In 2010, Terry Cunningham, in his mid-60s, a forester of the 150,000-acre Pioneer Forest, a privately held timberland in the rolling Ozark hills just northeast of Eminence, Mo., gave me a tour one day of the forest he’s known for 38 years.
“The Current River watershed is known for its white oak,” Cunningham says upon welcoming me to Pioneer Forest headquarters in Salem, Mo., site of a former National Distillers bourbon barrel plant.
“Anything with ‘Old’ in front of it is National Distillers,” Cunningham says, while giving a brief tour of the old plant before we headed off into the forest. Stacks of old, blackened wood stood their ground and time in a lean-to, quarter-way collapsed. A corrugated metal roof, bent, rusted, in the midst of a years-long collapse, sheltered them.
“White oak was king in the Ozarks,” Cunningham says.
Cunningham said he was a forester in the German forest meister (master) tradition, those who knew the forest like the back of their hand. “You literally remember hillsides,” he says. You know its folds and proclivities and watch individual trees grow up like children, some moving away unexpectedly from tornado-force winds that sweep up the hollows at times.
The timber business is about regeneration. And Pioneer Forest, Cunningham says, shows that a timberland can be sustained and profitable without flooding the forest with wide swaths of vegetation-stimulating sunlight as in clear-cutting, aka even-aged forest management. Even-age, because all the re-growth is the same age.
“The recent research showed that acorns aren’t the main factor in regeneration,” Cunningham says. Those germs, those fathers of great oaks, were not as critical as once thought. Stump sprouts, those shoots that grow out of a cut-tree’s stump and bloom into a tree from its predecessor’s rootstock, were significant in re-growth.
A mature forest also has an army of seedlings in the undergrowth, their sizes betraying their ages, ready to pounce on sunlight like a gold-starved golem. “A knee-high ‘seedling’ can be 20 to 30 years old,” Cunningham says.
Pioneer Forest was one of the first forests in the area to do uneven-aged management, where trees are selected, not only to maximize their timber value, but for the health of the remaining forest. Which nearby trees are the healthiest and could grow straighter and fuller and generate an exponential amount of grade lumber and income and would flourish without weaker sycophants sucking up valuable resources like sun and water?
“We’re trying to adapt species to each site by the way we mark the trees,” Cunningham says. White oak, red oak and black oak like the wetter, cooler northern sides of hills, which are shaded from the west-setting sun.
A forest is not just cropland like a sea of corn or wheat or soy beans that cover the Missouri River valley further to the north. “There’s more to a forest than just raising trees,” Cunningham says.
“My favorite piece of the forest was near Shannondale,” Cunningham says. “You can lay down at night and there’ll be a hillside in your head.” That Shannondale hillside, I can picture, is the one appearing like an overcast, big-treed, hillside ghost in Cunningham’s head at night as he’s beginning to sleep.
It’s gone now. “It was stunning. It was so beautiful,” he said. “Now it just makes you sick.” A windstorm took it down a few years ago. The north hillside took the brunt of the wind, Cunningham says. The forest was more open than usual then. It was just five years after a select harvest; some trees were taken out, the stand thinned, making the wind’s entry more thorough, more forceful.
We drive out into the land toward Bunker. “There’s a cemetery tucked up into that draw,” Cunningham pointing to a small creek coursing straight into the hills north of the road. “There’s a handful of gravestones there.”
We arrive at Current River Natural Area, site of the first natural area in the state of Missouri, established 1955. Huge white oaks tower above, their curled dry leaves providing uneven footing below and a slight woody smell and crunch that adds to the forlorn feel of the gray, overcast late-winter day.