow in the canopy gaps from the storm, but hornbeams have spread to fill the gaps for the most part.

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Overall, the composition of the stand reminds me more of Congaree National Park than any other place I have seen west of the Mississippi, though some differences are conspicuous. Unlike eastern floodplains, pignut hickory and white oak are common and grow right next to cypress filled sloughs. Paw paw, one of the two most common understory trees in Congaree, is absent from Moro Creek. Hornbeam, paw paw’s companion in Congaree, more than makes up for the other species absence though; hornbeam may be more abundant in the natural area than any other site I have visited. The forests are structurally similar too, but the trees are smaller at Moro Creek than in many parts of Congaree. Still, the forest seems to predate the main wave of logging in the region, and three foot diameter trees are common. If thousands of acres were preserved on Moro Creek, parts might look quite similar to Congaree.

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The white oaks and black gums really stood out to me as impressive. I don’t often see forest grown white oaks that large, and I haven’t seen so many tall black gums at a single site. While most of the species reach greater heights in southeastern floodplains, the swamp chestnut oaks are still significantly tall; I believe Congaree is the only site with taller known swamp chestnut oaks. I was also glad to be able to measure the Carolina ash since I had never measured the species before and it was growing near its northwestern range limit.

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Overall, the site provides a unique glimpse at what forests may have once looked like along many streams in the region, even if the view is incomplete. The size of the trees gives the forest a different atmosphere and makes the distinction from younger forests not merely academic. Especially when emerging into the forest of big hardwoods and cypress after traversing a half mile of young pine plantations, one can feel like the forest is from a different time.

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Jess
by Jess Riddle
Thu Apr 17, 2014 10:21 pm
 
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