Oak Savannah Restoration for Fun and Profit
Psychological studies have found that the type of landscape that is found most universally beautiful by humans is a grassland scattered with large, mature trees. Perhaps the sight reminds us of our own origins on the African savanna. North America has been blessed with large swaths of native oak savanna ecosystems. The largest occurs in the tallgrass prairie region of the Midwest and southern Plains, but oak savannas can also be found along the East and West Coasts, especially California and Oregon.
Oak savannas, which are also sometimes known as “oak barrens” or “oak openings,” are transitional ecosystems that tend to be highly diverse due to the combination of the “edge effect” and the mix of microregions created by patches of pure grassland scattered with individual large trees or clumps of heavier cover.
Early settlers to the regions extolled the park-like beauty of the savannas, but brought with them the seeds of their destruction. Oak savannas rely on fire to maintain their openness, and the natural inclinations of residents to suppress the fires soon allowed many oak savannas to be swallowed up by weedy trees and invasive plants (many also brought in by the settlers). Today, oak savannas are a threatened ecosystem in many parts of their former range.
Fortunately, growing awareness of their ecological importance has led to a movement to restore the savannahs. Oak savannah restoration and management typically combines prescribed burns with controlled grazing by livestock to mimic the effect of native grazing animals such as bison.
Private landowners interested in restoring the oak savanna on their property can modify the “patch grazing” technique developed by restoration biologists to restore oak savannas in nature preserves to improve wildlife habitat and biological diversity on their property while simultaneously producing a good profit from cattle or other enterprises. Oak savannas can also be managed for small-scale timber harvesting, as game preserves, and other possibilities. Landowners interested in restoring oak savanna habitat may be eligible for cost-share programs, financial incentives, or other forms of aid from government programs.